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Do COP21’s NGOs and Activist Observers Actually Affect the Negotiations?

How civil society became a critical part of the process.

Two years ago, hundreds of people, most dressed in white, gathered in the center of the Warsaw football stadium that was hosting the annual U.N. climate talks, and silently walked out of the venue.

It was the eleventh day of the COP19 meetings—the second-to-last day of the conference, at least according to the schedule. But these climate advocates were leaving the summit for good.

For the first time in the 19-year history of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under whose auspices the global negotiations take place, civil society observers of the talks were walking out.

So what? Why does it matter that the environmental NGOs and youth activists are in the meeting rooms and plenary halls as the negotiations are underway?

Because the so-called observers have become an integral part of the open U.N. negotiations, and the thousands of activists who attend the yearly climate conference serve as the unofficial conscience of the entire process.

“Civil society can play a lot of different roles: One of them is expertise, and another one is bringing the voice of the people,” says lawyer and activist Sébastian Duyck, a leading advocate for the inclusion of human rights in the legal documents of the talks.

A country’s delegates might be progressive or obstructive, depending on who is running the government at the time. Economic needs and geopolitical realities always create an ebb and flow of ambition within the talks. But civil society will constantly push forward.

“In relation to social issues like human rights, gender and food security, the NGOs are very important to remind the negotiators this is really about how the climate agreement is implemented in local communities,” says Duyck.

Often, as was the case in 2013, the intentions of the NGO and activist observers clash with negotiators’ agenda and pace. So they push harder and harder, sometimes with little give. In Warsaw, the talks had stalled and civil society was fed up.

The Warsaw walkout was not a surrender, but a strategic play.

Credit: Brendan DeMelle/DeSmogBlog

“This action is about sending a clear statement that our leaders have to wake up,” said Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo at the time of the walkout. Those who left believed that their collective voice was being ignored so blatantly that it would have served no purpose to be there for the last two days of the conference.

Many activists wore shirts bearing the word “Volveremos”: “We shall return.” And volvieron—they did last year in Lima, Peru.

“Civil society at large, if you include the scientific community as well as the environmental and development campaigners, had much to do in creating the negotiating process,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), when I caught up with him in Paris.

Meyer was there 25 years ago, when civil society “was a handful of primarily scientific and environmental organizations,” as he puts it, and pushed the United Nations General Assembly to create the Convention during the 1992 Rio Summit.

NGO observers deliver a short speech outlining demands to the delegates at COP18 in Doha, Qatar. Credit: IISD

Over the decades, the movement has grown to include unions, business leaders, and a broader range of constituencies, which, he argues, more accurately reflects the world’s diversity. It still includes household names like Greenpeace, NRDC, Friends of the Earth, and WWF, but you can also find gender organizations, human rights collectives, and farmers cooperatives at the COPs.

Most gather under the umbrella of the Climate Action Network (CAN), an international coalition that serves as an informational and organizing hub for its nearly 1,000 member orgs, and as a sort of superego for the talks.

During the talks, CAN members work tirelessly to track policies and negotiating positions. The civil society observers are also invited to deliver “interventions” (or short speeches) to the assembled delegates, making sure that their concerns are heard in a serious manner. More generally, the observer groups work to engage the public in a topic that is still largely ignored at the dinner table.

A young advocate delivers an “intervention” to the negotiators, laying out a model deal. Credit: Climate Action Network-International

With an estimated 3,000 reporters coming to COP21, is anyone else really needed to tell the story? Press is typically restricted from the negotiating rooms at the UNFCCC, and civil society experts can help decode and demystify the terribly confusing, acronym-riddled UNFCCC process. They also like to remind the media and the public what’s important and what’s really at stake.

“In a climate context, it’s often civil society groups or activists who raise climate issues, help stakeholders understand why the issues are relevant, and propose solutions,” says Joshua Wiese, who runs the Climate Tracker program at the Global Call for Climate Action, which empowers young activists to monitor and influence their country’s and region’s policies.

“Sometimes (we do it) directly, through protest, other times indirectly, through engaging the general public. And,” Wiese says, “we’re getting results.”

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