The Social PreCOP on Climate Change

This past week Venezuela hosted a Social Preparatory Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (Social PreCOP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The meeting was intended to prepare States, with the input of civil society, for COP20 that will take place in Lima, Peru in the first two weeks of December of this year. Instead it appeared to highlight the diversity of opinion on climate change and the wide gap that exists between States and between civil society and States.

The government of Venezuela invited more than 200 representatives of civil society to the resort Isola da Margarita for four days of debates on climate change, covering all their expenses. The meeting had been planned to take place in Caracas but was moved at the last minute. Why the location of meeting was changed was not clear, but it led to it being held in isolation from much of Venezuela’s own civil society organizations.

Discussions ranged from the traditional debates on mitigation and adaptation to the threat capitalism poses for adequate international action on climate change, facilitated by Venezuela’s climate envoy Claudia Salerno. Efforts to place the first two days of civil society meetings more under the control of civil society and work on the text in smaller groups were rejected by the Venezuelan hosts. Furthermore, while accepting input from all civil society actors it was the Venezuelan hosts who finalized the draft text of Key Messages that were based on the Margarita Declaration that had already been drafted at a smaller civil society meeting in July. As a result there were numerous complaints claiming the outcome document did not reflect the views of civil society and questioned the impact it would have on the official climate change negotiations that will resume in full swing in two weeks time in Lima, Peru at the annual climate summit of the States’ parties to the UNFCCC.

Despite its shortcomings, the meeting was a welcomed opportunity for many civil society participants, many of who could not have afforded the costly travel to Venezuela, to participate in informal meetings among themselves and with the smattering of State delegates, including some Ministers who joined the meeting on the last two days.

In the first two days, civil society discussions took place based on the Margarita Declaration. Participants were informed at the opening plenary that all meetings would be in plenary to promote inclusiveness and that an outcome document of Key Messages had already been drafted, but could be discussed and amended as necessary. As the meeting progressed it became clear that the outcome document would be more the product of the Venezuelan government than of the wide variety of civil society actors represented at the meeting.

As they had done for the July 2014 meeting that drafted the Margarita Declaration the hosts had invited a wide cross-section of active civil society actors. About half came from the Latin American region, but the participants also included people from as far away as the Philippines, Russia, New Zealand and a few from Africa. Several African participants were unable to attend after they ran into last minute problems in obtaining their visas.

The Margarita Declaration, with the theme of “changing the system, not the climate,” called for questioning the social and economic systems that perpetuate climate change. It contained sections on concern for future generations, good and sustainable living, the social impact of climate change, social participation in decision making, direct action for transformation, and North-South responsibilities.

Most of the Margarita Declaration’s attention was devoted to changing the system of social relations that participants had identified as the main reason for the international community’s failure to date to take adequate action to confront climate change. It offered a direct challenge to the capitalist system of consumption and economic growth, suggesting instead that a system based on buen vivre or ‘living well’ provided a more holistic understanding of how the people of the world seek to live.

The Margarita Declaration includes language rejecting “the implementation of false solutions to climate change” and naming “carbon markets and other forms of privatization and commodification of life; geo-engineering, agrofuels productions, and measures favoring agribusiness and harming the production of food in an agro ecological manner, such as the use of transgenic seeds and agrotoxics, synthetic fertilizers and any other measure lessening the priority of the right to Good Living, health and the eradication of poverty enshrined in the Convention” including “the green economy, the intellectual property rights; the mega water dam projects, monocultures and nuclear energy.”

States were challenged to create a system of social relations not based on economic growth and activities that merely exploit natural and human resources, but to adapt a progress social model based on sustainability and satisfaction, goals which rarely appear in contemporary economic or development policy. This was a result of the significant number of indigenous peoples’ representatives who participated in the drafting and injected their peoples’ lessons learned from long histories of sustainable living.

The Margarita Declaration concludes by stating that the task of civil society “is to work for the transformation of our societies and the production and consumption systems which constitute the cause for climate change by generating new development paradigms determined by the peoples” including “influencing the national governments and international settings such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

The objective of the November 2014 meeting was to add to the Margarita Declaration a statement of Key Messages that translated the lofty principles contained in the Declaration into clear demands related to the climate negotiations taking place under the auspices of the UNFCCC.

The Key Messages document was drafted by the Venezuelan government based on the input it collected from NGOs during plenary meetings and through an email account that was specifically opened for this purpose. There was significant dissatisfaction among civil society actors who lamented that this top-down approach did not sufficiently capture the diversity of the views of civil society. Several civil society actors pointed out that although the Venezuelan government had offered them the ability to express their opinions on broad issues during the plenaries and to email their views to the government’s drafting team, the process by which civil society views appeared in the Key Messages document lacked transparency and led to many civil society views being excluded. Inevitably, this led to the accusation that the government had cherry-picked the views that accorded with its own interests and ignored views which caused discomfort – such as the demand that 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves be kept in the ground.

The lack of a transparent process appeared to contrast sharply to the last time that civil society came together before the 2010 COP16 for a meeting in Cochabama, Bolivia. Like the Margarita meetings, the host government had supported much of civil society participation. At the 2010 meeting, however, a greater effort had been made by Bolivia to ensure that civil society had drafted the text with more responsibility for the outcome document, the Cochabama Declaration, being placed on the shoulders of civil society. The failure to involve civil society to the same extent led civil society representatives in Venezuela to express their concerns about the process in almost every plenary gathering during the two days.

The Key Messages were not expressed in a coherent set of policy proposals, but rather in a rambling eleven page document that consisted of 75 paragraphs and and eight sections. The sections were entitled preamble; social participation; sustainable systems and just transitions; intergenerational equity, gender and indigenous peoples; education, training, and raising of awareness; principles and commitments; carbon markets and other challenging mechanisms; and perspectives for the 2015 Agreement. Paragraphs 1, 3, 4, 25, and 58 are in Spanish, while the rest of document is in English.

Rather than being distilled form the Margarita Declaration, the Key Messages seem to be a mix of what the more prominent civil society actors were able to convince the host to accept and the host’s own interests. Some issues such as Loss and Damage are repeatedly mentioned, but with a very superficial understanding apparent that could lead to problems if it is taken into account by negotiators.

The problems with the Loss and Damage provision are evident in the repeated references to compensation for the damage caused by climate change. While this mechanism is widely supported by the States that have suffered most heavily from the adverse effects of climate change, in the UNFCCC negotiations they have been cautious about admitting that the Warsaw Loss and Damage Mechanism is a means of providing them compensation, preferring to understand it as the ad hoc provision of assistance based on the funds accumulated in its. This apparently nuanced difference could have significant consequences for the States’ most effected by climate change being able to claim compensation from States that have caused climate change and ultimately the damage they suffered. While general international law provides that such injured States would be entitled to claim damages, the creation of a lex specialis forum for making such claims could prevent States from using more traditional or newer legal forums.

Given that the Warsaw Loss and Damage Mechanism has nearly no funds available now and there is no guarantee that it will ever have access to significant funds or any legally binding authority to order action, effected States could be trading away their existing rights for an illusionary promise of compensation from an empty fund and from an mechanism with even less legally binding authority than already existing legal forums. This danger is completely ignored by the Key Messages document.

At the same time the Key Messages document makes no mention of the 1°C limit on global warming that is widely accepted by civil society and scientific as an expression of the precautionary principle. The reason for this is that global warming above 1°C can have significantly detrimental consequences for people in some regions of the world. The 2010 Cochabama Declaration adopted the 1°C limit, the Margarita Declaration retreats to 1.5°C, and its Key Messages is silent.

All three of these instruments emphasize the need to take international action to address climate change both in the UNFCCC framework and in society more generally; a distaste for carbon markets, which are seen as false solutions; the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities, equity, and historical responsibility; and the need for broader and more meaningful civil society participation.

The Margarita Declaration and its Key Messages, however, seem to have done little to take the Cochabama Declaration further. While the government of Bolivia pledged before the meeting to submit the Cochabama Declaration to the UNFCCC negotiations as an official document, and fulfilled this promise, the Margarita document was mentioned by Venezuelan President Maduros during the United Nations’ Secretary General’s Climate Change Summit in New York held on 23 September but not submitted as an official document. The Venezuelan government has not even said that it will submit the document to the negotiating process and did not respond when expressly asked this question.

The manner in which the broadly worded Margarita Declaration is intended to influence the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) meeting in Lima in just over two weeks time appear to be through a dialogue with negotiators at the start of a two-day governmental PreCOP that took place on 6 November, at the same venue in Margarita. However, due to the broad wording of the Margarita Declaration and its accompanying Key Messages document, it would seem unlikely that negotiators will be able to make much use of either of these documents or the ideas therein.

In the complex world of climate negotiations, the Venezuelan government has taken a laudable step of reaching out to civil society. The limits imposed on civil society’s ability to express and discuss their ideas in Margarita, however, limited the understanding and usefulness of the two instruments that emerged. It is likely that even more so than the Cochabama Declaration, the Margarita Declaration and its Key Messages will be resigned to history and the struggle by civil society to influence negotiations to ensure adequate climate action will continue unabated through a variety of forums.

Perhaps one of the more valuable lessons that will be learned is that civil society adds more value when its diversity is embraced and it is left to its own devices to express its value laden suggestions. An evaluation of the admirable Venezuelan effort is also likely to indicate that more of an effort must be made to achieve greater influence from civil society on the negotiating process. This is relevant even in an intergovenmental process such as the negotiations under the UNFCCC because many civil society actors, and especially indigenous peoples, possess significant expertise. Moreover, both civil society and indigenous peoples appear to be the only actors on a broad landscape who have expressed the level of ambition that could lead us to a new climate agreement that builds on the UNFCCC and meets the demands of both science and existing international law.

The recent Margarita meetings attempted to do this, but appear to have been overwhelmed by the complexity of such an undertaking in an environment of high stakes competing interests. This was aptly illustrated when the Venezuelan Foreign Minister … Ramerez visited the Venetur Hotel where the PreCOP meetings were being held. He walked past the PreCOP civil society forum not even stopping to meet with the small group of government climate negotiators who had just arrived, but instead he headed to the other side of the hotel. He was on his away to a meeting with a counterpart from an OPEC (Oil Producing Economic Community) State. Venezuela is the member of this fossil fuel burning group and possess the largest confirmed reserves of oil. Thus even the best intentions of this socially progressive State seemed confined by the prevailing dictates of same market based economy that is likely the primary global cause of climate change and our current failure to take adequate international action to address the adverse effects of climate change on the planet and its people.

If we can overcome such contradictions civil society will likely have to play an important, but this can only happened if they are allowed to exercise their freedom to make value-laden proposals. This is an important lesson for any future Social PreCOP.

Curtis FJ Doebbler is a visiting adjunct professor of law at Webster University.


Curtis FJ Doebbler is a visiting professor of international law at the University of Makeni, Webster University (Geneva) and the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He is attending the climate talks in Paris on behalf of International-Lawyers.Org, an UN ECOSOC accredited NGO.