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With climate diplomacy on hold, how will movements respond?


Amidst widespread disappointment at the failed COP25 negotiations in Madrid last year, the decision to postpone COP26 presents a strategic and moral quandary to climate justice movements around the world. While everyone understands that the postponement from November 2020 to November 2021 was necessary to ensure the health and safety of all participants, concerns have been raised that it might be used to further delay badly needed global climate action. As more countries turn inward in the face of the pandemic, international collaboration and coordination among nations runs the risk of losing urgency and relevance in the near-term.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recently implemented a new online format, “June Momentum which was held over the past two weeks, when the 2020 Intersessionals or mid-year technical negotiations were originally scheduled to take place. However, virtual meetings do not offer the proper structure to be turned into real negotiations. They also limit the level of participation, especially for delegates from developing countries, civil society observers and their advocacy needs. Negotiators are not approachable in the hallways of the Bonn World Conference Center, time zone differences limit the time, people from far away origins can attend etc. The UNFCCC’s attempt can of course be appreciated, as it displays the willingness of parties to keep the multilateral climate agenda alive, but on the other hand, the climate crisis does not pause, and calls for real climate-just changes to national and international economic, financial, and trade systems. In that sense, the nice talk heard at June Momentum is very far away from what real climate action would have to deliver. Governments back home will then again prefer to look at providing stimulus packages for domestic economic actors who regard the urgent call for climate action as overrated.

Yet the global health crisis is making clear that international cooperation is now more important than ever. Tackling climate change cannot be side-lined, particularly as it compounds historical and existing inequalities that make marginalized people more vulnerable to diseases such as COVID-19.

Last year also showed that the street presence of climate movements such as Fridays for Future managed to effect a real shift in public discourse. It became clear that humanity is facing a global justice crisis, which most officials felt compelled to at least acknowledge and concede the need for a serious response. Without being able to meet, march on the streets, organize protests, etc., the question arises as to how this momentum can be kept alive throughout 2020 until 2021, when COP26 will take place.

In light of this challenge, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung held online conversations with leading civil-society organizations such as Action Aid, the Center for Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED, Philippines), Gender CC—Women for Climate Justice (Germany), Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Interfaith Earth Day, and LIFE Education Sustainability Equality (Germany) about what the postponement means for international climate policy, the climate justice movement, and the climate crisis.

First, we sought to understand how movements and organizations have reacted to the postponement of COP26 and how they plan to organize protest and mobilization in 2020.

There is overarching agreement among all organizations that immediate and thorough responses to the COVID-19 crisis deserve absolute priority over all other activities, and that the decision to postpone the COP26 is therefore understandable and welcomed. As a representative from Gender CC and LIFE put it, “We see the postponement of the next international climate conference—COP26, planned to happen in the UK in November 2020 and now shifted to November 2021—as a careful and necessary action to avoid further mass spread of the coronavirus.”

But aside from immediate responses to secure the health and wellbeing of their staff members by shutting down offices and enabling work from home, all organizations reported a shift to online formats. In-person meetings were replaced by online group calls, but online protests are also on the agenda. Online seminars and trainings are being held more often. Naderev Sano from Greenpeace international told us that “organizing will be mostly online, and it has proven to be massively effective”, but also emphasized that “mobilization and organizing under current circumstances will require the most creative and innovative means to reach out to each other within the movement, to the public, and to the decision-makers.”

In addition, almost all organizations report that they plan to use the current crisis to press for stronger and more immediate actions towards climate justice. Teresa from Action Aid comments, “Many of our offices are integrating COVID-19 considerations into their pre-existing work on climate (and agriculture, humanitarian response, public services, women’s rights, etc). The strategy for 2020 will focus largely on linking COVID policy opportunities to climate action, and ensuring that funds and actions contribute to climate policies such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), National Action Plans (NAPs), and strengthening climate resilience. We have also put out media messages that COVID cannot be used as a distraction from climate action.” A similar statement was given by GenderCC and LIFE: “Last COP adopted an enhanced Lima work programme on gender including a gender action plan (GAP) with a five-year timeline. Even without face-to-face meetings, the GAP includes clear directions which actions have to be implemented on a local, national, and international level each year. National governments should stick to the plans, as promoting gender equality will not only lead to more effective climate action but will also help to combat the pandemic.”

Some organizations even see great potential in moving towards more online space-based working environments, especially in terms of the inclusion, representation, and participation of those otherwise often excluded. Online access, which does not necessarily mean accessibility for all, can nevertheless be an opportunity for organizations that are unable to fund expensive conferences abroad or fulfil international visa requirements. A representative from Greenpeace remarked that “the failures in addressing the coronavirus pandemic has been also characterized by the reluctance of governments to involve civil society in responding to the crisis. As such, any multilateral international negotiations that are removed from civil society participation will also fail, but it may very well be the turning point in UN history in terms of representation and participation.” At the same time, Gender CC is emphasizing the power of civil society, “ramping up virtual organizing and using this time of lockdowns to reach out to widest range of people in the movement.”

Some organization report that they are currently also focusing their work towards directly helping COVID-19-affected communities, either through direct work, staff volunteer time ,or by mobilizing funds. CEED from the Philippines initiated a donation drive where staff and partners can donate to registered NGOs that are helping support those who are most affected by the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the postponement of COP26 was also seen with a critical eye, and organizations continue to put out very concrete demands. Following the initial spike in cases worldwide, it became evident that governments are capable of reacting fast and with drastic measures when necessary. This is not to say that the responses to the COVID-19 crisis were always timely, but when compared to the climate crisis response over the past decade, it is apparent that much more can be done if there is political will. We must demand decisive action on climate change. As Greenpeace put it, “the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that the political system indeed has the ability to take drastic actions when necessary. The same should hold true for dealing with the climate emergency… this pandemic shows there are huge lessons to be learned about the importance of listening to science and the need for urgent collective global action.”

With the international climate negotiations moved to next year, we asked what that means for the climate work of organizations across the world.

In short: the climate crisis has not been put on pause, contrary to the flood of “good news” about falling emission rates. Similar to the 2008 financial crisis, polluting industries will most likely roar back to “business-as-usual” emissions as the world restarts the economy. Corporations will also demand a recouping of lost revenues over the last few months of lockdowns, doubling down on capitalistic activities anchored in fossil fuel-generated energy. Moreover, there is real concern that governments and corporations around the globe welcomed the media’s attention being focused on the coronavirus to distract from environmentally and socially destructive activities and push for their dirty agenda. Greenpeace again: “Civil society must build solidarity like never before, set aside all differences, and create the most united front calling for a just recovery – putting people and planet front and centre against all these efforts to return to the ‘old normal’.” But where should civil society focus its energies? According to Action Aid, “the toughest part is climate finance, as contributor countries will be using their funds to revive their own economies, or for COVID-focused aid. This will put pressure on climate finance, while at the same time the COVID response shows that if there is a political will, trillions of dollars can be mobilized in no time.”

Finally, we wanted to better understand how civil society can develop concrete strategies for international climate work in light of the new dimensions of COVID-19.

The spread of COVID-19 worldwide has shown the rapidity of globalization. It has also shown that those already vulnerable to the effects of climate change are the same groups most vulnerable to COVID-19. It highlights that climate justice work is now more relevant than ever.

As for the UNFCCC’s work, respondents see great potential to push for climate justice by arguing that the pandemic response was swift and that scientific backup was and still is crucial to fighting the crisis. Both are strong arguments that hold true for fighting the climate crisis. A representative from CEED remarked that, “although the government will focus attention on fighting the pandemic, one of civil society’s roles is to emphasize the interconnections between the pandemic and the climate emergency and to put forward solutions that would address both global crises.” There is also a chance for a kind of global shift the likes of which we have never seen—some call this an evolutionary leap that opens space for fundamental just transition concepts. In could even be inclusive and relevant around the world for sectors and communities which were left out of the climate discussions over the decades. ActionAid told us they “plan to bring COVID lessons into our climate advocacy, including on Loss & Damage, migration, agriculture and resilience.” The analysis of the crisis has to be more fundamental. Greenpeace remarked that “what we need to focus on right now is how we confront the root causes, including market fundamentalism, of injustice, of the ecological crisis. People power, community, solidarity, compassion are key to overcoming the coronavirus crisis, and this should be the same model for future leadership and for averting the climate emergency.”

It is now up to civil society whether they will be able to use that space efficiently when calling for a just transition. After all, while the crisis opens up some new spaces, others are also being closed—such as June Momentum itself. Recent experience teaches us that the climate justice movement must occupy as many of these spaces as possible if our demands are to receive a proper hearing, let alone the corresponding policy response.