Monday, 14 December 2009

Restricted Access – to Planet Earth

The United Nations Climate Secretariat has acted on its threat – access to the Copenhagen climate summit will be restricted starting tomorrow. Observer organizations, such as mine, the University of Oxford, will be restricted in terms of how many participants can be allowed into the conference centre for the rest of the week. Forty thousand officially registered participants are being limited to a group of fifteen thousand participants who will actually be allowed access to the site of the historic climate negotiations. That means that many of the observer organizations can only bring in less than half of their delegates. The rest are to enjoy the day in Copenhagen city.

The UNFCCC secretariat has always prided itself in providing for a very public and transparent process. Many of the negotiations can be followed online in real time and all official documents are accessible to the public. The UN climate secretariat has over the years made an effort to save documents on accessible CDs, distribute brochures explaining the process and its mechanisms. This is the first time that observer organizations are told to stay outside of the process, at least partially, at a time when climate change is topping the agenda of so many diverse organizations across the globe.

The reasons are understandable. A conference centre can only hold so many bodies before provisions for personal health and security cannot be granted any longer. Nevertheless, this innovative move sends a clear, yet perhaps unintended message: Some people are in and some are left out.

Who is in, then? Of course, country delegations. After all, they are the ones negotiating any Copenhagen outcome. Or are they? It is up to each country to bring the people it deems important to have at a climate summit. Extremely poor countries receive UN support to bring at least one delegate. Does that mean all country delegates are at the negotiating table? Absolutely not. Brazil, for example, brings several hundreds of delegates, many of whom are NGO or industry representatives. All acting in the interest of Brazil, certainly, but many in this group would not dare to ask for a seat at the negotiations. I talked to representatives from the Brazilian sugar cane biofuel industry who came as part of the Brazilian delegation – they thought COP was like an early Christmas treat for them! So many potential customers in one building!

Country delegations can also include advisors who do not even carry a passport to the respective country. As long as the government approves, they are in. Also, the governments in Copenhagen are not always democratically elected carrying the views and interests of the majority of their country’s people at heart. Governments more interested in backing a military regime or the ones run by corporate interests are more than welcome to attend the summit. Even countries who have over the past 17 years made no effort to ratify even the UN Convention on climate change will be attending the summit – such as the Vatican as the country of the Holy Sea.

Who else is in? Intergovernmental organizations, such as the World Bank, and finally the registered observer organizations that now have been given restricted access. For the latter, the UN secretariat leaves it up to the focal point, the person in direct contact with the UN, to decide who can get in and who is left out. Now these organizations face difficult decisions. Do they allow the seasoned climate negotiation observer into the sacred halls of the conference, or the innovative newcomer with fresh ideas? Does the person on payroll get selected first or the one who put in the most personal effort to travel to Copenhagen?

Isn’t this matter a simile for our real struggles in climate change? On our planet in 2050, wrenched by the unpredictable climate change impacts that we can still prevent now, there will be people who are in and those who lose out. Like with the climate summit, it helps to have good contacts in government. That will help grant access to cherished resources, such as fresh water, or shelter from floods and storms. Like with the climate summit, it will be those in power who can decide who stays dry, fed, healthy and secure.

This year for the first time, issues of climate justice are being championed on the centre stage at the climate summit. Countries such as Tuvalu, the Maldives and Bangladesh are fed up of simply being set aside as the moral voice of the summit. They are angry and many people are angry with them. These countries are still at the summit, but will they also gain access to Planet Earth in a few decades?

Climate justice is not only an issue across countries but also within countries. An increasing number of people will be living in fuel poverty in many Western countries. People may need to turn down the heat because a warm home cannot be afforded any longer when fuel prices increase. Living space is reduced when houses are flooded that are not insured. Small businesses cannot afford climate change adaptation measures.

Will keeping (part of) civil society out of the confines of the negotiations be successful? Grassroots organizations hammering out a Peoples’ Declaration on Climate Change at the alternative Klimaforum in Copenhagen may decide to ignore the UN’s cutting back of civil society participation and take matters into their own hands. Only broad participation across and within countries will allow for a just and effective climate treaty to emerge.

Bettina BF Wittneben

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