A Tale of Two Degrees, 22 COPs and Many RINGOs

Or, How Non-state Actors Can Help Accelerate
the Pace of the UN Climate Change Process

By Anukriti Hittle
Visiting Scholar, East-West Center, Honolulu
Instructor, Washington University in St Louis

Rising Above National Interest
Most of the time, nations act in their own self-interest. And much of the time, they cooperate only when they are forced to—such as when facing imminent collective danger (nuclear threat, small pox, dictatorships). But in the face of a slow-boil threat like climate change, they seem to drag their national government-level feet. In such cases, pressure from non-state actors may be the key to achieving collective action.

How can non-state actors complement national actors to ratchet up ambition and speed up action in the area of climate change implementation? By using the well-tried resolutions process of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and applying it to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations, or RINGOs, or could maximize collective action at the COP (Conference of the Parties) summits where both government representatives and observer organizations gather every year to address climate change issues.

RINGOs sidelined?
The UNFCCC is an agreement among governments—national governments–and brings with it all the posturing and bluster of politics, and slow, if any, action. To get national governments to move ahead toward a common goal is a huge undertaking because it means transcending their national interests to achieve what is in the global interests.  Cooperation is often done only under drastic circumstances—the equivalent of a meteor hitting the earth—when it is a do (together) or die situation.   Climate change is not such a situation—it exacerbates vulnerabilities, and rarely does it show up suddenly.  For national governments, climate related problems are usually not a top priority; governments’ time horizons are shorter than the slow-boil march of climate change. Who then will help move the agenda forward, an agenda that depends on the vagaries of politicians for whom collective action at the global may conflict with national level priorities?

The IUCN’s role in the climate process
Non- state organizations like the IUCN have been quite effective in producing action at the global level. The IUCN has been involved with the UNFCCC process for a long time; and since COP15, has been very active in defining a nature-based approach to climate change problems. IUCN with its 1,300 member organization—is an extensive and well-represented  ‘hub’ of civil society, governments and business.

However, even though such institutions have brought solutions to address climate change issues, because of the way in which the UNFCCC is structured, they have not been at the center of action; the Convention is first and ultimately an agreement among national governments. Observer groups in the UN process are just that—observers.  These groups often host “side events” which is the term for activities hosted by observers, that take place at the COP meetings.

To keep with the goals and timeline of limiting warming to 2-degrees, as APA1 (the first Ad hoc working group on the Paris Agreement) and CMA1 (the first Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement) unfold, a different approach needs to materialize, one where all organizations—especially the RINGOs– can help step up the pace of action. For this, a more coordinated effort is necessary.

RINGOs take lessons from the IUCN
At the UNFCCC’s COPs, RINGOs, like the IUCN, consist of hundreds of research and independent institutions that are interested in influencing the climate conversation. They are loosely connected to each other by dint of the fact that they are within the RINGO designation under the UNFCCC. They work quietly on the side, providing technical and research information for the UNFCCC process, when asked to assist. Usually, this is done on a fairly ad hoc basis.

However, the IUCN is different from RINGOs in that the IUCN has a very formal structure, where its members have a concrete channel by which to draft resolutions and adopt a strategy every four years at a World Conservation Congress.  By helping RINGOs adopt a more coordinated format, the IUCN could help the RINGOs achieve more within the COP process. An IUCN-like structure and process would additionally provide a formal “space” for younger members of the RINGOs. To look at climate research priorities within the RINGO group, and to provide a forum for young RINGOs to work on these issues with mentors, would not only be useful but essential in guiding work and funding priorities in the future.

The IUCN works through its member organizations, to draft, propose and introduce motions that are discussed and voted on.  For example, at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, members came up with about 100 motions that will define conservation priorities for governments, and other institutions all over the world. The process by which IUCN produces a global conservation agenda is one that can be emulated by the RINGOs and young RINGOs to produce a research agenda for the next few years.  It would help RINGOs coalesce their research priorities, interests and strengths, and provide more organized input into the UNFCCC process. The outcome, a global research agenda and priorities from the perspective of non-state actors would provide a compass to sub-national and local governments, and other non-state actors.

Coordinated Research Agenda for Climate Change
Currently, there is no such coordinated global research agenda that supports the UNFCCC. It is a vast and haphazard process, and many RINGOs are not aware of the depth and breadth of their colleagues who attend. To further thei impact on the COP process, it is time for the RINGO delegations to take a few lessons from IUCN– a non-state member organization–and put forward a coordinated global climate research agenda. Let’s make this annual meet-up a more useful and focused exercise, folks!