The New Climate Activism: What role for health NGOs?

Written by: Jen Allan


Climate change touches many aspects of our lives. For those on the margins of society, the impacts of climate change are particularly acute. Women, the poor, and racialized communities suffer disproportionately from extreme weather events, droughts, and other effects of a destabilizing climate. Climate change is now a bedrock issue, underpinning the health and resilience of our economies and societies. It is intertwined with social justice.

But, we haven’t always understood climate change in this way. It was once viewed as an environmental issue, and many held an abstract notion of effects that would be experienced in the future. For example, the landmark scientific conference in Toronto in 1988 that was one of the first to sound the alarm featured presentations on socio-economic impacts of climate change, most of which focused on water, forests, and other environmental issues, albeit with a mentions of health impacts. Global climate governance followed this understanding. The major early treaties, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol, focus squarely on emissions and metrics, reporting and compliance. People were not at the centre of the thinking or governance of climate change until recently. As the evidence of climate impacts became impossible to ignore in the mid-2000s, this view started to change.

As I show in my forthcoming book, The New Climate Activism, this expanded idea of climate change is the result of an important and successful advocacy strategy. NGOs and movements that traditionally work on social issues, such as worker’s rights, gender equality, global justice, Indigenous Peoples, and youth increasingly started to link their issues to climate change in the mid-2000s. Starting in (roughly) the mid-2000s, they also started to attend the UNFCCC annual meetings, as Figure 1 shows. Their presence grew quickly around the time of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, and they largely remained, even after the failure of that meeting.

My research shows that while some social movements and NGOs were finding footholds in the climate change regime, other struggled to leverage similar opportunities. While the labour movement, gender NGOs, and the climate justice movement were able to find institutional openings for their involvement and, crucially, allies within the regime, health NGOs lacked the same resources.

Although many new organizations were able to enter the UNFCCC, there were significant costs and barriers for all newcomers. Participating in an entirely new area of global governance was complicated. They all faced initial hurdles that required significant investments. Staff needed to get up to speed on climate change, and its connections to their social issue. Many authored or co-produced reports detailing how climate change was linked to gender, labour, and justice issues. But, they also had to know what to do with this information after travelling to the UNFCCC meeting. An early labour delegate recalled wandering the halls of the Montreal venue in 2005 with a new report on green jobs and no idea who to speak with or how to get a hold of them.

To make the most of their research, social activists had to learn the social and institutional environment of the UNFCCC itself. As one justice campaigner described it, “the WTO is checkers; climate change is chess.” The UNFCCC is a maze of acronyms and conferences are made up informal practices that exist only in that space. Little is straightforward to a newcomer. Some were surprised at the incredible political sensitivities around burden sharing; they expected all to do a share, without realizing the historic and institutional reasons behind the notion of ‘developed country leadership.’

Beyond the time and resources needed to climb the climate learning curve, there were numerous, less tangible, costs. Most of the new climate activists sought to develop or join new networks of organizations. Many did not receive a warm welcome, at least at first. Several new climate activists were surprised that established climate actors were at best lukewarm to their presents; at worst, some felt they were being actively excluded. In response, labour unions and gender NGOs, among a few other groups, used their status as Major Groups in Agenda 21 to argue for their own constituency within the UNFCCC system. The climate justice movement forced a split of the benefits of the environmental NGO constituency that previously the Climate Action Network enjoyed.

Notably, NGOs devoted to health struggled to mobilize a large presence at UNFCCC movements until more recently. This is surprising, given the large and still growing body of evidence linking climate change and health. Health features regularly in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) reports on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The Copenhagen meeting was the most attended climate meeting when it took place in 2009. Yet, at the Copenhagen meeting in 2009 there were only 19 health NGO representatives from three organizations, a breakthrough in their participation numbers (some recalled their excitement at breaking into “double digit” attendance), but still rather small in comparison to other issue areas. Since then, participation has grown steadily, featuring nine organizations in 2014 and 12 in 2015 in Paris.

Why have health-related NGOs struggled where others have not? One issue was institutional: they lacked the recognition in other environmental bodies or Agenda 21 as a Major Group – a key institutional hook that provided a stamp of recognition and legitimacy, in addition to speaking time, an office, and invitations to events. Instead, they had to find one another and try to have their voice heard among the 15,000+ delegates attending climate conferences.

A second issue was relational: other new NGOs had pre-xisting alliances that helped introduce the social and institutional landscape of the UNFCCC. For example, the UN Environment Programme worked with labour unions and gender organizations, and Friends of the Earth was an early member of the climate justice movement. Meanwhile, even the World Health Organization found itself to be unfamiliar with the specific and often unwritten rules of the game in the UNFCCC. It took time for health to build these connections. In navigating this challenge, some, such as the International Federation of Medical Students Associations, chose to worked with youth organizations, which led to organizational positions that were a bit further than what other health organizations could back.

Third, health organizations struggled in the early years to find a common message given their internal diversity. Internally, finding a message on climate change that all health groups could endorse proved difficult. In the early years, several heard a refrain along the lines of “we’re saving lives, why should we also be responsible for saving the planet?” The World Medical Association passed the Delhi Declaration that was inward looking, considering how to advocate, show leadership, undertake education and capacity building, undertake surveillance and research, and collaborate with others within the heath sector. But, by 2019, the WMA declared a climate emergency.

Advocacy on health issues is more common today than in the lead up to the Paris Agreement. In Glasgow, there was a high-level event organized by the COP Presidency on health and climate change, for the first time. But we still lack rules around health and climate change governance, while there are programmes of work on gender, Indigenous Peoples, and a just transition for workers. The timing mattered: those activists able to mobilize and gain recognition early on could later find influence in the regime when it mattered. Thus, health activists have been hampered by their slow start in the climate change advocacy arena. More broadly, the politics that arise when activists move between issue areas create an uneven cross-pollination of ideas and rules for governing increasingly interconnected global challenges.

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About the Author: Jen Allan

Dr. Jen Allan studies social movements and civil society interactions with global governance, including how these non-state actors respond and contribute to global rule making. Her book The New Climate Activism is part of this theme in her research....

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