How the Climate Movement Interacts with Formal Politics

By Shannon K. Orr

My research on climate change has spanned more than a decade, focusing primarily on NGOs within the climate movement. I have surveyed thousands of civil society participants at UN negotiations, and many of them have expressed frustration with the challenges of having a meaningful impact at the negotiations. NGOs participating in negotiations do so under very strict limitations and constraints. Whether it is controlling access to plenary session via tickets or shutting down protest events in the hallways, civil society is strictly controlled by the United Nations and must fit themselves them into existing institutional structures. Government delegates are increasingly sequestered behind closed doors for negotiations, limiting the degree of interaction with those from civil society (Orr 2006).

The history of climate science and activism go back much farther than current public debates would lead one to believe. In the 1820s, French physicist Joseph Fourier began exploring the idea that the Earth’s atmosphere acts as an insulator, keeping the planet warmer than it should be if it was only warmed by incoming solar radiation. He called this phenomenon the “greenhouse effect.” The work was continued by Irish physicist John Tyndall, noteworthy not only for his contribution in identifying possible gasses responsible for the greenhouse effect (including carbon dioxide), but quite possibly for being the first climate activist, reaching out to educate the public about important scientific findings through public demonstrations and presentations (Climate History). This tradition of climate activism and outreach has taken on new forms in the modern world: moving beyond genteel talks to embrace multinational days of protest, hash tag activism and texting campaigns. The climate movement has also infiltrated the space of the official United Nations treaty negotiations, a unique venue of both opportunities and constraints for activists as will be explored below through the lens of three concepts: tactics, access, and the tension between principles and pragmatism.

The early relationship between civic engagement and climate change is noteworthy as we embark on the “road to Paris” and the next round of climate change negotiations. Since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came into force in 1994, civil society has been important participants in the negotiation process. At times supportive, but usually critical, civil society has taken a prominent role within the negotiations. Particularly noteworthy when negotiations are technical and focused on scientific issues, civil society may be instrumental in keeping the media engaged, thereby promoting transparency of the negotiations and helping to keep the public informed. Through newsletters/blogs, exchange of information over social media and press briefings, civil society can help to sort through the wealth of information that is generated, distilling the complex negotiations down to a few key, understandable issues.

One of the challenges for the UN has been how to navigate the often controversial waters brought by an essentially open accreditation process. Civil society at the Conferences of Parties (COPs), essentially non-governmental organizations with an interest in climate change, has a complicated relationship with the larger institution itself. Along with expertise and policy analysis, civil society also bring with them protests, street theatre and other attention grabbing antics. From people climbing up the outside of the negotiation building in New Delhi at the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) 8 to hang a sign, to a mobile phone bank set up in Copenhagen at COP 15 for participants to call their elected representatives, civil society has brought passion and controversy to many UN meetings.

Access to negotiations and negotiators has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. As an observer at COP8 in Delhi I was able to get access to closed door writing sessions, there were frequent social events for both civil society and government delegates to attend together, and a greater sense of interaction and approachability. Contrasting that experience to my most recent attendance at COP 15 in Copenhagen, it is almost hard to believe that they are the same negotiations. The UNFCCC negotiations now feature strict security (including long lines to enter each day), many more closed door sessions, and increasing limits on the number of participants permitted from each observer organization. Despite the heightened expectations in Copenhagen, for many observer organizations the reality was disappointing: long waits to get into the conference venue, limited access to meetings, and restricted admission in the second week of the meeting with entrance limited to just 1000 IGO/NGO participants on Thursday and 90 for Friday, the last day of the meeting. Many civil society participants who travelled to Denmark for the second half of the meeting never even made it inside. As one survey respondent commented in an earlier study I did “We spent thousands of dollars to watch the highlights of the negotiations on CNN in a hotel room”.

Tensions between principles and pragmatism are particularly noteworthy within the climate movement. Civil society organizations have complicated relationships with governments and with each other. On the one hand many of them critique governments as part of their core functions, yet at the same time are dependent on government contracts, and aid to maintain their operations. Similarly, while many are united in spirit with other organizations that share similar missions, values and mandates; they may also be in a constant state of competition with those supposed allies to recruit and retain members, win grants and garner media attention. Many organizations exist in a state tugged between the two poles of public interest and self-interest.

The United Nations, with its global reach, impartiality and universal membership remains the centerpiece of global decision-making on these issues. Through their participation, the international community continues to affirm that the UN is a forum for the expression of global goals and mandates, and should continue to be an advocate for certain core values such as human rights and environmental protection.

There is an important argument to be made that NGOs help to hold the United Nations accountable. By breaking open the closed nature of negotiations, by holding press conferences, interacting with delegates and attracting media attention through protests and other grassroots activity, they force public attention onto treaty negotiations. The daily newsletters published by NGOs at these conferences that seem to litter the floor where ever you go, at the same time are appeals for accountability as they raise concerns, critique positions and policy statements.

As Kofi Annan once wrote: “The United Nations once dealt with Governments. By now we know that peace and prosperity cannot be achieved without partnerships involving Governments, international organizations, the business community and civil society. In today’s world, we depend on each other.” The climate movement does not take place in isolation, it has become a fundamental part of the climate change negotiations, creating both challenges and opportunities for formal politics.


This blog post is based on a series of research articles by Dr. Shannon Orr examining civil society participation at the UN climate change negotiation. The original articles are available here.


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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Global Climate Movement

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