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Views from Abroad: New Heights of Access for Civil Society at COP21

Views from Abroad: New Heights of Access for Civil Society at COP21

12341608_10207394049628030_523511845179090352_n By Mae Bowen

For two weeks in December 2015, Emory University sent nine undergraduate students and two professors to observe the historic United Nations climate change negotiations (COP21) in Paris, France. I was lucky enough to be one of those students. Emory was granted official observer status to COP21, which means that not only were we in Paris during the talks, but we had a level of access to the talks which few could claim. With an observer badge, we could sit in on the negotiations themselves, as well as rub elbows with country representatives, UN programme professionals, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon himself. Outside of working for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which took care of the logistics for COP21, or being an official negotiator for a country, observer status granted me the most access possible to these historic talks.

As an official observer to COP21, I experienced a lot more than the policy negotiations. COP21 was one for the record books, as nearly 40,000 people flooded into Paris, France to participate in official events, and tens of thousands more came to stand on the sidelines of history. This conference saw increased action from civil society and activists as well as unprecedented access for the general public and official observers.

You can read more about the Paris Agreement document and its implications here.

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Unprecedented Access

As an official observer delegate to COP21, I can attest to the unprecedented openness of this latest international conference. While it may seem silly to call a process where delegates confer in closed rooms through the night transparent, we only need to look at past conferences to see the improvements. At COP21, observer delegates like myself were given their own liaison to the Parties, COP20 President Manuel Pulgar-Vidal. Our liaison regularly met with us to hear our questions and concerns, which he would then present before the Party delegations, or representatives from each of the 195 signatories to the Paris Agreement. He would also clarify the language being debated by those representatives and answer our inquiries about the process of coming to an agreement. Thus, Pulgar-Vidal, and the UNFCCC in appointing him as a liaison to observers, made strides toward making the Paris Agreement process even more accessible.

COP21 also included a Climate Generations space, a complex adjacent to the conference center where side-events and exhibits were completely open to the public. For example, visitors could visits booths staffed by representatives from environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, or they could check out a talk by activists like Bill McKibben. These initiatives, as well as speedy availability of the latest drafts of the documents online, contributed to the most transparent COP in history.

Many improvements still could have been made to the transparency of this process, including providing more observer badges specifically to youth, locating the conference more centrally in the city, and allowing observers and civil society to speak to the plenary. These ideas and more were raised at COP21, and I have no doubt that civil society and the UNFCCC will continue to work toward a more transparent process for all.

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Civil Society and Protests

Many environmental groups and activists came to Paris prepared to raise their voices and do everything they could to make the politicians drafting this deal consider a wide range of issues, many of which one wouldn’t immediately associate with climate change. Despite the nationwide State of Emergency in Paris and the subsequent ban on mass gatherings, the climate justice movement in all its variations showed up in a major way.

The climate justice movement connects climate change to social justice issues, including racial and economic inequality, to underscore how the impacts of climate change affect the most vulnerable among us and perpetuate inequalities. Racial minorities, those living below the poverty line, and indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by the results of climate change, including flooding, drought, heat waves, and other extreme weather events, while they have contributed the least to the causes of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions.

Two major demands of the climate justice movement at COP21 were a more ambitious temperature target and inclusion of protections of the rights of indigenous peoples in the document. In regards to temperature, activists coined the phrase “1.5 to Stay Alive,” to illustrate that any temperature increase above 1.5˚C, including the previously agreed-upon target of 2˚C, would cause irreparable harm to low lying island nations and other groups most vulnerable to climate change. Inside of the conference center, the 1.5˚C goal gained traction when pursued by many developing and island nations. Soon the United States and most countries in the European Union had also put their support behind a more ambitious temperature goal. In the end, 1.5˚C made it into the document, making for a slightly more ambitious Agreement than expected and attributing a victory to climate justice advocates.

However, the push for inclusion of the rights of indigenous peoples was not as successful, despite similar levels of effort from activists. While the rights of indigenous peoples are mentioned in the preamble of the document, they are not specifically mentioned elsewhere, making the statement merely symbolic rather than legally binding.

Despite the disappointment of indigenous groups, the success of the 1.5˚C movement in particular has shown the strength of the climate justice movement and the ability of activists and individuals across the globe to influence global politics. Many of the failures of the Paris Agreement can be attributed to failures in politics, but perhaps the climate justice movement and the energy it has given to activists around the world can help us push for improvements to the document and changes outside the political sphere in the years to come.

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A More Transparent Future?

The level of access for members of the public and official observers to COP21 was truly unprecedented. I believe this transformation will only continue in the future, as the role of transparency and participation in governance increases in importance. In today’s interconnected and globalized world, governments and international organizations cannot afford to ignore the citizens of the world. There will continue to be challenges and imperfections, but if activists continue to push for this kind of access, civil society and affected people will have an even greater voice in these negotiations moving forward.

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