Natalie Jones: How a walkout became the means of empowerment

It's the last day of negotiations. To be precise, it's 5pm in the afternoon of the last day of negotiations. One would expect, given the late hour, that some decisions would have been made here - some level of consensus and compromise reached on the various agenda items. In fact, even though it's 5 pm of the last day, the closing session has not even begun, and it's expected that it will be closely and ruthlessly fought. Negotiations are expected to extend into the night, into Saturday, and even into Sunday. 

As predicted, the storm hit yesterday afternoon when more than 800 civil society representatives walked out of the conference. I was among them. Importantly, so were the leaders and entire delegations from major organisations like WWF, Oxfam, Greenpeace,, and Friends of the Earth.

Amongst organisations with such diverse politics and goals, this show of unity in such a dramatic action is unprecedented. Leaders came together because something unprecedented is happening here. The negotiations are way off the rails, and although this is no surprise - they have been for years - COP 19 is a new record low for so many reasons. The walkout sent a signal that civil society would no longer legitimise this by their presence. It sent a signal to governments to return next year and actually bring some ambition to the table.

Some say the walkout was a show of defeat, of disempowerment. However, I think it was the most empowering thing we could have done. We got a huge amount of media attention, more than any protest inside the conference would have. It brought many movements together into one, even for a brief moment. For everyone involved it was beautiful, inspirational and incredible.

And, most importantly, the walkout itself means that this moment of unity will not be so brief. Rather than feel as if they are wasting their time on the inside, those who walked out - this unprecedented coalition - are spending these precious few days together on the outside building the movement and planning for the years ahead. They're planning how we can work together in the lead up to Lima in 2014 and Paris in 2015.  They're discussing ways to link the global and the local, build awareness, and how local movements can learn from each other.  They're planning mass mobilisation - how amazing would it be to have 1 million people protesting for climate justice in the streets of Paris?

This is the true empowerment of the walkout. This is how we get stronger. This is how real work gets done.

Not everyone walked out. Some remain on the inside, because they still have things to do, and both groups respect the other's position.  Youth plan to attend the all-night sessions in their pyjamas, slumber-party style - letting negotiators know that they are extremely predictable in leaving everything to the last moment, as always.

I personally had to come back in this morning, as I was organising a press conference that had been planned well before the walkout (and in fact ended up speaking in it). To be honest, it felt extremely weird and very conflicting to be walking back up the steps into this cold, weird alien world. Today the talks were closed - or effectively closed - to observers, and the mood in the corridors was listless and impatient, in a huge contrast to yesterday's anticipatory and elated atmosphere. Everyone's waiting for news, or at least whatever small snippet makes its way out of the negotiations. Perhaps this is the eye of the storm now.

I'm worried about tonight - I'm worried about what, if anything will happen. Often, last-minute compromises are reached and deals rushed through. But with what we've seen so far, I'm worried that a concrete outcome won't be reached on finance, loss and damage, or a road to Paris. I'm worried that this whole process is inherently set up to fail. 

But, there's one thing that gives me hope: the group of climate leaders from all over the world currently meeting in a converted squat in central Warsaw.


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

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Posted on November 22, 2013 and filed under UN Climate Talks 2013.