More democratic legitimacy through civil society involvement in the UNFCCC negotiations?

This post is co-authored with Robert Gampfer.

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International climate negotiations have become almost unimaginable without the participation of civil society organizations (CSOs). In 2011, 1490 organizations were accredited as observers; most of which were environmental groups, research institutions, and business associations (see the UNFCCC page on civil society participation). Moreover, 70% of national delegations to the COPs (2011) included CSO representatives among their members.

One of the main advantages of civil society involvement is ostensibly that it improves the democratic legitimacy of global climate governance, as both activists working in these organizations and political scientists agree. Legitimacy is often thought to be low since negotiations occur on an intergovernmental level far away from most citizens, despite the potentially large consequences a global climate agreement has for individuals through its implementation in domestic energy policies, carbon taxes, etc.

Civil society involvement can improve legitimacy by affecting both the process and the outcome of negotiations. First, CSOs can increase transparency of the process thus providing citizens with better information to hold their governments accountable (e.g. through elections) for their international policy. Second, CSOs may create a more balanced representation of society’s various interests regarding climate change. And third, CSOs often have expert knowledge on environmental issues that can help achieve outcomes potentially more effective in addressing global warming.

However, the question remains whether individual citizens actually agree with this account and perceive climate governance as more legitimate if civil society is involved. After all, CSOs might simply advance narrowly-defined special interests instead of improving overall representation. Furthermore, having a multitude of different organizations, in addition to governments, at the table could hamper and impede agreement on an effective climate treaty. Even though the behavior and influence of CSOs in the UNFCCC negotiations has been examined by many scientific studies (Bernauer and Betzold 2012, Schroeder et al. 2012), their effect on legitimacy has not been investigated. We have conducted several survey experiments with a large international participant sample via Amazon Mechanical Turk to answer this question (Bernauer and Gampfer 2013). The main results are summarized below.

In a first experiment, we asked participants which organizations they would include in their national delegation to the next COP. They had to pick representatives from a diverse pool of government agencies and CSOs. Most participants included government and CSO representatives more or less evenly (two or three each in a five-post delegation). Interestingly, there was no difference between treatment groups primed either with information that negotiations should be transparent and representative, that they should yield an effective outcome, or with no information at all. This suggests that individuals think civil society should be involved in global climate governance, but not necessarily because of reasons of transparency, representation, or effectiveness.

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