Tuesday, 15 December 2015


For long-time reporters of environmental issues, it was something of a surprise to see the massive mobilisation of artists, and people from all sectors of society, at COP 21 – the United Nations Climate Change Conference that took place in Paris, France, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12.

Sean Paul at COP 21. (Photo: UNFCCC)
Artists from a host of countries participated in discussions on the sidelines of the official talks, giving support to civil society groups and to national delegations. Jamaican rapper-singer and songwriter Sean Paul was there, for instance, as was Aaron Silk who belted out at the Caribbean Pavilion that we need “1.5 to stay alive”.

This figure refers to the appeal from small island states to limit the rise of average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius or below. Previous to COP 21, the goal had been 2 degrees Celsius, but faced with the inexorable rise in sea levels and the increase in extreme weather conditions, island nations have pushed for the lower target.

The 196 state parties in Paris finally agreed on the aim of keeping the average global temperature rise this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Throughout the conference, which was extended an extra day, artists sang and took part in debates. One evening, at a meeting of delegations from islands around the world – Palau to Curaçao – Silk joined two guitarists from Oceania to perform Bob Marley hits including “Redemption Song”. As everyone crooned along, a delegate from Curaçao remarked that we have more that links us than divides us, and that we all need to be in the fight together.

Jamaican singer Aaron Silk (centre) performs at an
"island" event at COP 21. (Photo: McKenzie)
Sean Paul arrived at the climate conference on Dec. 10, the day before it was scheduled to end, dressed mostly in black and wearing dark glasses.

Flanked by UN representatives and environmental activists, he took part in a press conference, telling journalists and fans that governments need to take greater action on combating climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“In Jamaica, we are known for our athletes, but they need clean air when they’re training,” he said. “I’m a singer, and I have asthma, so I need clean air for my lungs.”

Paul said he was concerned about the burning of a huge garbage dump (called Riverton) in Kingston this year, which covered large parts of the city with choking smoke, and he urged action on getting man-made disasters such as this under control.

He told listeners that he was in Paris to learn more about environmental issues and that apart from using his music to raise awareness, he was trying to set an example by his own behaviour: using solar panels to provide electricity in a house he’s building, for example.

Sean Paul discusses climate change. (Photo: McKenzie)
Later, at a packed UN event to recognize developers of innovative solutions for climate change, Paul performed “Love Song to the Earth”, alongside the recorded images of fellow artists Paul McCartney, Leona Lewis and others.

Available for download from iTunes and Apple Music, the track, which Sean co-wrote, will help to raise funds for environmental group Friends of the Earth US and the UN Foundation, officials said.

Paul was probably the most high-profile Caribbean artist at COP 21, but the conference also heard the voices of singers, writers and actors from other regions, with personalities such as Angelique Kidjo, Alec Baldwin and Robert Redford 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 symposium titled Earth to Paris that comprised participants and coalitions from all over the world. (See previous article.)

It’s anyone’s guess how much of an effect artist-activists had on the final Paris Agreement, and there’s always a measure of cynicism among the public when “stars” get involved in certain issues. But, as Paul said, “celebrities have influence, and they can use their influence to raise awareness.” – A.M. (Follow us on Twitter @mckenzie_ale)

Paris' Eiffel Tower sends a message at the end of the climate change talks. (Photo: McKenzie)

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.