Tuesday, 8 December 2015


Artists have been out in force, making their voices heard at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) which began Nov. 30 in Paris, France, and runs until Dec. 11.

Singer Angelique Kidjo (photo: McKenzie)
Urging governments to take effective action and reach a global accord, personalities such as Angelique Kidjo, Alec Baldwin, Robert Redford and Adrian Grenier have spoken out at various events, giving their support to indigenous peoples, small island states and other vulnerable communities.

“Success for this conference will be action,” said Benin-born singer Kidjo, who participated in a high-profile symposium titled Earth to Paris that gathered diverse global coalitions.

“Talk is cheap,” she added. “When I go back to my continent, I see how the farmers are struggling. I see the effects of climate change. People aren’t able to produce or eat what they used to.”

Kidjo told SWAN that for her, art and activism are linked. “Before you’re an artist, you’re a human being, and what happens around you affects your art,” she said. “For me to speak about climate change and the rights of children and women is a natural thing.”

Actor Alec Baldwin (left) with Maya activist Christine Coc
and United Nations rep Aaron Sherinian (photo: McKenzie)
She said that art and activism “nourish and enrich each other”.

American actor Alec Baldwin also spoke at Earth to Paris, alongside indigenous activist Christine Coc of Belize, who described the struggles of the Maya people to get recognition for their culture, traditions, lands and ecological achievements.

“Earth is our mother, and you don’t destroy your mother, you don’t sell your mother,” said Coc, who received the Equator Prize in Paris -  an award to recognize those who work to advance innovative solutions for people, nature and resilient communities.

“No amount of money in this world can give us back clean water when it's poisoned. No amount of money in this world can give us back clean air when we need to breathe and live," Coc said. "Our struggle is for our children, for the future generation."

Baldwin, joking that he would campaign for Coc as president, said it was important for artists to learn about global issues and to use their art to help educate and inform others. "I want the awareness to spread," he said.

Actor Robert Redford at UNESCO (photo: McKenzie)
Earlier, legendary American actor Robert Redford discussed his environmental activism at a separate, public event, held at the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

In an onstage conversation with Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) which co-organized the event with UNESCO, Redford said that “effective storytelling can overcome cynicism” and help to change minds.

He joined indigenous peoples’ representatives Mundiya Kepenga of Papua New Guinea, Mina Setra of Indonesia, and poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner of the Marshall Islands to send a message that the rights of these groups should be taken into account when governments agree on the binding document to combat climate change and limit global warming.

Activists from indigenous groups and small island states
speak at UNESCO
“I’m not a politician,” Redford said. “I think I can classify myself as a storyteller. Telling stories and supporting other people to tell stories is the core of what I do. One of the reasons why I am in Paris is to draw attention to indigenous cultures and to their values; to say why we need to pay attention to them, why we need to recognize how vulnerable they are because of climate change. They are probably the most vulnerable of all. They need our help now and fast.”

Although Redford was supposed to be the star of the UNESCO event, traditional leader Kepenga stole the show, presenting his own “little film” - as he termed it - about the ravages of climate change and industry-led deforestation on his community.

Setra, a long-time campaigner, meanwhile gave an emotional account of how monoculture plantations have affected the lives of indigenous people, and Jetnil-Kijiner performed poetry that highlighted the stakes of a half-degree rise in global temperatures.

Small island states, at risk of rising sea levels, would particularly like to see an agreement to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, in contrast to the previous goal of keeping such temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius.

Actor and activist Adrian Greier (photo: McKenzie)
On the waste front, actor and filmmaker Adrian Grenier issued a call for individuals to reduce their waste and to help protect the oceans. “I would like to see name tags on the waste that people generate, so that when you see all those plastic bottles popping up in the ocean it would have the names of the people responsible,” Grenier said at Earth to Paris.

Shortly before arriving in the French city, the actor launched his Lonely Whale Foundation, to promote education and awareness about issues affecting marine life and the “health” of the world’s oceans. Grenier said the creation of the foundation was inspired by the story of the 52 Hertz Whale, a mammal that has spent its whole life alone. 

One of the high points of the various COP side events, including Earth to Paris, was hearing Kidjo sing. At the request of UNICEF’s Executive Director Tony Lake, Kidjo - a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador - performed a short a cappella song, to the delight of participants in the Earth to Paris conference.

“Music is a way of speaking up,” she told SWAN afterwards. “Music is a weapon of peace.” – A.M.