Activism & Volunteering

Members of Civil Society Must Reassess Their Role At UNFCCC Climate Negotiations

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“I realized in Warsaw, however, that the official delegations are not the enemy, and these “actions” often run counter-productive to official activities.” Civil society walked out of the COP19 climate talks in protest at the lack of progress. Adam Pearson contends he stands in support of urgent, collective outcomes, but did not participate in the protest. He gives us his thoughts on how civil society engages with the UN climate negotiations.

Last Thursday, civil society walked out of the National Stadium in Warsaw at the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP) in protest at the lack of progress in the climate negotiations. I stand in support of urgent, collective outcomes, but I did not participate in the protest.

This is the first year I attended the UN’s climate negotiations and as a civil society ‘observer’, my role in influencing negotiations was limited. We could meet with official delegations, hear stories of local climate action and engage in discussion in the plethora of “side events” and put pressure on countries by catching the attention of media. But civil society - especially youth - largely focused on “actions” - meticulously planned statements, speeches, and visual stunts designed to generate “media hits” and in doing so, shame countries enough to change their positions.

In preparation for COP, I was excited to intervene and affect the day-to-day activities of negotiators. I thought I could encourage them to increase their ambitions. I realized in Warsaw, however, that the official delegations are not the enemy, and these “actions” often run counter-productive to official activities.

Credit: Lingxiao He/SustainUS

During my first action, it felt thrilling to support Philippines lead negotiator Yeb Saño during his emotional speech that called for swift, meaningful outcomes from Warsaw. But after speaking with negotiators throughout COP, I realized many had not even heard of the statements made by civil society, regardless of whether these “actions” were picked up by Reuters.

Whilst at the talks, I also spent time with American officials from the White House and Department of State, the overarching takeaway from which was that the US international position is determined months in advance, and the delegation brings to the table pathways that the U.S. can reasonably take. This means that policies like Corporate Auto Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations serve as primary levers to chart the US mitigation targets.

US lead negotiator Todd Stern’s stonewall late in the talks on a “Loss and Damage” mechanism reflects what I learned - no matter how passionate emotions run, the outcomes are largely dictated in advance of the talks by people like President Obama - not me with my anti-coal sign. It is not reasonable to expect Stern to venture out of his pre-determined boundaries, based on negative press generated by civil society stunts.

Whilst actions can effectively highlight problematic developments at COP, in certain situations, actions can also detract from the time-sensitive negotiations. On Wednesday, theClimate Action Networkspectacularly criticizedfive countries (China, India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) for attempting to remove the word “equity” from draft text. Apparently upset at the distinction, delegates huddled for hours in the cafeteria, purportedly plotting a response to the NGOs that levied the criticism.

So if negative media coverage of the talks does not change negotiating positions, it unfortunately shapes public perception. On Thursday, hundreds of members from civil society walked out of the stadium, generating significant media coverage internationally. My family and friends back home heard about how Warsaw was yet another disastrous COP, thanks to this dramatic gesture, well before the final plenary came to a close Saturday night. They will not hear about how Warsaw has been a forum for extremely important conversations about financing structures and “Loss and Damage” mechanisms. They will not hear aboutBan Ki-Moon’s 2014 Climate Summit, which is positioned to deliver preliminary international emissions reduction targets and complement the formal UN process.

NGOs walk out at COP19 in WarsawI believe Americans (and many non-activists around the world) tune out the climate talks each year because the media fixates on the messages of disappointment that civil society feels. Since Copenhagen in 2009, COPs have ended on notes of disappointment, de-badgings, civil protest, and frustration.By no means did outcomes in Warsaw exceed expectations - I understand the sentiment of those who walked out. But as Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientistssaid:

“No one should misinterpret [the] walk-out as an indication that this process is ‘broken.’ It’s not.”

-Union of Concerned Scientists

The public needs a more nuanced version of events than can be described in a walk-out, reflecting more optimism when it comes to the talks.

My experience at COP19 has taught me that the fastest path to an ambitious international agreement starts at home. If Americans are jaded about climate change, how will they be inspired enough to wage domestic campaigns? The real work happens at the local level - those are the efforts that will determine how ambitious these delegates can act on the international stage. It is perhaps a greater disservice to the climate movement, therefore, when environmental NGOs indirectly cause the non-activists at home to tune out.

It is imperative that civil society continues to actively participate at future COPs. I urge the veterans to remain committed to the proceedings and to engage with delegations to ensure negotiators act as ambitiously as instructions allow. Yet if we as an environmental community want more public involvement in support of climate action, I must also urge those at the talks to consider more positive and careful messaging when delivering perspectives to the media.

As an environmental community, I assume we still believe in the value of an international climate agreement as an umbrella over the more regional climate action that will inform and strengthen said treaty. If so, we need to reassess the implications of our actions - not in terms of how cathartic or media savvy they are, but in terms of how they use leverage points to influence policy, and in terms of what the messaging says to those in front of the television at home. The public has to engage, and this can only happen when folks develop a positive appetite for pushing action locally.