Non-profit power

The role of civil society in global climate policy is mysterious to many in China, writes Chen Jiliang. But public campaigning is crucial work that must persist, even in the face of disappointing results.

Civil society has always been a significant force in global climate-change politics. But in China, the long absent NGO sector has only recently started to emerge. Chinese people, perhaps hazy on concepts such as “non-profit” and “non-governmental”, can find it hard to understand what role NGOs play in driving global-warming policy – and whether they are actually doing any good.

Looking at the current state of climate-change negotiations, you might forgive the public for wondering what NGOs achieve that justifies the carbon footprint of their long-haul flights to international summits. The emissions cuts required by the Kyoto Protocol are minimal; several major emitters of greenhouse gases refuse to take on binding commitments to cut their emissions; negotiations drag on year after year at a snail’s pace; the core differences between nations seem to be expanding rather than shrinking. The list goes on.

What, then, is the point of NGO participation?

The principles of NGO engagement in global environmental politics appear to be the same as those underlying public participation in domestic environmental affairs. When, in the second week of the 2009 Copenhagen talks, the majority of NGOs were shut out of the main conference centre, one banner protested: “How can you make decisions about us, without us?”

Civil-society participation is founded on the belief that the ideal solution to a problem can only be found through involvement of, and discussion with, all interested parties. This belief was the basis for involvement of Chinese NGOs in protection of the Nu River in south-west China and, more broadly, in campaigns on issues such as waste management.

When it comes to discussing environmental issues, there are two interested parties that can never be in attendance: future generations and soon to be extinct species. The idea of sustainable development includes both intra-generational and inter-generational equity. The NGOs active in negotiations at the World Trade Organization tend to promote intra-generational equity – equity between people of the same generation – while NGOs in the climate-change field, while defending a bottom line on intra-generational equity, also promote the rights of future generations. Broadly then, NGOs aim to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves (as in Proverbs 31:8-9: "plead the cause of the poor and needy"). But, at climate-change talks, what does this mean in practice?

First, as observers, NGOs of course observe. Their workers spread themselves among all open meetings to listen intently and let fingers fly over Blackberries, iPads and laptops, with up-to-the-minute information – and gossip – whizzing out to email groups and Twitter. Although some meetings may be closed to observers, NGOs have contacts in government delegations, even if, in public, they have to pretend they don’t know each other.

Second, they demonstrate. Protest events organised by large environmental organisations such as WWF or Greenpeace, or by alliances of organisations such as the Climate Action Network (CAN) or Global Climate Change Alliance (GCCA), attract media attention and get NGO messages out.

Third, NGOs release brief evaluations of climate-change negotiations and hold press conferences, providing rapid feedback on how talks are going for the media to quote. Large organisations have dedicated media officers, spokespeople and official blogs feeding material to the media. The media then influences public opinion and that, in turn, puts pressure on governments (at least it does in countries where politicians care about public opinion).

Fourth, non-profit think-tanks often publish their own research findings at side events. The topics are often the hot issues of the moment and the think-tanks well-known. Add in a few renowned speakers and it is possible to prompt excellent media coverage. Although it might not directly affect the negotiations, it is a platform for discussion and dissemination of ideas.

Fifth, these organisations lobby. More established NGOs and think-tanks have a long history of lobbying their own governments and have established trust and cooperation with those in power. Besides using their own reports to persuade politicians round to their point of view, they meet directly with government delegations to discuss climate-change negotiations. I very much hope to see Chinese NGOs one day doing the same.

Sixth, they engage in civil diplomacy. NGOs from different nations meet each other at the talks and gain an excellent opportunity to build trust and understanding and promote cooperation. A lack of trust between nations is one of the main reasons that negotiations have been slow to progress, and strengthening ties between NGOs is an important method for improving trust between governments.

Larger NGOs can fight on different fronts simultaneously, while smaller groups may choose to join larger networks and cooperate with other organisations. Besides CAN and GCCA, there is the Climate Justice Now (CJN) network, the Youth NGO Constituency and others. But while they are all NGOs, their values and viewpoints are not identical. CAN emphasises the effectiveness of treaties on environmental protection – perhaps as it was formed by environmental NGOs – while CJN is more concerned with fairness in negotiations, perhaps because more of its members are groups working on development and equity. Some groups are members of two networks, while some maintain partnerships with all networks despite being a member of none.

Different NGOs also adopt different views of their impact on negotiations. Some believe that the high level of NGO activity leading up to Copenhagen put too much pressure on the talks, particularly on the role of the United States government, and that the result was tension and confrontation at the negotiating table. At the Cancún talks last year, there was less public pressure – and more room for negotiators to get to work.

But others argue that the reduction in public participation at Cancún was not a good thing and were unhappy with the set-up in Mexico, where the venue was split into three sections and NGO events separated from the main negotiations. This was obviously good for the negotiators – and may have been the Mexican government’s actual motive.

I have asked contacts working for green NGOs in several countries what they consider to be the main challenge for non-profit groups and they all, more or less, gave the same answer: the main task remains mobilising the masses at home. Only when public engagement reaches the point that it affects political careers will politicians dare to take more active measures to tackle climate change. Only changes in domestic politics can give rise to changes in global diplomacy.

Public campaigning is dirty and tiring work that requires great endurance, resilience and effort. But the more of this work that is done, the greater the impact NGOs will have at climate-change negotiations – and the more significant the results that they achieve.


Chen Jiliang is project officer with the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s Beijing office.

Homepage image from Oxfam International shows a demonstration at the Cancún climate summit.