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The ‘Climate Games’ aren’t just activist stunts – they’re politics beyond the UN

The games begin: satirising Christmas consumerism outside a French shopping centre.

At the moment, most people interested in the politics of climate change (including me) are focusing on a small site in Paris’s northern suburbs. This is where the COP21 negotiations are taking place.

While to us this is clearly important, making the argument for the significance of international climate negotiations is harder than it should be.

Since its birth in 1992 the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has not really succeeded in altering the world’s business-as-usual practice. It’s also hard not to be aware that fossil fuel interests are disproportionately well represented in negotiations, given their contribution to the problem. And right now, global climate politics risks being reduced to contested wording and disagreement over the contents of square brackets in the draft agreement.

So it’s understandable that some view the response to an unprecedented global crisis as bureaucratic, symbolic, or diplomatic manoeuvring that may or may not give rise to the necessary change.

In this context, protest is an important reminder of both the limitations of international negotiations and of the concerns and interests of those not represented. And while we might usually focus on large-scale organized protests, recent years have seen the emergence of creative forms of mobilisation and activism about climate change.

One of these, in action during COP21, is the Climate Games.

The Climate Games has its origins in a mobilisation against a coal plant in Amsterdam in 2009. It involves individuals forming teams and engaging through an interactive website to find innovative ways of drawing attention to climate change and the limits of existing responses to it. These games draw together creative activists to find different ways of disrupting what organisers call “the Mesh” – the international climate system as represented by fossil fuel interests, lobbyists, politicians and “greenwashers”.

Street art takes on Big Oil in Lisbon.

One action associated with the Climate Games was the distribution of fake advertisements around Paris drawing attention to the role of politicians and companies that present themselves as part of the climate solution.

In London, activists put on an unauthorised screening of This Changes Everything, a documentary on resistance and climate change, at the BP-sponsored Tate Modern.

A coal powerplant blockade in Germany, art installations in Paris, and an online re-creation of Pacman (featuring fossil fuel company logos instead of ghosts) are among some of the other entries thus far.

There are, of course, bases for criticising this type of action. For some, these forms of protest seem to be more for the benefit and enjoyment of participants than effectively targeted at building political pressure for strong climate action.

And for others, including many representatives of the more traditional environmental campaigning community, the organisers and participants in the Climate Games are too cynical about international climate negotiations. While global climate action to date has been limited, a range of non-governmental organisations now say they are optimistic that this time we will see a breakthrough international agreement built on genuine global concern.

But so far, at this point in history it’s hard not to agree that the scale of the problem is not reflected in the actions undertaken by our political leaders. And in the context of significant restrictions to traditional marches and gatherings after last month’s terror attacks, finding innovative ways to put public pressure on negotiators within Paris in particular is important.

Perhaps the most important contribution of the Climate Games, however, is that they remind us that climate politics cannot be reduced to formal negotiations between heads of state and their representatives. The types of actions promoted and undertaken as part of the Climate Games point to the fact that the climate problem is genuinely structural and systemic. These actions draw attention to the role of our market systems, the individual choices we as consumers make each day, and the decisions that political leaders and companies make that question their stated commitment to climate action.

In this way, participants remind us of the broader dynamics and politics of climate change. They also remind us of the potential gap between the outcome in Paris and genuine movement to a low- or no-carbon future.

As analysts of sub-national climate politics and the political economy-climate relationship have long argued, climate politics is much more that just the international negotiations under the UNFCCC. Those organising and participating in the Climate Games not only reaffirm this message, but they also find new and creative avenues for disrupting dominant discourses of climate politics.

Personally, I hope they have fun in the process.

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