Bandwagoning to the Climate Cause

By Jen Iris Allan

To a growing class of activists, climate change is not an environmental issue. Instead, climate change is a gender, trade, justice, employment, development, health, and rights issue (to name a few). The recent increase in the number and influence of social movements and NGOs working on climate change is significant, fragmenting the civil society voice on climate issues. My work explores why activists working on social issues started participating in climate change governance around the same time, from 2007-2009, and why, despite multilateral failure, these activists stayed. As a result of this influx of newcomers, civil society can no longer show unity on climate issues and instead advances very different ideas of the climate problem and its solutions.

We often think that solidarity – through forming coalitions or networks – is important for civil society to influence international treaties. Yet, this fragmentation may be a good thing. In the absence of a global agreement, climate action depends on national and local responses. These newcomers to climate advocacy have mobilized new groups that can push for national and local climate action commensurate with science.

Entering the arena of climate change governance, or “bandwagoning” to climate change governance, can be a difficult task. Bandwagoning requires linking the activists’ traditional issue, be it justice or gender, to climate change in a way that will persuade those already working on climate change. The NGOs or social movements need to invest in information gathering and dissemination, relationship building, travel, and staff training. Moving between areas of global governance is costly, yet many have engaged in bandwagoning, and taken on climate change.

Many of these activists come from other areas of international governance that are designed to address other, often social, issues. According to my database on NGO participation since 1995, social NGOs started arriving en masse around 2007. In 2004, only 6 social civil society groups attended the climate negotiations. By 2007, this number grew to 17, skyrocketed to 79 in 2009, and remained strong with 36 social NGOs attending in 2011. By comparison, environmental NGOs numbered 18 in 2004, 88 in 2009, and 29 in 2011. These numbers hide the many social activists outside the venue, gathering in growing numbers in the streets. Social NGOs and movements rapidly increased their presence, and now rival the number of other categories of observers in the UN climate talks.

For those who are bandwagoning, the goal is to advance their traditional issues as well as achieve climate action. In the 70 interviews I’ve conducted, it is clear that bandwagoning is not an either/or scenario. Rather, these activists seek to achieve progress on both their traditional issue and climate change by finding innovative linkages between their issue and climate change. For example, labour activists declare “there are no jobs on a dead planet” and global justice activists call for “system change, not climate change.” The purpose of bandwagoning is to advance multiple agendas simultaneously.

My work shows that these newcomers are not fair-weather friends. Their commitment to climate change is real and lasting; many have made climate change a central part of their ongoing work. Despite rather dramatic failure in Copenhagen, where states failed to reach agreement on a climate treaty, these new climate activists stayed.

The climate community has not necessarily welcomed all these new groups that have their own interests, agendas and strategies. Once dominated by environmental, research, and business groups, there is now formal space for trade unions, women and gender NGOs, youth advocates, indigenous peoples, farmers, and local government and municipal authorities. The environmental NGO constituency has split in two. Climate Action Network (CAN), the traditional network for environmental NGOs, now must share speaking time with Climate Justice Now!, a network of social movements and NGOs including activists for social justice, indigenous rights, and others generally critical of CAN. The two groups could find little room for collaboration. Others, such as health advocates report that delegates and other climate activists give them little space to advance health issues. Gender NGOs have found considerable success, including the recent Lima Work Programme on Gender, yet found it initially difficult to convince some climate advocates to adopt gender issues in their climate work.

The fragmentation of the civil society voice has led to various calls regarding what constitutes legitimate climate action. Market mechanisms, which are schemes for developed countries to pay for projects in developing countries in exchange for a credit toward meeting their own emissions targets, have come under fire. The climate justice movement calls market mechanisms “false solutions” and, with youth and some health groups, advocate leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Reducing emissions from the forest sector, a relatively successful area of recent climate policy formation, has been criticized for not attending to governance problems and rights of local communities. Civil society pulls states in different directions regarding the morally and technically correct courses of action. Such a split often translates into difficulties for civil society’s hopes of influencing negotiations. Yet the recent negotiations are different and fragmentation could help spur climate action.

Staying in the climate change negotiations, these newcomers have witnessed a reversal of how the international community governs climate change from a top-down to a bottom-up model. The Kyoto Protocol was a top-down international instrument, meaning that there were internationally-set and legally-binding targets for countries. The current negotiations scheduled to conclude this year comprise a bottom-up model because countries are setting and pledging their own targets. This approach relocates climate action to the national level. This new approach means that a concerted action at the national level to push leaders to take ambition climate action is necessary, and the newcomers to climate advocacy are well-placed to take on this challenge.

The social NGOs and movements bandwagoning to climate change have mobilized, or at least intrigued, a wide range of society. From labour unions to health professionals, and LGBT activists to veterans, segments of society that previously would not have talked about climate change are discussing and proposing solutions. By putting a human face on climate change, these activists have reframed the issue in terms that the average person can relate to – climate change is about asthma, job creation, marginalization and vulnerability, or sustainable development. These messages speak to new audiences within developed and developing countries that ordinarily would not respond to environmental groups.

Internationally, the situation is intractable. Solidarity among international groups is perhaps now less effective than mobilizing wide swaths of the public in a call for a low-carbon future. By bandwagoning into climate change governance, these newcomers fragmented civil society, but perhaps for the better.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Global Climate Movement

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