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As a regular person, it’s easy to feel dwarfed within the massive maze of the UN Climate Conference (COP21 in Paris). We got lost many times just looking for the loo. And as a metaphor for the overwhelming the impacts of climate change, the labyrinth of the Le Bourget conference center (which includes 15 football fields’ worth of exhibition space!) couldn’t be a better fit. Simply put, the scale of the problem is staggering.
But as musical artists and climate activism icons, like Thom Yorke and Bill McKibben, made clear at the Pathway to Paris events on December 4th and 5th, so is the power and diversity of the worldwide movement for climate justice.
Back at the COP21, negotiators are burning the midnight oil to reach an agreement on limiting global carbon emissions, while developing countries aggressively push for an outcome that will prevent the planet from warming up more than 1.5 degrees before 2100. It remains to be seen how much financing developed nations will muster to support the most vulnerable countries through the worst impacts of climate change, and leapfrog technology to transition to clean energy. As Pathway to Paris speaker Naomi Klein noted, the deals being reached at COP21 are complex, Byzantine and fraught with conflicting interests of fossil fuel giants who aim to stall out the proceedings. Not to mention US’s own Congress, who is looking to hamstring Obama’s biggest steps toward climate progress.
So here’s where the music comes in. It started with the chilling harmonics of Tibetan throat singer Tenzin Choegyal, built with the blistering rhythms of iconic Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, and seemed to crescendo with the simply timeless voice of poet and punk visionary Patti Smith, whose every song drew a standing ovation. But just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, Thom Yorke took the stage and blew away the packed theatre (and Radiohead fans across the internet) with haunting new songs inspired by this deep concern for the environment. The set started with the chilling guitar-only “Silent Spring,” and wound up when Yorke cued up his electronic drum machine, and accompanied by Flea, sent the night off with the danceable beat-heavy “Default.”
McKibben called climate change the most widespread crisis any generation has faced. And as the artists made clear with the indelible power of song, the emotion behind this crisis is powerful and real. Patti Smith, leading a singalong of John Lennon’s “Imagine” broke down in tears the first night. But on night two, Smith was ebullient; explaining that any true experience has both sadness and joy. And that’s the truth uncovered by art speaking to crisis.
The effect was clarifying inspiration that stripped all the obstructions and confusions away, leaving the audience with only the raw human impact of COP21. Pathway to Paris’s goal was to showcase the urgency of climate change’s impact around the world. And now, it showcases the profound diversity and power of the global climate movement. Because, as McKibben told us last week, the biggest thing to happen in Paris didn’t take place here— it was the 785,000-people strong Global Climate March, not to mention the 3.6-million signatures-strong Avaaz petition for 100% clean energy by 2050 that kicked off the COP21.
And it’s not just this one event. All around Paris (heck, all around the world), artists like JR and Shepard Fairey are bringing attention to the human impact of climate change— something that the conference itself is hard pressed to achieve.
Pathway to Paris left us with a keen understanding that any real solutions will require worldwide cooperation, unity, understanding and a commitment to climate justice.
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