As the decision makers continue negotiating to determine the fate of the planet, the residual effects of Paris attacks still hang over the city. Police armed with automatic guns fill the subways and streets, enforcing the state of emergency. France’s president, Francois Hollande, on the eve of the elections has gained a 50% popularity rating based on his reaction to the attacks. While it may be increasing security, it has limited the public’s capacity to have their concerns heard about a planetary crisis that itself causes insecurity. The state of emergency means that no more than two people can gather, which has shut down most of the public demonstrations planned, most notably the climate march that was scheduled for the opening of the conference. While a few events have been granted permission, their permits came through very late, making the technical components of organizing challenging.
While the police manage the voices on the streets, the voices of the civil society–the non-governmental organizations with opinions and expertise on climate change–have been quieted inside of the conference as well. Many youth and environmental organizations came to make the voice of their constituency known to global leaders, and yet any staged actions or holding of signs require a sanctioned permit or the person will lose their badge and forfeit their ability to attend the conference.
The climate talks in Copenhagen will always be remembered for the dramatic moment when thousands of members of civil society organizations (CSOs) were refused entry to the venue and shut out of all aspects of the negotiations. It is unlikely the French will risk such a scandal, and so rather than kick them out of the venue altogether, the civil society organizations are simply excluded from key negotiating rooms, leaving no one to bare witness and report on the process. Without witnesses, no one knows what sort of bullying, bargaining, or other shenanigans might ultimately affect the final deals.
But as more and more CSOs are banned from the talks, they have more and more time to organize actions, which cause a scurry of media as they rush in for the photo opp. But the events feel sanitized and stifled. The strict rules enforced by the UNFCCC activists prescribe that specific countries can’t be named, no country’s flag may be shown, and chanting isn’t allowed.
It begs the question: how can civil society influence these negotiations and perform the theatrics necessary to have an impact? “Civil society organizations play a crucial role in these talks in holding governments accountable and ensuring transparency,” says Lidy Nacpil, coordinator of the Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD) and co-coordinator of the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice. “The global climate justice movement–which gained huge momentum in the last eight year–serves as the moral and ethical compass of these negotiations.”
Two days into the conference, CSOs were excluded from the majority of negotiating rooms and spin-off sessions. Instead, activists have been targeting negotiators via Twitter to make their points of view known, but is that enough? “It is imperative that we are inside the room,” says, Chee Yoke Ling, director of the Third World Network. “Our exclusion by a handful of countries has transformed this from a transparent and inclusive process into ‘bad faith’ negotiations. Civil society provides critical support to the negotiators of many developing countries by providing technical assistance, background information, and on the ground information about how their work impacts the people. The rich and powerful try to bully, to divide and rule–they railroad fairness and justice in the process.”
Does it make a difference? Can these organizations possibly have an effect on national negotiating positions? “The act of activism challenges the notion that this is a place for elites to talk to each other and conduct policy through a removed process,” says Asad Rehman, head of International Climate at Friends of the Earth (England, Whales, Northern Ireland). “We are here on behalf of all of those people who can’t be here, and we bring the voices from the outside to the inside and show we have demands … and we have solutions.”