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The Copenhagen Governance Gap

Editor's Note: This is a series of analysis and observations from the ground in Copenhagen. During the 15th annual climate change conference, Brookings expert Nathan Hultman tracks the negotiations, offering insight into the governance process.

While the Copenhagen delegates are still striving to live up to the “Hopenhagen” slogans plastered across Metro billboards and city buses, a string of logistical missteps and a progressive reduction of access to the conference has increasingly called into question the viability of the current model of climate governance that involves widespread and open-access participation by civil society. What was anticipated to be a smoothly-running Danish operation, able to focus single-mindedly on the massive and challenging task of concluding a new climate treaty, has not yet materialized. Given the grueling list of points that remain to be negotiated, distractions and political stumblings have exposed cracks in the vision of governance via such large international meetings. This vision was most memorably articulated at the Rio meeting in 1992, and focused on establishing transparency and participation as key elements of allowing a global civil society to engage with topics of broad interest.

Unfortunately, it appears that the U.N. Secretariat was simply unprepared for the massive influx of delegates attending this conference. On Monday, thousands of registered delegates—mostly from nongovernmental organizations and the media—were forced to queue for up to eight hours in the sub-freezing temperatures to get their entry badges. After this wait, most of them were nevertheless turned away empty-handed. Access was restricted today and by Friday only 90 NGO delegates—roughly half of 1 percent of these delegates—will be allowed into the venue.

These developments, among others, have raised questions about the feasibility of maintaining the Rio vision of transparency and accountability while acknowledging the logistical and institutional challenges emerging from this round of talks. The inclusion of NGO delegates and press creates two benefits:

  • First, highly professional NGO delegates are able to submit draft texts and interact positively with negotiators. Far from being counterproductive, such participation can provide new perspectives and ideas to help unlock discussions on both small technical issues and large questions of direction.

  • Second, these delegates—and in particular, the ones who are more marginal to the negotiations themselves—can nevertheless learn a great deal about issues of current importance, and bring those ideas back to their home countries and organizations.

The open governance structure therefore enables a massive and decentralized building of intellectual capacity to understand climate change in the disparate cultures and communities of the world. There is no doubt that climate change is a complex and challenging topic to understand and to tackle; a healthy engagement by world NGOs at these Conferences has been a critical part of ensuring that the discussions at the highest levels are not completely detached from the people that they should be serving.

In the end, the Secretariat and the conference leadership do not have to answer to voters or individual constituencies. Unfortunately, a partly understandable tendency to restrict access undermines the governance procedures that have served it well as an innovative institutional framework in the past. Once the dust settles—whether Copenhagen produces a treaty or not—this institutional dimension must be addressed, lest this meeting be remembered as the time that the open and inclusive opportunities for participation led the hitherto successful system to collapse under its own weight.

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