Monday, December 3, 2012

On the role of civil society in the U.N. process

There is a long history that frames the philosophy and roles of civil society.  Wikipedia provides a relatively simple definition “Civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests.”[1] Within the realm of environmental issues, civil society became highly engaged during the 1992 Earth Summit and has been particularly involved in international dialog and negotiations related to climate change.  This involvement has been supported by the United Nations.  Speaking at the World Economic Forum in 2009, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that: 

Our times demand a new definition of leadership-global leadership.  They demand a new constellation of international cooperation—governments, civil society and the private sector, working together for a collective global good.[2]

According to United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) website, “Article 7, paragraph 6, of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change provides for the admission of non-governmental organizations to sessions of the members of the global community, operating through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can serve as consultants to Parties involved in formal negotiations.”[3]  Member NGOs are strong advocates for specific positions.  In some cases, this might be to ensure social justice or human rights; for others, it might be to protect biodiversity or the environment at large.  Business and trade organizations are likely advocating issues that are in their best (economic) interests. 

Ultimately, the common interest of all civil society working within the UNFCCC is to understand fully climate change impacts, both globally and regionally, and to both find ways to sustain our planet, the human population, and development with fair and equitable international environmental policy.  There is, however, no consensus as to how to achieve these goals.

In 2009 when Moravian College was officially granted observer status within the UNFCCC process, we needed to define our role within civil society and clarify our goals for participation.  Educational institutions, of course, have different missions than organizations like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and, which are providing strong voices and agendas within the large group of environmental NGOs working on climate change.  As an institution, we are not promoting specific technologies like carbon capture and sequestration or biofuels.  We do believe, however, that the public, and especially our students, should understand the wide array of challenges associated with climate change and be aware of the potential solutions and conflicting ideas on how to develop policy related to climate change at the local to international levels.  To this end, we believe that there are several important roles that we can and do play:

  • We serve to educate the campus and broader community on what we believe to be one of the most critical challenges facing the planet and humanity.  By attending the COP meetings each year, we can report first-hand on the issues being negotiated and on those being discussed in educational panels (side events) and in the hallways.  The U.S. media doesn’t cover these meetings to any great extent, and when it does, it often focuses on the controversies and economic issues rather than the science and social impact.  Judging by the number of daily hits on our blog, someone is apparently paying attention to what we report.   I was particularly surprised to receive an email during week 1 of COP18 from Paul Brown, a newscaster for NPR, indicating that he had seen the blog and wanted to conduct an interview.  We had a half-hour interview that resulted in short segments that aired five times during the top-of-the-hour news during All Things Considered and Morning Edition.  I also noticed on Facebook that some interesting groups like the Raising Elijah (Sandra Steingraber) and Occupy Climate Change pages provided links to certain posts.  Thus, the audience for our messages and perspectives expanded significantly this year. 
  • At the COP meetings, we collect and provide up-to-date and unique materials for class discussions and student research about climate change science and the international policy negotiations process and draft agreements.  This is not only for the students in environmentally-themed courses, but available for others who are interested.  Given that there are only 5 liberal arts colleges accredited as UNFCCC observers, and only 3 of these that regularly attend the COP meetings, our students have an extraordinarily unique exposure to the data and process – either by attending the meetings as part of the college delegation or by taking advantage of the resources we are compiling.  Testimonies from students who have attended a COP meeting attest to the strong impact the experience has on their worldviews and the career paths.
  • Attending the COP meetings and paying attention to the vast array of reports and official documents is a form of professional development.  Much of my research has direct ties to climate change.  I serve on a state climate change adaptation steering committee and routinely bring information to that group that I learn about adaptation at the international meetings.  Also, as mentioned in an earlier post, I now serve on the RINGOs steering committee that facilitates the activities of the constituency group for Research and Independent NGOs.
RINGO members don’t advocate for any specific agenda item, other than to promote a strong linkage between current and relevant research to policy (and policymakers) and to offer our expertise to groups within the UNFCCC process.  At COP18, an unexpected role for our group arose that aligns well with the goals that I outlined above.  But first, some background.

Earlier in week 1, I attended a side event organized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in which they discussed their most recent Special Report entitled Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX).[4]  The report had 220 content expert authors from 62 countries, and 18611 reviewers were enlisted to affirm the research findings and recommendations for disaster preparedness and risk reduction.  At Moravian, we already have used this report in discussions in our Climate Crises course.  Residents of the east coast of the U.S. experienced first-hand some of the predictions of the report when Hurricane Sandy hit at the end of October. 

Panelists noted that this IPCC report was the first to go beyond including the work of experts on climate science and risk assessment, to also involve those who work in the fields of disaster preparedness and risk reduction.  This provides a stark reminder that mitigation of contributing factors to climate change is no longer sufficient; we must also adapt to the impacts of climate change.  This includes finding ways to minimize loss and damage from extreme weather events.  It is sobering to think that the foremost authority on climate change science, the IPCC, has come to this conclusion.  A series of recent examples of extreme weather events around the world were presented during the session to show a) what conditions and risks, besides climate change, led to extreme loss of life or property damage, and what no-regrets, low cost strategies could have been in place to minimize the losses.  Case studies included the European heat wave of 2003, flash floods in Nairobi, the floods in Pakistan and Thailand, and sea level rise in tropical small island developing states. 

Of particular note to those of us in the U.S., were several comments about the excellent tracking/early warning system that we have in this country.  In the case of Hurricane Sandy, meteorologists were able to predict the specific path and severity of the storm with amazing accuracy – a full week before the storm hit.  This did not stop this record-breaking storm from hitting the east coast, but it did provide ample warning for planning and decision-making with respect to evacuations and other precautionary measures (although it doesn’t ensure that people will heed the warnings).  Such technology and warning systems are not available in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries.  While not climate-related, the 2010 Sumatra earthquake and resulting tsunami provides a good example of the extreme loss of life that can occur when warning systems are not in place. 

During the discussion period between the panelists and the audience, requests were made over and over again to have the detailed technical reports of the IPCC (like the SREX and their Assessment Reports, such as the 2007 AR4[5]) to be “translated” into a form that is accessible (understandable and concise) to various end users from farmers to community leaders to Parties involved in the international negotiations.  Most people won’t take the time or effort to digest the details in a lengthy report (even the shorter Summaries for Policymakers and Synthesis Reports that the IPCC produces).  Typically, the regional relevance of the findings and recommendations need to be condensed into concise talking points without technical jargon.  In other words, the vast amount of research information has to be converted to case studies that have practical use for those “on the ground.”  Availability of information in formats that are easily understandable and regionally relevant can help to increase public awareness of climate change risk, and perhaps increase public pressure on policymakers to move more urgently in their decision making.                                                       

During a subsequent briefing session with the UNFCCC Executive Secretariat, I mentioned this articulated need and asked for her thoughts on how civil society, and especially members of RINGOs, might be of assistance.  She confirmed the need and was supportive of RINGOs getting involved, but didn’t offer specific suggestions as to how.  However, at the end of the session, both the IPCC secretary and communications director came over to discuss with me some possibilities of working with members of RINGOs (the importance of asking questions when a large and diverse audience is in the room).  Fortunately, 3 other members were there to join in conversation, and we brainstormed some possibilities.  A meeting for the second week of the COP was arranged, but unfortunately, I will be back in states.  However, this will set into motion some important work for our group. 

A major goal of RINGOs is to better link science to policy; networking and making science and technical information “accessible” are interesting avenues to help achieve this goal and are consistent with the reasons that Moravian College is involved in the UNFCCC process.

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