Youth Activist to Chilean Leaders: Don’t Use the UN Climate Talks to Greenwash Your Repression of Us

“We are fearless,” says Angela Valenzuela.

Christine MacDonald

Angela Valenzuela at the UN climate talks in Madrid, COP25, talking about the Chile uprising. (Photo Hugo Duchesne)

MADRID — At a press con­fer­ence at the UN cli­mate nego­ti­a­tions in Spain this week, 25-year-old Angela Valen­zuela, a cli­mate activist from Chile, pub­licly denounced her country’s gov­ern­ment for using this annu­al meet­ing of world lead­ers to clean” its rep­u­ta­tion and deflect atten­tion from street protests that have left at least 18 peo­ple dead and fueled alle­ga­tions of exces­sive force, tor­ture and sex­u­al assault by the country’s secu­ri­ty services.

"We cannot sustain a system that sacrifices people and drives the climate crisis for the benefit of a few."

More than a mil­lion peo­ple have tak­en to the streets in the South Amer­i­can coun­try since the protests began in Octo­ber. They con­tin­ue today. More than 11,000 peo­ple have been injured by secu­ri­ty forces and busi­ness inter­ests, and thou­sands more have been arrest­ed in protests and loot­ing ini­tial­ly sparked by a sub­way fare hike. The fare increase, reduc­tions in pub­lic spend­ing and oth­er eco­nom­ic aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures were man­dat­ed by the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund (IMF) as con­di­tions of a loan pack­age aimed at sta­bi­liz­ing the country’s econ­o­my, which is suf­fer­ing falling rev­enue from min­ing and oth­er exports. But the under­lin­ing con­di­tions that set the move­ment in motion go much deep­er and are inex­tri­ca­bly inter­twined with the country’s cli­mate change-dri­ven eco­log­i­cal prob­lems, as Valen­zuela told a packed room of jour­nal­ists from around the world.

It’s not about 30 pesos; it’s about 30 years of demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ments that failed to pro­tect us and lis­ten to our demands. Chile woke up. We said enough. We can­not sus­tain a sys­tem that sac­ri­fices peo­ple and dri­ves the cli­mate cri­sis for the ben­e­fit of a few,” said Valen­zuela, who is a coor­di­na­tor with Fri­days for Future in Chile. The event took place at a con­ven­tion cen­ter on the out­skirts of Madrid, where this year’s cli­mate nego­ti­a­tions were moved after Chile can­celed due to the protests. The gov­ern­ment of Chile still held the pres­i­den­cy and remained at the helm of the annu­al conference.

She was met with the cheers and whoops of oth­er youth and indige­nous cli­mate activists, who have stormed the halls of the annu­al nego­ti­a­tions, now in their 25th year with lit­tle to show for them. Young peo­ple from around the world, includ­ing an indige­nous del­e­ga­tion sent to the talks this year by the U.S.-based Sus­tai­nUS, have shad­owed oil com­pa­ny exec­u­tives and dogged world lead­ers here to call atten­tion to the fail­ure of coun­tries and gov­ern­ments to take bold action to arrest cli­mate change.

Valen­zuela told reporters at the press con­fer­ence, which took place Mon­day, that it was out­ra­geous to see how the Chilean gov­ern­ment paints its image with emp­ty words while com­mit­ting human rights vio­la­tions every day. This must stop now.” She added, we are fear­less. We con­tin­ue to flood the streets, even if we are risk­ing our lives. We are real­ly find­ing our future and push­ing the lim­its of what we think is possible.”

While in Madrid on Wednes­day, In These Times caught up with Valen­zuela and asked her to elab­o­rate on the con­nec­tion between social unrest and cli­mate change in Chile and respond to cli­mate deniers in the Unit­ed States, who have seized on the unrest in that South Amer­i­can coun­try to spread the fake news” that Chile’s cli­mate poli­cies — not cli­mate change itself — drove up the cost of liv­ing lead­ing to the mas­sive street protests tak­ing place there.

In These Times: At the press con­fer­ence, you men­tioned how the last 30 years of gov­ern­ment poli­cies had failed the Chilean peo­ple, cre­at­ing the con­di­tions that led to the street protests. Can you elaborate?

Angela Valen­zuela: It’s an eco­nom­ic sys­tem based on social inequal­i­ty. This is the same sys­tem that’s dri­ving the eco­log­i­cal and cli­mate cri­sis. That’s the con­nec­tion between the social cri­sis and the envi­ron­men­tal crisis.

Peo­ple are in the streets now in Chile because they are fight­ing for a dig­ni­fied life, where basic social rights like access to edu­ca­tion, health care, min­i­mum wage and pen­sion sys­tems are pro­vid­ed by the state to ensure that peo­ple can devel­op and grow to the fullest poten­tial, which is not the case in Chile.

And at the same time, we have 100% pri­va­tized water. This is even worse when we are fac­ing the effects of the cli­mate cri­sis. We’ve been hav­ing our worst drought for the last 10 years. And hav­ing access to water is even more dif­fi­cult when water is pri­va­tized and in the hands of the cor­po­ra­tions to exploit for min­ing and for the mono­cul­tur­al agri­cul­tur­al sys­tem. So we not only have to tack­le the cli­mate cri­sis but the very sys­tem that is dri­ving us to cli­mate chaos.

In These Times: In the Unit­ed States, cli­mate change deniers have seized on the protests in Chile, say­ing they were caused by expen­sive and unnec­es­sary cli­mate poli­cies — not cli­mate change itself. Ear­li­er this month the Heart­land Institute’s James Tay­lor penned an arti­cle claim­ing cli­mate alarmists killed their own UN con­fer­ence” through aggres­sive Chilean cli­mate poli­cies that have raised ener­gy costs, raised trans­porta­tion costs, and tak­en mon­ey out of Chilean house­hold bud­gets.” The arti­cle has since made the rounds of an assort­ment of online cli­mate denial out­posts. What is your response to things like this?

Angela Valen­zuela: There is a huge move­ment of cli­mate deniers since the 1970s. We know that that sci­ence is say­ing cli­mate change is a fact. So I’m not sur­prised there are these protests against the cli­mate movement.

What would be my response to them is that they lis­ten to the sci­ence rather than the fairy­tales of the sys­tem; that they take them­selves out of their com­fort zones and lis­ten to sci­ence and also the basic rights of humans in the Glob­al South to have access to a present and a future free of cli­mate catastrophe.

In These Times: Speak­ing as a mem­ber of the inter­na­tion­al youth cli­mate move­ment, what does the world need to do now to take action to bring down cli­mate chang­ing emis­sions? Are coun­tries get­ting the job done at this UN cli­mate meeting?

Angela Valen­zuela: First the world needs to rec­og­nize that we are fac­ing a cli­mate emer­gency. It’s a cli­mate cri­sis — an eco­log­i­cal break­down. Once we can under­stand the scope of the prob­lem, we will be able to find solu­tions that can address the urgency of it. As civ­il soci­ety, we need to strength­en our cli­mate jus­tice move­ment at the local and glob­al lev­els in order to hold our lead­ers account­able. We are lack­ing the polit­i­cal will in order to have the changes nec­es­sary to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

We have the solu­tions. We know we have to cut fos­sil fuels and we have to tran­si­tion to 100% renew­able, non-con­ven­tion­al ener­gy. But the world lead­ers don’t want to lis­ten. Instead, they have focused their con­ver­sa­tion on mar­ket-based mech­a­nisms and loop­holes on how to con­tin­ue prof­it­ing out of the cli­mate cri­sis. This is unac­cept­able. What is need­ed now is a glob­al move­ment fight­ing to ensure we have a present and a future.

This inter­view has been light­ly edit­ed for clarity.

Chris­tine Mac­Don­ald is an inves­tiga­tive reporter and author, whose work focus­es cli­mate change, envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty and green­wash­ing. She was a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.

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