Climate Deal 2015

Why should we care about public participation in responses to climate change?

Public engagement with the COP

After the first week of COP20, the challenges of engaging the public in climate governance have become more and more noticeable. While the climate talks act as a platform for the world to decide on issues of critical importance, public participation in the actual decision making remains limited.

Outsiders to the COP will often talk about the process as solely an environmental one, ignoring that in reality countries are negotiating the base of their economy. Poor media coverage and the inherent nature of the climate negotiations facilitate the public’s lack of engagement and understanding of why these talks matter, even if citizens are the ones who will be ultimately affected by the decisions made.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) contains reference to public participation in two main articles. Article 6 of the Convention promotes access to information and public participation on the development of climate change responses. Article 4 encourages the widest participation in climate related activities, including that of NGOs. While public participation serves as a guiding principle, it is not actually required or enforced.

In anticipation to the COP20 negotiations, a group of 23 countries (including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay) submitted a proposal asking for operative language related to public participation, access to information and informed citizenship to be included in the 2015 climate agreement. Yet it’s still too early to tell if this language will make the final draft in Paris.

Public Participation in Climate Governance

While public participation’s importance is something policymakers tend to agree on, even on a superficial basis, it is not always practiced. As countries develop their INDCS (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions), the involvement of a wide set of voices in the debate is critical. National climate policies, which are closely related to INDCS, ought to reflect the needs and vision of the public. Unfortunately, we saw how the development of climate change laws in Colombia and Costa Rica earlier this year failed to fully engage civil society organizations and the larger public in the development of draft texts.

But what does effective public participation really mean? Why should we care?

Public participations means much more than checking a box in the list of requirements of the policy making process. Equitable and fair public participation means that the public has access to information – in a language that citizens understand. Posting documents in technical language does not necessarily equate to “public engagement”. Effective public participation goes beyond the initial phase of consultation. It requires active involvement by a wide range of actors, not just the usual suspects.

Some of the benefits of public engagement have been stressed many times before. Others are less straight-forward, but equally important. Public participation is essential for the credibility of many processes. In climate governance, things like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) have shown the imperative for prior consultation and participation. Policies that ignore the input of those affected will often have ineffective outcomes, poor implementation and can even result in the violation of human rights. Participation also increases the level of awareness around an issue, stimulates public debate and enhances knowledge. It provides the opportunity to discuss best practices and inclusive solutions. Youth involvement is especially important because it allows for the creativity and innovation that is often missing in the process. Younger generations tend to be more critical of the status quo and often have more energy and willingness to change it.

Engaging the public means that we can actually mobilize people to own the process and understand the importance of climate-related policies and programs. If we want the public to buy that climate change needs an adequate and bold response, we need them to be involved.

Moving Forward

Whether it is at the local, national or international level, public participation is essential if policymakers want to deliver effective and equitable policies and needs to be mainstreamed into different aspects of climate governance.

We have talked about climate and the environment in ways that are not the most accessible to the public for too long. The People’s Climate March in September of this year was a reminder that when we frame the climate narrative in ways that people understand, public engagement can increase significantly.

Platforms like the UNFCCC are important for a global agreement on climate change given that a problem of global scale needs a global response. But let’s not forget that citizens have the power to shape the future of their cities if they engage in the development of policies (assuming that public participation has been integrated into the policymaking process). This is one of many way in which as citizens we can effect transformative change.

Camila Bustos is attending the 2014 climate negotiations in Lima. You can follow her @MaCamilaBustos.

Upcoming article sneak peek

What to Expect on Climate from Latin America's New Presidents?