Who Gets the Last Word? Activism in Climate Change Negotiations

By Emory Strawn

Emory is a Political Science and Economics double-major from Houston, TX .

Do “the people” have a place in complex international negotiations in the form of non-state groups, or should those choices be left to the delegates of involved countries? This December, approximately 40,000 delegates, officials, and experts will gather in Paris for the 21st UNFCCC COP to try to hammer out a new climate change regime. In preparation for this huge influx of people, the French government has set up three specific areas within the Paris-Le Bourget site of the COP (“COP21/CMP11 CONSTRUCTION WORK” 2015). Activist groups seeking to advance their own agendas have strategized for months how to best convey their desires; they will descend upon Paris to express those wishes as loudly as possible. Their goal is to force negotiators to create a new and more effective regime to mitigate and reverse the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Because of the recent terror attacks in Paris, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other activists will have their work cut out for them in adapting to new restrictions and regulations on their activities. The original plans to conduct marches, protests, and sit-ins must be reconfigured to meet France’s need for a secure conference. With some of the most powerful tools in their arsenal unavailable, the success of any groups will depend upon their ability to work both within and outside the framework set up for them.

A Brief History of Non-State Actors in Climate Change Negotiations

Non-state actors (i.e. NGOs, grassroots movements, student groups) have become more important in international environmental governance in recent years. Environmental concerns, particularly climate change, lend themselves well to grassroots movements because they tend to affect large swaths of the population who will turn to their lawmakers and demand solutions. NGOs are effective for environmental governance and climate change in particular because they can be so specialized. They are able provide hard facts and expertise to negotiators who otherwise might not have a background in the pertinent area (Betsill 2015).

NGOs can take many avenues to provide such assistance. They, and other non-state actors, have long run “Side and Parallel Events” in conjunction with the official negotiations occurring between delegations. Two Oxford researchers ran a study about the role of Side Events and non-state actors in climate change negotiations and concluded that, “the Side Events were seen by interviewees as ‘solutions- focused’, with vigorous debate about new ideas for mitigating climate change, as well as presentations of the latest climate science. The negotiations, on the other hand, were seen as revolving around negotiating skills, vested interests and political power”(Schroeder and Lovell 2012). Because these side events are not typically tied to the vested interests of one nation-state, they provide arenas for the dissemination of unbiased information and provide a forum for more egalitarian discussion which could lead to greater cooperation in the future (Hjerpe and Linnér 2010).

Official side events are just one of the many tools in an activists group’s arsenal. Observers are allowed into the negotiating rooms both for accountability and for their expertise. In 2003, the Climate Change Secretariat put forth a document entitled “Guidelines for the participation of representatives of non-governmental organizations at meetings of the bodies of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.” In it, the UNFCCC recognizes the importance of these groups because their “involvement allows vital experience, expertise, information and perspectives from civil society” to be integrated into decision making as well as “promotes transparency in this increasingly complex universal problem” (Climate Change Secretariat 2003). It encourages mutual respect between the observers and negotiators by outlining the specific roles of each group.

Publications such as the Earth Negotiations Bulletin have gained legitimacy; they are sent out as daily newsletters to people we want to know about environmental issues. It operates as an agent of the Secretariat so, unlike other observers, its staff will not be shut out of most negotiations. Unfortunately, these bulletins only reach a self-selecting group of interested people. Activists must find ways to draw in those who otherwise would not have sought out the information. This is the key aim of groups leading up to the Paris meetings – to get the word out to both the general public and domestic legislative bodies in time to affect their states’ negotiators. With their ability to create newsworthy spectacles in Paris severely diminished, this step to get out information has become even more crucial.

Civil society is not always treated as well or with as much respect as it should be. In Bonn this October, observers were shut out of negotiating rooms after a co-ordinated effort by several developed countries. Japan led the movement to block non-state actors from observing the proceedings with little to no opposition other than the G77 + China, arguing that there was little time for representatives of different states to come together in a productive manner and that observers detract from the quality of proceedings (Deen 2015). 170+ NGOs released a condemnation of this action, deeming it “undemocratic, un-transparent and unacceptable” (Rowling 2015). This exclusion begs important questions about transparency and about the presence of non-state actors in deliberations. The UN Climate Secretariat has agreed that outside groups do play a crucial role but, in a time crunch, do they hinder the progress of negotiations by bringing in too many opinions? Without the presence of non-state actors, can states be trusted to act in a way that is best for people as a whole, or do they only act in the self-interest of their countries? Some believe that blocking protesters from organizing in the streets of Paris is yet another event contributing to increasingly violent climate narrative. Side events are an integral part of the negotiations process, especially for traditionally marginalized groups, so in their absence, what will take their place?

Looking Forward

Prior to the terrorist attacks in Paris, we could have looked for marches, protests, counter protests, blockades, and anything that organizers could come up with to bring their causes to the forefront. Organizers and activists were not planning to be quiet and wait for legislation. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the November 13th terror attacks fundamentally altered those plans. In light of these attacks, the French government has agreed to continue with the main COP but has banned any outdoor marches. Events that were planned to be indoors or within closed spaces will be allowed to proceed. Protest organizers had hoped that 200,000 demonstrators would come to Paris to demand change, but have had to completely change their plans (Bagley 2015). Many are outraged because these events are the best time for the public to add their voices to the discussion, and, by shutting down the main avenues for communication, the French Government is further deepening the divide between the Global North and South (Klein 2015).

One of the most fascinating groups to watch in Paris are the organizers of “The Climate Games” which were jointly planned by several influential climate justice groups. These “games” include blockades to prevent negotiators from physically reaching the negotiations until they agree to the protesters’ demands in addition to potentially huge marches designed to emulate the People’s Climate March in New York City last year. Organizers desire to be as disruptive as possible – they produce videos to get the word out to possible players. The Climate Games will be run like any other multiplayer game, with teams, rules, and objectives. On the final night of the COP, there will be a ceremony complete with awards such as “The Courage Is Contagious Cup,” “The Most Effective Action Award,” and “The Pissed Myself Cup for the acts of disobedience that make us Laugh Out Loud,” all of which encourage participants to partake in any action they believe is potentially useful (“Hacking the COP” 2015). One key point of the Climate Games is that participants need not be in Paris to be part of the movement, there are specific tasks to be completed from afar. This brings in groups of people who otherwise could not have directly taken part in any activism around Paris. This is one of the most radical groups that will be present in December. They will not heed the requests of the French government and plan to continue with their rallies and events because they believe that progress will not be made without the influence of civil society. They have also encouraged the dispersed groups to make a more concerted effort around the world to make up for the shortcomings of protests in Paris.

The Campaign Against Climate Change is another network of groups to watch for. It published what can be best described as a manifesto on its website that called for massive demonstrations against the inactions of governments. It demanded smaller local involvements as well as involvement in the Paris conference itself. It will detail daily activities around the COP here and update it frequently. The campaign has not yet published a plan of action after the attacks but its biggest events were supposed to run concurrently with the talks in nations across the world, so those events will likely not have changed.

A final major player for civil society in Paris is the 350 movement. The number 350 refers to the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. We recently passed 400ppm, which is unsustainably high, and need to return that level to 350ppm or lower (“The Science” 2015). This group is heavily involved in a number of worldwide environmental causes including the Keystone Pipeline, Divestment, and a global power shift. Its initial plans for Paris included mass mobilizations on both the opening and closing days the conference and then a follow-up escalation next May.The staff of 350 in Paris responded to the terror attacks by claiming that the climate talks are a essentially a peace summit. It stressed the need for global cooperation and agreement in order to reach its goals (“Paris” 2015). As of November 25, they have yet to release a new plan of action.

Activist groups attempt to engage as much of the general public as possible through personalizing the issue and making it accessible. Events like the People’s Climate March of March 2015 and other visible protests bring the fight to average people in a way that things like newsletters and petitions cannot because they forcibly draw in their surroundings. Through physical activism in Paris and concurrent support across the globe, people are determined to have the last say in what happens to our planet and how we can achieve that. With the recent attacks in Paris and curtailment of freedoms of expression, activists will have a more difficult time accessing both the public and negotiators. Their success will depend on their ability to adapt to the new restrictions placed upon their usual tactics.

For further reading:

  • Earth Negotiations Bulletin – an officially recognized reporting service that looks at both side events and the official negotiations that are occurring
  • ECO – a slightly sarcastic run-down of day to day environmental diplomacy
  • EJOLT – collection of articles about activist plans for Paris, a look at the discourse within the Climate Justice alliances, and background on environmentally exploitative projects
  • Global Climate March – find a march or event near you!


Works Cited

Bagley, Katherine. “Climate Activists Vow to Demonstrate During Paris Talks.” Inside Climate News November 16, 2015.


Betsill, Michell. “Non-Governmental Organizations.” In Essential Concepts of Global Environmental Governance, edited by Jean-Frédéric Morin and Amandine Orsini, 134-7. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Combes, Maxime. “Having the Last Word: Towards Paris 2015 – Challenges and Perspectives”.  EJOLT September 29, 2015. http://www.ejolt.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/EJOLT-6.42-52.pdf.

Deen, Thalif. “Civil Society Activists Cold-Shouldered at Climate Talks.” Inter Press Service October 26, 2015. http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/10/civil-society-activists-cold-shouldered-at-climate-talks/.

Hjerpe, Mattias and Bjorn-Ola Linnér. “Functions of COP side events in climate change governance”. Climate Policy 10(2): 167 – 180. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3763/cpol.2008.0617

Klein, Naomi. “What’s Really at Stake at the Paris Climate Conference Now The Marches are Banned.” Common Dreams November 23, 2015. http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/11/23/whats-really-stake-paris-climate-conference-now-marches-are-banned?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=email_this&utm_source=email

The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination. “Hacking the COP: The Climate Games in Paris 2015”. EJOLT September 29, 2015. http://www.ejolt.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/EJOLT-6.53-55.pdf.

Nick. “Why Climate Justice Activists are Planning to Hack the Paris Climate Summit”. Earth First! Newswire September 29, 2015. http://earthfirstjournal.org/newswire/2015/09/29/why-climate-justice-activists-are-preparing-to-hack-the-paris-climate-summit/.

Restuccia, Andrew. “Greens: climate march breaks records.” Politico September 21, 2014. http://www.politico.com/story/2014/09/peoples-climate-march-nyc-111177.

Rowling, Megan. “Row over transparency as climate talks told to ‘get serious’”. Thompson Reuters Sustainability October 21, 2015. http://sustainability.thomsonreuters.com/2015/10/21/row-over-transparency-as-climate-talks-told-to-get-serious/.

Schroeder, Heike and Heather Lovell. “The role of non-nation-state actors and side events in the international climate negotiations.” Climate Policy 12 (2012): 23-37. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14693062.2011.579328.

UN Climate Change Secretariat. 2003. “Guidelines for the participation of representatives of non-governmental organizations at meetings of the bodies of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”. Available at:  https://unfccc.int/files/parties_and_observers/ngo/application/pdf/coc_guide.pdf.

Image: http://www.politico.com/story/2014/09/peoples-climate-march-nyc-111177