From the Great Artesian Basin to Sydney’s H2O: Water Bar by Janet Laurence

In Australia, we’re not really aware enough of the qualities of water and even though we’re a country stricken with drought [among major city dwellers] there isn’t a lot of awareness of the fragility and politics of water. (Janet Laurence, 2016)

Paddington Reservior Gardens - February 11 2016: Janet Laurence at the H20 water bar (Photo by Nikki To/City of Sydney)

Paddington Reservior Gardens – February 11 2016: Janet Laurence at the H20 water bar (Photo by Nikki To/City of Sydney)

In terms of strategic narrative building, the timing of an invitation from Sydney-based internationally celebrated artist Janet Laurence to visit her latest experiential art installation could not have been more divine.

Paddington Reservior Gardens - February 11 2016: H20 water bar (Photo by Nikki To/City of Sydney)

Paddington Reservior Gardens – February 11 2016: H20 water bar (Photo by Nikki To/City of Sydney)

The Climate Guardians met Janet in Paris where—as a long time artist exploring nature realms in depth—she had been selected to represent Australia at the Artists 4 Climate project during COP21. Fortunately we had an opportunity to stage a ‘visitation’ at her deeply moving exhibition Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef at Paris’s Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle. It was unforgettable; a rich experience by every measure.

On the eve of the H2O: Water Bar’s preview opening with Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, the Climate Guardians travelled from the Pilliga State Forest. The day before they had been arrested for trying to prevent Santos’ workers from entering the Narrabri Gas Project site. In addition to threatening the largest inland forest left in Eastern Australia, Santos’ 850 coal seam gas wells will sit above a critically important ‘recharge zone’ supporting the crucial pressure head enabling ground water from the Great Artesian Basin to flow to the surfaces of the massive expanse of land dependent on it (think growing food).

Paddington Reservior Gardens - February 11 2016: Silvia Greco with her two sons Guilio and Filippo at the H20 water bar (Photo by Nikki To/City of Sydney)

Paddington Reservior Gardens – February 11 2016: Silvia Greco with her two sons Guilio and Filippo at the H20 water bar (Photo by Nikki To/City of Sydney)

Water tastes very different according to its journey and where its settled…Our water is so fragile, and so much of our water has been affected by industrialisation and mining. People don’t realise it’s their drinking water that’s being affected in that way. (Janet Laurence, 2016)

After our visit to areas of Northern NSW that are gravely threatened by mining and fracking, arriving at Janet’s H2O: Water Bar installation in Paddington’s Reservoir Gardens felt intelligently surreal. Housed in the ambient inner space of the Reservoir, Janet’s installation appears like a vintage apothecary or magical laboratory with all different shapes and sizes of glistening glassware holding samples of water sourced from different parts of Australia. Also a diverse range of stunning, thought provoking water related images are projected onto ancient walls at either end of the grand heritage space. A sommelier had been engaged to help identify the diverse waters’ different tastes, in terms of their trace mineral elements—the result of their various origins or the rocks they have eased their way through, some over thousands of years. For Janet, installing the H2O: Water Bar in Paddington’s Reservoir space was the realisation of a decade long dream.

Paddington Reservior Gardens - February 11 2016: H20 water bar (Photo by Nikki To/City of Sydney)

Paddington Reservior Gardens – February 11 2016: H20 water bar (Photo by Nikki To/City of Sydney)

The Climate Guardians role was to simply wander through the spaces and to speak with guests about our work as activists. Like Janet, we believe that creative expressions can get under people’s ideological guards and open their hearts to the essence of what has become a deeply politicized issue. Just a glance at the bitter history of Australia’s climate change debate (to which the health of our hydrological systems are integral) reveals the depths to which vested interests have misled and deceived decision makers and the public in appallingly self-serving ways. In fact before Janet’s show had opened and stunned people with its beauty and intelligence, it was coming under heavy fire from conservative bloggers. Why? Perversely, their pre-launch critiques may have led to the show’s struggles to service the large number of partakers.

Having just come from a threatened site sitting atop Australia’s Great Artesian Basin, we couldn’t wait to put our wings on. Janet’s announcement that the Climate Guardians had just come from being arrested attempting to protect the Pilliga Forest from a diabolical fracking project was met with enthusiastic applause. Naturally we felt enormously proud and privileged to help Janet and her creatively committed colleagues raise awareness of Australia’s deeply confused relationship with it’s most precious and fragile vital resource: H2O.

Paddington Reservior Gardens - February 11 2016: H20 water bar (Photo by Nikki To/City of Sydney)

Paddington Reservior Gardens – February 11 2016: H20 water bar (Photo by Nikki To/City of Sydney)

This important exhibition has been accompanied by an impressive series of public programs including talks, music performances and poetry readings.

#AngelPost

Of all of the incredible and unforgettable actions taken in Paris during COP21, the Climate Guardians’ experiences delivering messages on behalf of Australian children were highlights. Here and in France, not a single person has failed to be moved by the poignancy of our stated mission.

Naturally, had we only received a handful of thoughtless messages, our project wouldn’t have flown. And, given that we didn’t have the idea until a few months prior to COP21 (when we heard about Joseph’s remarkable letter to Australian leaders), that wouldn’t have been surprising.
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However, within a week or so of announcing our intentions, we were receiving packages from schools all around Victoria. Collecting the mail from the local post box became an exciting task. Many of the carefully written and considered letters, drawings and poems brought tears to our eyes. All of them drove home the sense of urgency behind the UN climate talks. We have proudly put them in this special Flickr album Children’s Messages to COP21 Delegates.

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Locked Out

Unfortunately, getting access to world leaders at COP21 willing to act as conduits for our messages proved extremely difficult. Perhaps if we had begun approaching them earlier we would have had more luck. However, ensuring that the purpose of our mission and our expectations of participating delegates were communicated clearly and concisely in both English and French took time. It was also a process that helped all of the Angels understand their roles and responsibilities as ambassadors for Australian children.

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We ideally wanted to hand deliver the messages to France’s lead climate change ambassador Prof Laurence Tubiana. Towards this aim we enlisted the help of at least a dozen Paris based scientists, government bureaucrats, artists and citizens. Although we managed to send correspondence directly to her office, via a key staff member, as well as through the official COP21 website we received no acknowledgment of our invitation. We tried other key delegates but to no avail. It’s not that we received negative responses; we just never received any at all. This wasn’t a surprise given that every effort was being made to effectively lock out the voices of ordinary people – the voices of people who will be most affected by the decisions being made at the United Nations climate conference.

It was around this time that we learned that major polluters—including Engie, the owner of Victoria’s notoriously filthy Hazelwood coal-fired electricity generator, whose negligence led to the disastrous mine fire*— were official sponsors of COP21.

Recognising the degree to which powerful vested interests had captured COP21, we weren’t going to lose heart simply because of deafening silence from UN delegates’ offices. Given the likelihood of our thoroughly considered approaches to delegates failing, we devised a number of alternative plans to raise awareness of Australian children’s messages.

Arriving to Heartbreak in a City Under Siege

As a result of the brutal terrorist attacks a few weeks prior to COP21, the pain of local people on the streets was palpable. With tens of thousands of people due to swell the city for what was arguably the most important international meeting of all time, the French government moved quickly to impose a State of Emergency that strictly limited civil society movements, including public protesting.

We considered this to be a rather cynical response given that in the months leading up to COP21 authorities had been taking unprecedented measures (i.e. the requirement of a permit to attend public climate rallies) to limit civil society movement during the UN climate talks. This was likely as a result of experiences from COP15 (Copenhagen, 2009) where delegates were so unsettled by the global mass mobilisation of ordinary citizens that most citizens’ groups had been locked out by midway through negotiations. We would argue that limiting the undue influence of vested interests—as opposed to peoples’ democratic rights to peaceful expression—would have resulted in a far fairer, more effective and popular Paris agreement.

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It is now widely understood that increasing inequity within and between nations is a root cause of the rise in global terrorism. Ironically the targeting of Paris on the eve of COP21 exposed the ties between fossil fuels (ISIS raises circa $1.5m per day from sales of crude) and globalised terrorism in the most horrifying way. While this had a profound effect on our initial plans, with utmost respect and compassion for how Parisians were feeling, we proceeded with determination and grace—feeling immensely proud of the heartfelt letters, artworks and poems from young Australians urging world leaders to consider their futures.

First Impressions

Climate Guardians from Australia Climacts.org.au at entrance to COP21 on the first day, reminding delegates of their duties — while civil guardians of the event security team stand watch also. Oldest is 17 year old June Norman is a mother of five, a grandmother of eight and a great-grandmother of three children. She is the first person in Australia to have been arrested for taking direct action against gas fracking.

The first Plan B came off without a hitch before dawn on day 1 of the climate talks. Carrying the messages from Australian children, the Climate Guardians travelled by train and then a shuttle bus to the massive conference centre where COP21 was held north of Paris. Arriving before the first light of dawn (and delegates) we positioned ourselves on an elevated space adjacent to the main entrance and the shuttle bus arrival point. In fact our spectacle was so perfect that the security guards appeared confused as to whether we were activists or hired entertainers. One of our Angels even had her registration fast tracked, which was nice!

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Here is a short clip of one of the letters being read out by Great Grandmother Angel June Norman.

Despite the icy wind, we felt continuously buoyed watching the mostly stern, lifeless faces of people arriving at COP21 absolutely light up at the site of a flock of seven Angels. People stopped in their tracks, visibly stunned. As bottlenecks of onlookers formed, Climate Guardians took turns reading out children’s messages in both English and French. Most people took video and/or took photos and many lined up to have their photos taken with the Climate Guardians. We lost count of how many interviews our spokespeople gave to the international media crews who there to cover the historical international conference. After a few hours, when the shuttle buses had slowed to a trickle (and we could barely feel our hands and feet for the cold) we decided we’d achieved what we’d set out to do. We later heard from insiders that our ‘visitation’ had had an enormous impact, reminding people why we all need to step up and be climate guardians – right now!

#AngelPost Messenger: Senator Larissa Waters

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Climate Guardians presenting Australian children’s messages to Senator Larissa Waters at Sacré Cœur, Paris, 2 December 2015

Having previously worked with Larissa Waters at G20 Brisbane, and being aware that she would be attending COP21, we contacted her office about the possibility of her hand delivering our letters to delegates. Fortunately, Larissa responded delightedly saying that she felt immensely privileged to bring messages from young Australians to COP21 delegates. All of us were keen to make it an unforgettable ceremony and we met at the iconic Sacré-Coeur church overlooking Paris on 2 December. Our ceremony was made extra special thanks to classically trained flautists Svea and Lucca who took time out from their studies at the University of Music and Theatre in Leipzig (Germany) to join us for COP21 actions in Paris. In addition to feeling proud of her role as an #AngelPost conduit, Larissa was thrilled to have some photos of herself with Australian Angels in Paris to show her young daughter!

We hope you enjoy this clip of our messages handover ceremony.


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Taking Messages to Paris Streets

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Also, keen to inspire and enrich local peoples’ experiences of hosting the UN climate talks during such a difficult and painful time, we incorporated the messages into our street performances for ArtCOP21. In a few prominent public places—including the Palais Royale, the Archives Nationales in Paris and the Paris Opera—highly talented and dedicated young musicians (also dressed as Angels) played music in between readings of Australian children’s letters. To increase their reach, a number of letters were left tied to posts and taped to ancient street walls. We felt overwhelmed by Parisians’ responses to our #AngelPost mission. Local people absolutely loved hearing about our mission and were so generous with their expressions of appreciation.

The Paris Agreement

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While the French government’s restrictions on gatherings and protest were extreme, it’s also fair to say that the heavy handed measures may have enabled the decision makers from every nation to feel confident in sending their leaders and negotiators to Paris.^ Had security fears been used as an excuse to call off COP21, then we wouldn’t have achieved a global agreement to limit average global temperature rises to below two degrees.

While the Paris Agreement is decades overdue, weak, unfair and full of loopholes it does formally recognise that for the Earth to remain habitable then as much carbon as humanly possible must be kept in the ground, as well as out of the atmosphere. For this reason alone the Paris Agreement has changed conversations in the corridors of power, whether they be in corporations or parliaments. For determined and strategic environment and social justice activists, it is potentially excellent ammunition to help build a more just and sustainable world. Please see ClimActs’ climate plan for a comprehensive explanation about how transitioning to sustainable systems will unleash a swath of inspiring projects that will create huge numbers of new jobs and massive investment in local economies.

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#KeepYourPromise

The global response to our #AngelPost mission was so enthusiastic that we’ve decided to re-launch it as a social media campaign titled #KeepYourPromise. This ensures that the COP21 children’s messages will continue to be used as a potent means of reminding leaders to keep their Paris Agreement promises to keep our planet habitable for life as we know it for future generations. The #KeepYourPromise campaign invites all children to send ongoing messages demanding that leaders consider their futures in all decision making. People can rest assured that the Climate Guardians remain absolutely committed to ensuring that the voices of young people are heard on this most critical issue affecting their futures. Stay tuned!

* After 7,000 volunteer fire fighters battled for 45-days under extreme conditions to control the mine fire it caused, GDF Suez (now trading as Engie) refused to pay the Country Fire Authority’s expenses of $18 million. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that Engie has spent around $250 million on lobbying to weaken emissions reduction targets.

^ In terms of pubic protest, after extensive negotiations between environment groups and authorities, police and security forces agreed to allow some demonstrations to proceed. Also, it’s important to note that the added security on the streets during COP21 had some positive impacts, as it enabled environment and social justice activists to feel safer in the face of an increase in right wing extremism.

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