Civil Society’s Role in Climate Politics

Demonstration in Garzweiler - August 2015
Teaser Image Caption
Demonstration in Garzweiler - August 2015

Finding an answer to the question of how to deal with global climate change is no easy feat and the issue has been setting challenges for international politics for decades. A scientific advisory body was established in Germany, with the aim to support the German government in the field of climate politics. The so-called WBGU, the German Advisory Council on Global Change, analyses climate change and its consequences in its role as an independent institution and compiles action plans for political decision-makers.

In 2014, the WBGU published a report on ‘Climate Protection as a World Citizen Movement’ on behalf of the German federal government departments. In its report, the advisory board clarifies that climate change is occurring and that the human population plays an important role in it. The WBGU presents suggestions for the climate conference in Paris and lays particular emphasis on the shared responsibility of protagonists at all levels. It is time for global civil society to take on more responsibility, according to the report. Yet that is not the solution.

A contribution by Barbara Unmüßig.

The special report conducted by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) entitled ‘Climate Protection as a World Citizen Movement’ (WBGU 2014) sparked a debate on the role of civil society in climate politics in GAIA magazine (Brunnengräber 2014, Leggewie et al. 2015, Bauriedl 2015). And rightly so. The lead questions behind the report included how to overcome the shortfalls of climate diplomacy and how to lend fresh impetus to climate politics. The WBGU (2014) advocates a strong, multilateral set of rules and outlines suggestions for a Post–Kyoto Protocol within the current political framework and for the further development of climate politics. I cannot agree with Brunnengräber’s allegation that the WBGU, in its special report, bids farewell to politically ambitious regulatory measures and adopts the perspective of a denationalised climate policy. On the contrary, the WBGU ranks among the most significant protagonists in Germany and drives political development on the basis of findings from climate and environmental science.

However, I do agree with Brunnengräber’s criticism of the WBGU’s concept of modular multilateralism. It acts on the premise that civil society should assume a central role and advance climate protection, as well as deliver a new dynamic to the negotiations. The concept further implies that non-governmental organisations (NGOs), churches and promising citizens’ initiatives, social movements, companies and clubs (WBGU 2014) should share more responsibility for climate protection. THE WBGU even ascribes some networks and NGOs an increase in significance in global climate negotiations. It welcomes the commitment of civil initiatives and considers it complementary to governmental energy and climate policies and global climate governance.

Furthermore, “global civil society” is to develop into a strong engine for climate protection and compensate for the shortcomings of state action in this area. In its vision, the WBGU neglects to differentiate regarding the composition of civil society, as well as its scope of action and political leeway. Hopes for changes at a global level and worldwide climate protection are pinned on to civil society, without taking its limited range of action or governmental measures restricting its work into consideration, and without even hinting at the differences between the individual players that constitute civil society.

However, the WBGU has included desirable goals in its report: It aspires to pick up on the pressure already exerted by various protagonists and the multifaceted campaigns at a local and global level which mobilize for the exit from nuclear energy, for divestment from fossil energy, and for alternative forms of mobility and agriculture politics. Without a doubt: Apart from climatologists, it is civil society that demands change and strives for societal transformation with the help of dedicated strategies.

This commitment certainly achieves success on the ground: For example, members of civil society prevent coal-fired power plants or intensive mass animal farming sites from being built, and spark ideas for local, sustainable mobility projects. Both the exit from nuclear power and the energy revolution in Germany and elsewhere are the result of a successfully mobilized civil society. And yet, it could not reverse the negative ecological and social developments (such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, mounting injustice) of the past 30 years, even though the commitment of civil society has increased by leaps and bounds across all levels. The opposing forces are too powerful. For that reason, it would be appropriate for the WBGU to assume a more realistic approach regarding the scope of civil society. Realism, in this instance, should not be confused with the opposite of optimism and hope, which are needed to encourage political activity. By all means, civil society is certainly capable of catalysing positive change. However, it would be foolish to believe that civil society’s scope for action will expand. The contrary is the case, visible also in the setting of international climate politics.

David vs Goliath

Economic lobby groups command a greater deal of negotiating power. They are successful in moulding their economic power into political power. They deploy billions in order to sway political decisions against increased climate protection and against a socially and ecologically sustainable agriculture. Even if David wins some battles, the greater power resources are controlled by Goliath.

The WBGU itself has listed the powers that preclude transformation in many surveys. However, the new report ignores these facts and instead depicts a world in which the mutual appreciation of all players results in positive and complementary solutions for the benefit of all, without requiring much effort. However, the "major transformation", the new social contract that the WBGU (2011) rightly propagates, will not exist without conflict (see also Brunnengräber 2015). In terms of the political discourse, society/-ies would benefit from the WBGU preparing them for this conflict. A win-win situation is ideal – but it is an illusion to think there would only be winners in the process of solving all problems.

And there is another fact the WBGU turns a blind eye to: The citizens of the world, which it refers to, are almost entirely from the wealthy North (see also Brunnengräber 2014 and Bauriedl 2015). The climate justice movements, the movements in the South that defend their social and ecological livelihoods and territories, do not make an appearance as noteworthy players in the WBGU’s multi-level governance and its model of modular multilateralism.

Increasing Pressure on Civil Society

An unsettling trend has been developing since the 2000s. We are experiencing an increase in legal, bureaucratic and taxation chicanery in various countries, which severely limit the activity of civil society. Those who campaign for the preservation of their livelihoods and their local resources or protest against the exploitation of raw materials have been increasingly targeted by state and private powers. This is documented on a regular basis by human rights organisations, by people on the ground at social or political demonstrations and by Maina Kiai, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. The WBGU special report is rendered incomplete by the omission of this alarming development. Local NGOs, as well as foreign organisations and foundations which support local partners in their social and ecological struggles are intimidated and their work is restricted. NGOs and critical minds who cooperate with foreign organisations or foundations face being branded the ‘extended arm’ of foreign countries or ‘foreign agents’. Any kind of constriction seems permissible: activists are arrested, cash accounts are frozen, threats are made, licences are voided, websites are blocked, registration systems and surveillance are enforced and offices are shut down. Internal security and the battle against terrorism are used as pretences for silencing or banning democratic organisations in many countries – a general suspicion used to justify oppressive measures.

Democratic or partially democratic countries also experience a multitude of legal, administrative and repressive measures implemented by their governments. Social movements and NGOs that put up a fight against large-scale projects such as the exploitation of coal, oil or gas resources and infrastructure and investment projects (e.g. pipelines, land grabbing) are targeted in particular. Environmental activists as part of civil society are not only under pressure in countries like China, Russia, India, Ethiopia, Turkey or Cambodia. In every instance where control of strategic access to natural resources and their exploitation is relevant – ranging from coal, oil and gas to water, woodlands, land, biodiversity and genetic resources – those in positions of power utilize strategies to secure that power and the survival of their respective business model.

In a report dated 10th June 2015, Maina Kiai ascertains:

“Increased demand for resources has resulted in the opening up of more areas for exploration and exploitation, especially in populated areas, leading to conflict between competing interests. By some accounts, between 93 and 99 per cent of 73 000 mining, logging, agriculture, oil and gas concessions in eight tropical forested countries were inhabited. The same sources indicate that, for example, up to 40 per cent of the territory of Peru has been handed over by the Government to private for-profit entities to exploit natural resources and that in Liberia and in Indonesia 35 and 30 percent, respectively, of the land is in the hands of the private sec-tor for exploitation operations. The existence of widespread social conflict associated with natural resource exploitation is therefore not surprising. For example, in Peru, the Ombudsman’s Office documented 211 social conflicts in the month of February 2015, 66 percent of which were related to natural resource exploitation. In Colombia, the Ombudsman’s Office participated in 218 dialogues between mining companies, protestors and the Government".

Apart from human rights violations in developing countries, Maina Kiai – in relation to natural resources – also describes such violations in Canada and Australia.

Cases of homicides targeting activists (especially at a local level) are on the rise. According to British NGO Global Witness, the number of murdered environmental activists increases steadily. Worldwide, 116 victims were counted in 2014, which equates to two deaths each week. The most dangerous country for environmental activists is Honduras with 101 murders between 2010 and 2014. And that is merely the number of documented incidents. The number of unreported cases is estimated to be considerably higher as these homicides typically take place in isolated areas. Those who question power and control, reveal corruption and injustice and oppose voluntary initiatives by the industry, and instead disclose their political influence and attempt to limit it, are targeted.

Political and economic interests go hand in hand – the fear of losing power is accordingly potent. Demonstrations against land seizures and large-scale projects are not welcome in such an environment.

Globally, more than 50 laws substantially confine civil society’s scope of action. Their number, as well as their severity, increases continually. Northern NGOs, foundations and think tanks have yet to present answers to this development. Joint political action is a high priority in this setting. Without democratic space for action, without basic rights and constitutional processes, socio-ecological transformation and an adjustment to climate change in the South, East and West will fall by the wayside. It is the WBGU’s duty to deal with this concerning development and to publically and politically advocate the preservation of democratic space for intervention and transformative change.

Climate Negotiations: Who is in, Who is excluded?

The WBGU declares its support for stronger participation rights in discussion and deliberating processes within the framework of the UNFCCC process, without analyzing the political environments for civil society in the respective countries. It even propagates the right to file action if responsibilities are not met by governments, without clarifying who would be in a position to legitimately exert such a political right. According to the WBGU, the “World Citizen Movement”, represented by recognized NGOs, is to become the subject of international law. The enhancement of rights for NGOs, the application of the Aarhus Convention to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its protocols – at first sight, that sounds like a positive development. And yet, a healthy dose of skepticism is advisable.

First of all: In view of the aforementioned severe limitations of rights through national governments, how are the rights and competencies of civil society at multilateral level to be strengthened all of a sudden? In addition, it is unclear how political legitimacy is to be distributed to those who will then go on to assume the roles of representatives for civil society, for the global movement, in multilateral advisory boards. Which NGO can claim to speak for the citizens of the world? The NGO with the most donors, most members, greatest range of media and other resources? How will political decisions be prepared for and organized? Who will be granted the right to negotiate for certain positions or to vote?

These questions of legitimacy and “self-nomination” of those who are involved in negotiations or agreements with governments or supranational organizations have long been a contested subject between professional NGOs and particularly between NGOs and social movements. Who is in, who is excluded? Who has the right to negotiate what in whose name? Climate politics and transformational politics are concerned specifically with the issue of which interests and positions receive the upper hand and power, and which ones are denied these benefits.

The political reality is that so-called multi-stakeholder rounds with (large) NGOs typically result in the establishment of voluntary rules, such as the “sustainable” use of agrofuels. That leads to the legitimization of policies which lack accountability and the feedback of those impacted and their democratically legitimate stakeholders. There are numerous examples that demonstrate how these processes weaken local resistance (e.g. resistance to deforestation). This results in the marginalization of civil society and the depoliticization of negotiations which are then led with merely “compromise solutions” in mind. The fact that civil society is not wound up in political constraints can be interpreted as a strength. Precisely the climate negotiations attest to how some NGO representatives give in to the restraints of global negotiations, lose their ties with their grass-roots and have let themselves become the protagonists of policies and instruments which were rejected by other protagonists of civil society for good reasons (emissions trading, CDM, REDD+ etc.).

The shared interests of many stakeholders in economy, politics and society – to maintain the 2° C climate target, to decarbonize and to prioritize renewable energies - fail to conceal that there are fundamental controversies regarding the paths through which these goals are to be achieved. How much state? How much market? Which climate political instruments? Which technologies and innovations? How much justice and democracy? These are contested questions, the enforcement of which are determined by negotiating power and mobilizing vigor. It is of no help that the WBGU masks these differentiations and even names specific NGOs which it believes to be particularly suited to guide or even control negotiations.

Brunnengräber and Bauriedl share a valid point: Literature on the subject is brimmed with differentiations and typologies, in an attempt to do justice to the multitude and heterogeneity of interests and forms of actions pursued by protagonists in civil society and in order to not homogenise and thereby elevate them to “saviours of the world”. For instance, social movements and professional NGOs have distinctly different roles to play. Representative for the plurality of differentiation and classification attempts is the following comment:

"They (activists, editorial comment) are typically members of social movements that are loosely organized and that use collective or joint action. They have change-oriented goals and their methods are extra-institutional and may involve confrontation with powerholders. NGOs, by contract, are typically more established organizations, often registered with governments. While NGOs play important civil society functions, an excessive focus on professionalized NGOs, which have lost touch with their constituencies (…) means missing the mark" (Stephan und Mazursky 2015).

Who is to approve the "climate procurators" from civil society (WBGU 2014, p.55)? The special report delivers no answers in this respect. I, for one, see no democratically justifiable mechanisms within civil society which could be capable of generating such approval and legitimacy. Civil society is too manifold, too heterogeneous, and too diverse in its positions and choices of actions. Furthermore, if governments are to decide which NGOs should represent the “World Citizen Movement” in the advisory boards of the UNFCCC process, all independence and with it the expected procurator role is diminished. Professional NGOs are oftentimes exploited by national governments. This results in a situation where they act similar to governmental institutions when dealing with political and economic constraints and where they can no longer fulfil their roles as watchdogs and counter-public. Co-opted representatives of NGOs already populate international processes. A larger number of them would not yield any benefit. An honest analysis demands the acknowledgement that protagonists in civil society across the world have made certain arrangements with their governments. Many NGOs replace or support social, humanitarian and environmental services offered by the state and their survival depends on either a government-fed drip or on the contributions from private sponsors.

Which Way Forward?

The aim of this paper was to portray a more realistic and differentiated view of the role and the political meaning of civil society. The idea of a “global civil society” has made way to a heterogeneous, at times fragmented landscape of protagonists in civil society who pursue different interests, goals and forms of action. In addition, we are now faced with political realities worldwide which severely restrict elementary human rights such as the freedom of assembly and freedom of opinion, thereby limiting political interventions and participation by civil society, NGOs and social movements, as well as criminalising protagonists from civil society.

Thus, it is a political task of utmost priority to preserve the scope of action for democratic civil societies and to fight for their establishment where needed. That is the most urgent requirement for ambitious climate and transformation politics. The diversity of those dedicated to improved climate protection and justice will become apparent during the upcoming climate change negotiations in Paris. Through demonstrations, through campaigns, through counter-conventions and events with representatives from the world of professional NGOs who will utilize their chances to observe, influence and comment on the negotiations in the media. These complementary strengths form an important strategic duty and resource of a civil society that has established an extensive network and, of course, has gathered experience in operating at a local and a global level. The fact that civil society requires guaranteed human rights and democracy, as well as a functional general public, that, too, will hopefully be demonstrated in Paris.

This paper was originally published in GAIA magazine (24/3), in reaction to the articles on climate protection as a world citizen movement written by A.Brunnengräber (2014), C. Leggewie et al. (2015), S. Bauriedl (2015) and published in the same issue.


Translated from the German by Christine Kollmar