People power critical for tackling climate change

As understanding of the severity of climate change rises, it’s increasingly clear that a negotiated global agreement on climate change is not enough – civil society has a central role to play too.

Hannah Reid's picture
Insight by 
Hannah Reid
26 November 2012
Protestors march during UN Climate Talks in Copenhagen.

Protestors marching during the UN Climate Talks in Copenhagen. The mobilization of civil society in the South around this time was an unexpected positive outcome of the UN process. Photo: Friends of the Earth International

Doha is hot and dusty. People here drive large cars and look at me strangely when I walk from one place to another – “get back inside to the air-conditioning” they tell me. This country’s economy is utterly dependent on oil: little else could sprout out of this barren land. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that Qatar has the highest per capita carbon emissions of any country. The irony of holding the December 2012 UN climate change negotiations here is not lost on me. And yet, any work on climate change in Qatar is a far cry from preaching to the converted. If we want to secure strong action on climate change, maybe Qatar is not such a bad place to work.

Hopes for the negotiations in Doha

Of course the main reason for the convergence of  thousands of people from hundreds of countries to Qatar at this time is the on-going negotiations which are about the start in earnest in the depths of the Qatar National Convention Centre. The hope is that steps will be made here towards reaching a global agreement that can shift us off our current inexorable trajectory towards unprecedented global warming.

But there is also a parallel process going on here at the same time. Academic institutions are running special climate change seminars, national media stories about climate change issues have proliferated in recent weeks, and conference busses and posters fill the city. As understanding of the severity of the problem rises, it’s increasingly clear that a negotiated global agreement on climate change is not enough, and negotiators are not the only people who can provide solutions to the climate change problem. Action at regional, national and local levels to tackle climate change is also key – and civil society has a leading role in bringing about change.

Civil society mobilisation after Copenhagen

For many, the UN negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 were a huge disappointment in that no global agreement was reached to follow up on the Kyoto Protocol. But the mobilization of civil society in the South around this time was perhaps an under-rated and unexpected positive outcome of the UN process. Since Copenhagen, a number of civil society networks that operate at national and regional levels have emerged in the South.

Some are new, such as the Civil Society Network on Climate Change (CISONECC) in Malawi, which was formally established in 2009. But others, such as Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA), established in 1991, existed before Copenhagen, but grew stronger around this time. These networks are increasingly well connected at home – either in their respective countries or at a regional level – and many are well organised, vocal and have been able to shift government policy, raise awareness amongst civil society at large, and importantly, make the connection between climate change and local level development issues. Several have facilitated important links between government policy making and practice, people suffering from the impacts of climate change on the ground, and international climate change policy and negotiations. Some of the advocacy activities conducted by these networks are captured in this report.

Many of these networks are blessed with the energy, creativity, determination and ability to achieve impressive results with very limited resources. Despite this, they face several challenges. Some lack the resources even to meet regularly enough for member organisations to stay in touch. Climate change is still a low (but ever increasing) priority in poor nations, and some governments resist change or don’t wish to work with civil society. Network members are often local or national development organisations focused on service delivery and implementation, so a transition into climate change advocacy does not come naturally to them. Many networks are also initiating advocacy activities without knowing about the successes and challenges faced by networks in other countries or regions conducting similar activities.

Sharing learning between Southern networks

Many networks are tackling common issues, such as how to advocate for a national policy or strategy on climate change, how to establish a National Implementing Entity that can access funding from the Adaptation Fund [PDF], or how to influence national Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) policies to ensure they account for the needs of poor forest communities. Many also want guidance on issues such as how to write a good policy brief to influence national decision-makers, or how to work more effectively with the media, for example by doing a good radio or television interview or training journalists to report on climate change better.

The Southern Voices Programme has been one of several sources of support for a number of national, regional and thematic climate change networks operating in the South. With the first phase of the Programme now over, planning for the second phase is underway. While the Programme will continue supporting networks with their own planned advocacy activities, it will also focus more on sharing  advocacy and awareness-raising lessons between networks. This will help provide the networks with new ideas for advocacy initiatives and strategies, and help them plan and implement existing advocacy activities better.

Next steps

Here in Doha before the formal negotiations kick-off, a workshop is bringing together members of roughly 30 Southern networks to provide them with training on advocacy techniques and issues for three days. As part of this process, they will share case studies that might be replicable in different countries or regions. For example, national networks have come together in Central America under the Central America United for Life forum to raise awareness about common regional vulnerabilities and push for a more united negotiating position for countries in the region at the UNFCCC. And an NGO coalition in Zimbabwe has successfully advocated for a new national climate change strategy.

Later on, Southern Voices will support regional meetings in Asia, West Africa, Latin America and East/Southern Africa, where networks operating in each region can come together and share experiences on advocacy more widely. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) will also be leading the production of a ‘toolbox’ on climate change advocacy. This will provide practical guidance and case study experience to help networks with some of the common advocacy and awareness raising activities they are involved with. Raw material for the toolbox will come from network partners (and beyond if necessary) and ‘tools’ will be selected and prioritised by networks themselves to ensure they are relevant, timely and produced in response to actual needs. Examples might include guidance on how to set up a new national climate change network, how to enhance communication between network partners, especially when they are based in different countries and speak different languages, or how to track national budgetary allocations for, and expenditure on, climate change issues.

Tackling climate change requires action on many levels. The UN negotiations are one, and coordinated action by civil society is another. The point is that we need action on multiple levels if we are to avoid the “4°C world” that a recent World Bank report [PDF]  reminds us is “what scientists are nearly unanimously predicting by the end of the century” and which will lead to a scenario that is so devastating and so “different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs.” Together we need to fight for a different future. While there is still time.