Climate Action Network: “We know our duty and responsibility”


A conversation between Tasneem Essop, Executive Director of CAN International and Barbara Unmüßig, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation

CAN – the Climate Action Network - is the largest international civil society network, that has monitored the UN climate negotiations for many years. Whether at national or international level, how can civil society participation be ensured at all in times of pandemic? What does this mean for the capacity for action and strategy of a global network like CAN? CAN has called for the postponement of the climate conference. Why? How is CAN nevertheless preparing for the upcoming COP in Glasgow? What needs to change in the UN context so that civil society participation is as inclusive as possible?

Barbara Unmüssig und Tasneem Essop im Zoom-Gespräch

Barbara Unmüßig: In their fight against the pandemic all governments have restricted fundamental rights. Some, however, have used the pandemic to close civic space and political participation even further. How much is CAN's room for manoeuvre hindered or affected by the measures against COVID 19? What does this mean for the shaping of national climate policies and how has COVID affected your work and the work of your colleagues at CAN international?

Tasneem Essop: Thank you very much for this opportunity. I am sure, like many of us involved in the climate movement, the pandemic did disrupt the kind of plans that we had, and the momentum that we were building up. And as you would recall, 2019 was a very strong year for this momentum. We were planning to push that kind of momentum and pressure right through to 2020, and then the pandemic hit us. It did disrupt the pathways we were planning, using key moments through the year. All that would have been physical in nature. And as you know, most of the things were either postponed, cancelled or shifted online. Even though the CAN International network has been a Zoom network before Zoom became this popular, even with this online shift, the pandemic has disrupted, especially on the ground, the work that our nodes could do, at national and regional levels. And particularly in relation to the pressure they were putting on their governments to put forward enhanced NDCs.

Can you explain NDCs?

The national commitments that governments need to put forward in terms of the Paris Agreement. Those processes are obviously national processes. We demanded that civil society must participate in those consultations and because of the pandemic, many governments decided that those consultations would not happen. They could have been creative and done more virtual consultations, but this is one example of how governments used the pandemic to shut down inclusive processes. So it was very difficult to push back as the issue of health safety is a real concern for us as a network, of course. But as a network we also recognised that we are going to have to be agile and flexible and change the way worked. We looked at more online opportunities to keep the pressure and the momentum. Probably one of the important things, though, that we take away in a positive way and that helped our work as a climate network is that the pandemic fore fronted many of the issues that the climate movement did not necessarily connect up before. Issues such as the impact of the pandemic in relation to inequality and increasing poverty, which we have been experiencing and witnessing, and how the climate crisis compounded those problems in the past two years.

So, you see the pandemic as a chance to see, how intertwining issues like poverty, inequality, the biodiversity crisis or the climate crisis are interlinked. We all have been looking for a breakthrough for that perspective. As you are based in South Africa, could you explain along the South African example, what did it mean that COVID interrupted interaction with governments?

Usually, in South Africa, the department of environment, that drives the climate work in the country, has these consultation processes. They have a body for stakeholders for these consultations. And with the process of the NDC enhancement this did not function any longer, they just could not meet. At the start of the pandemic, there was almost this kind of paralysis and the consultation stopped. The whole process of moving things online took a while to kick in. People started getting familiar with it. That is why I think that the South African government did not submit the NDCs by the end of last year. Looking at it now, we put immense pressure on them to do so. But looking back, it did in fact help us: Through consultations, in the virtual meetings and in a few physical gatherings, when they opened up the lockdown a little bit more, the South African government now put forward stronger NDCs than they might have had submitted last year. So, the pressure from civil society and from others in the country really helped in the end.

And that means lockdown helped to extend the time you had to put pressure on them?

Yes. Even though it was not physical, it gave us time to do a bit more. And as you know, in 2020 the momentum was a bit of a down, in 2021, the momentum started picking up again, with the US back in the process, and the international dimension of this momentum also affected this. I am not saying it was entirely domestic in 2020, but the pick up of the momentum in 2021 helped, even while we still have a pandemic. These things managed to keep the momentum on climate this year.

As an international climate network you are very vocal and you raise very critically your civil society voice in the debate on vaccine equity. That seems unusual to many people. Tell us, why does the network as a climate policy network focus on that topic?

That is exactly the point, Barbara, about the intersectionality and about how the pandemic pointed this out very sharply. Let us be very practical about it: What could we witness in the news on television, when the pandemic hit us? Those who were most impacted by the pandemic, who felt the burdens of that virus, were those who were living in poverty, suffering inequality, who did not have access to basic health services, to the protective measures et cetera. You could see that the impact and the burdens were being felt by a particular section of our society. We witnessed that. At the same time, we witnessed the climate impacts in those countries, in those communities, where people are marginalised and poor. For example, we watched how the floods in Uganda devastated the country. People were displaced, they lost their lives, lost their livelihoods, and that came on top of a pandemic! The pandemic itself points out, that these multiple crises that we are experiencing in the world, including the climate crisis, have an impact on the same sections of society. In addition, this has been made very clear by the science. We knew it all the time. The IPCC AR4 already pointed out that those, who are going to be most vulnerable to climate change, will be those living in poverty. It just took us time to get to this understanding. Therefore, an international climate movement like ours would make a huge mistake in thinking that climate is a very narrow issue and sector, that we are in this bubble and all we are dealing with are these numbers on how much megatons of carbon must be reduced. It is not only that at all!

I appreciate very much that CAN has a social and economic point of view and how climate change is changing the social fabric of society. But are you vocal as well in asking for more vaccine equity? Are you in favour, for example, of the waiver within the WHO to get rid of patents? And who is listening to you?

I think, when CAN made this call and took a stand on it, it was coming behind and supporting those movements that have been pushing very hard since the start of the pandemic and the vaccine rollout. So, why are we standing in solidarity with all of those voices demanding an end to vaccine apartheid? Firstly, because of the intersectionality between all of this. The Paris Agreement very explicitly has a section in the preamble that talks about all these rights like the right to health. So, we cannot divorce these things. But very importantly, this pandemic is almost a dress rehearsal, as I often put it, for how we deal with the climate crisis. Now our experience is, unfortunately, that during this particular crisis, which we’re living through, rich nations chose to step back and look inward, to care for their needs and not to see the need for global solidarity, to care for their pharmaceutical interest, well above the lives of millions and millions in the world. If they could do that during this crisis, is that something that we would see them do during a climate crisis?

When I look at the vaccine inequality, and see that the Global South, and specifically poorer countries have no access to vaccines, I find that we’re really returning to very classical North-South divides, which, we thought, we had overcome to a certain extent.

Now, since we are just a few weeks away from the Glasgow climate summit, I would like to ask you, why CAN international together with a large alliance of civil society and movements have been calling for a postponement of COP26. What are your arguments? Why have you been in favour and are you still in favour of a postponement?

As you can imagine, it was not an easy decision to take as a climate network. We absolutely know we are in a climate emergency; we know our duty and responsibility. We have been committed to fighting this emergency for decades. But we’re also committed to the UNFCCC process, because that is the democratic space, especially for vulnerable voices to be heard. Recognizing that, we had engagements with the UK government really early on: Asking for their plans, understanding that we are going to host this COP in a pandemic. And while the UK government does not have control over the pandemic, of course, and over what was going to happen with it, we needed to know what their plans were to ensure safety, to minimise risks, and how they were going to ensure inclusivity in this context. Then the UK government came out saying: “We are going to have the most normal and inclusive COP ever.” Just the fact that you could assume you are going to have a normal and inclusive COP in a pandemic was already the wrong starting point! So we continued engaging, and asking, also right through the UNFCCC session in July, but they were absolutely not forthcoming with information. It was not just CAN asking. It was all of the constituencies in the UNFCCC! We had developed principles and demands for what would constitute a safe and inclusive COP. At the point when we made the decision, the UK government still had not responded. We realised that things were now going to reach a critical point, because many governments were also expressing their concerns quietly. They did not come out publicly, they were engaging with the UK government. Many of the movements and activists were really concerned as well. There was no clarity. The costs of just getting to Glasgow, the vaccines, the quarantines, the rules for travelling, all of these things were going to be a very clear barrier. That is why we stepped out: We needed to ring the alarm bells. People needed to be aware that there are all these problems that had to be addressed. So, we decided: The thing to do is take a stand, shine a spotlight, make this all visible, and hopefully the UK will be able to understand and respond better. The same day actually, the UK announced that they would pay for quarantine of the delegates. But this is just for those who are going to be badged, who are official delegates, including civil society and journalists. And that quarantine would comprise the amount of five days. They agreed to do that, but that did not take care of all the other issues that we had raised. And as you might have been following in the media, a number of countries were really concerned about being on the red list.

What does “being on the red list” mean?

It means that travel is restricted. And you are then obliged to do much more stringent things. If you are from a red list country, you need to quarantine for ten days. Think about this: If you are a grassroots activist or an indigenous activist wanting to come to Glasgow, you do not have a badge. You are not going to the “inside”, but you want to be on the “outside” to keep the pressure and the voice. That grassroots activist will have to travel to Glasgow, pay for a hotel for ten days to quarantine, and then will be able to go to the COP. Again, to remind you, the costs of accommodation in Glasgow escalated. These very practical issues of course have an impact on the ability for the COP to be inclusive.

Let’s look again at the process leading to Glasgow and at the COP itself: Can you already estimate who is going to be excluded and who is not coming? Can you give us an idea of who will be there and able to raise their voice? Or is this still difficult to say?

It is difficult to say, because things are changing all the time. For example, we expect the UK government to announce a new red list, maybe even today. They are taking some countries off the red list. That might change the possibility for people to come to Glasgow. It will diminish the obstacles. So, it is very difficult to say right now. Many, many people have registered to come to Glasgow. But once we are in Glasgow, we will be able to see the balance of participation. I do not think anybody is necessarily being excluded. It is just difficult to be included and we will see whether that has a big impact when we get to Glasgow. As you know, we called for a postponement, but we said we won’t boycott, if it goes ahead. Because we recognise, as I said, it is our duty and responsibility. So as CAN and wider civil society, we will be there. And we will be the ears and eyes and the loud voice, keep the pressure and all governments feet to the fire. We will be there. We have made it a very particular effort on our part to make sure that the limited number of our delegation is very representative of our Global South members. So, we have quite a strong representation of every node in the Global South.

That sounds stressful for you. I think it is all about legitimacy and full participation of different groups of society. And I think you are doing a great job.

A few last questions: What do you think the United Nations should do about these two years of disruption in participation of civil society that we experienced? How far should rules be changed in the future? Do you think online consultation will stay and how to organise it? Do you have a vision about a post-pandemic world of networking and international negotiations?

Yes, that is the other thing this pandemic triggered: to rethink global governance for a global crisis. Now we are supposed to be in the implementation phase of the Paris Agreement. There is not much technical negotiation needed. In a world, where we all need to look at implementation and actions, I think that the way the UNFCCC is set up could be reassessed. Yes, it is a party driven process. Often, civil society voices are reduced to one-minute interventions in a plenary, where most of the parties have left. That kind of approach is not going to be good for addressing a global crisis. We are all partners in finding the solutions to this crisis. We should be at the tables, having proper collective conversations about all our responsibilities. How can we help each other as a collective? Civil society, the governments, labour, indigenous people. Nothing prevents us from taking a different approach to global governance of this crisis and finding solutions. I think the ability to be able to do a lot of that in an online way is a really good possibility now. Of course, we must fix up things like the digital divide. The fact that, again, people in developing countries do have problems. But we can set ourselves a kind of medium term to long term aim to move more and more to that position. The important thing, though, and this is why physical meetings are still important, is about building of trust. Building up trust needs us to be able to sit across each other, look each other in the eye and have a relationship. So physical, virtual, hybrid meetings, these are now new possibilities. But in the end, beside the kind of technological approach, it is a real question of global governance, and what it should look like in an emergency.

I agree. The Heinrich Böll Foundation is a global network as well. And I very much face the issue of whenever it comes to strategic issues it is going to become more difficult to have a broad and real in-depth discussion. And then we have an issue of surveillance and security as well. How do we deal with the fact that Zoom is not a safe way to communicate? How do you deal in CAN with that issue?

With a little bit of good faith. I believe that there’s nothing that can be totally secure any longer. There is a point at which, of course, we have to carry on and do the work we do. If we are in a fight for justice, for ensuring that we address this crisis and if we are acting on behalf of people who really need their lives to be improved, what is there to hide actually?

Two last questions: Is CAN already engaged with responsible decision makers within the United Nations to discuss the issue of how to improve participation? This is one aspect. And the other one is of course: How do we as civil society among ourselves guarantee inclusiveness? How to guarantee that we are still able to strategize and come up with joint strong messages in respect to what we are fighting for?

We have been engaging with the UNFCCC on how to turn that space into a more meaningful, participatory and democratic space. You might recall, in Madrid things came to a very ugly clash. Security forces have been used inside a UN venue against civil society. And that triggered very important engagements for the UNFCCC. I want to say, that we really appreciate that the Executive Secretary and her team took the lead in these engagements with us. That means, we have been in ongoing engagements about this and we’ll continue. Of course, whenever we engage with governments we also talk about this. There are many governments who recognise and appreciate the value of our contributions as civil society. And there are those who could not care less about civil society, to whom we are just an irritation. So, we still need to build up those relationships and have the discussions. This is happening. In terms of our ability as civil society movement, I can tell you that in CAN we have got a very deliberate process of ensuring inclusivity in the network. For example, we are structured in a way that we have these geographical nodes. We have put immense effort into making sure that our nodes in the Global South are resourced and capacitated, so that they can provide the kind of leadership to the network. We have been doing this for three years now and we are starting to see the results. The voices are being heard, the leadership has been provided. The stand that we took on vaccine equity and inclusivity was largely driven by our Global South nodes. In fact, we said that the Global South must lead us on this, and it was through this, that we managed to take that stand as well. So, I think these internal processes are important. We have to be conscious about how we ensure inclusivity. And it is just much better in terms of enriching the overall approaches and strategies that we take if we do have that kind of inclusivity.

Thank you very much. For me, it was very enriching to get your stands on the very difficult issues of representation and participation. And it is very difficult to make sure that people are able to raise their voices. Last remark, what is your strongest hope for Glasgow?

To make the issue of climate impacts a priority. That translates into making loss and damage, and especially finance for loss and damage the key priority in Glasgow. As we see the ambition levels are not there to keep us below 1.5. As science says, we are actually living in an era of climate change impacts. That is it, we’re here! We cannot ignore that reality. And as I said, the pandemic has taught us that those impacts have been felt by the poor, those who are marginalized, those who are vulnerable the most. For climate justice, we are going to have to make addressing the impacts a big priority.

Thank you very much, Tasneem!

Thank you very much. Bye.