Here’s how US civil society groups are fighting climate change on the global stage

The US pavilion at COP23 in Bonn. Image: Getty.

The United Nations climate conference in Bonn, Germany, is an enormous event with a complex agenda. But here, on the ground, we see that it is much more than just a meeting of the signatories to the Paris Agreement.

Delegates from nearly 200 countries are meeting here to discuss the pathway towards the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep the mean global temperature increase below 2 degrees centigrade, and to prepare for the first global stocktake — a review of countries’ progress towards their climate commitments, in 2018.

At this year’s Conference of the Parties (COP23), as at others, these government delegations will negotiate the wording of texts, debate their differing points of view and seek common ground in intense meetings that are often closed to outsiders.

But there are thousands of other attendees, called observers, milling about the hallways and pavilions, shoulder-to-shoulder with party delegates. These observers come from a wide variety of non-governmental organisations and intergovernmental organizations, representing indigenous peoples, youth, women, farmers and businesses, to name a few.

These observers represent civil society, not a country’s government. They are also known as “non-state actors” — and their influence at the UN climate negotiations is growing.

Frank Bainimarama, COP23 president and Fijian prime minister, addresses the crowd at the U.S. Climate Action Center. The event showcased what U.S. sub-national and non-state actors are doing to reduce emissions. Image: Schuyler Null/World Resources Institute/creative commons.

Joining efforts

It wasn’t until 2009, at the COP15 in Copenhagen, that the participation of civil society in climate talks was galvanised. Since then, the conventional model of multilateralism, where country delegations talk to each other and non-state actors observe these negotiations, has moved towards an increasingly inclusive space. National and regional delegates are now encouraged to interact with non-state actors in a more collaborative way.

Frank Bainimarama, the Fijian prime minister and COP23 president, has frequently referred to this engagement in his speeches at this year’s meeting. He has said that the non-party actors are essential to helping countries find solutions to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The newly released Yearbook of Global Climate Action 2017 illustrates how these non-party actors, including cities and regions, can sometimes take action more quickly within their own districts. In recognition, the UN has invited members of observer groups to participate in many of the sub-groups and committees of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and to work alongside its staff and the parties.

In Bonn, observers have organised panels on diverse aspects of climate change, from forests to human security to ethics and finance. These events showcase climate actions, share expertise and add a dynamic element to the meeting. The members of country delegations have a long history of participating in these panels and discussions.

The pavilions, side events and official panels cover over 50,000 square metres of space. We visited the European Space Agency’s booth to learn about how it is monitoring Greenland’s melting ice sheet and attended a yoga class in the India pavilion to stretch and relax during a long, stressful day.


This year, the significance and relevance of observers has reached a new peak following the White House’s announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement. For the first time in the history of these talks, the United States declined to host an official pavilion. Its delegation has held only one event, a US government sponsored panel on “clean coal.”

People hold banners at the U.S. Climate Action Center. Image: World Resources Institute/Flickr/creative commons.

There is, however, a very large presence of non-state actors from the United States. This coalition of governors, mayors, CEOs, universities and religious leaders, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, California Governor Jerry Brown and former Vice President Al Gore, have pledged to ensure the United States delivers on its climate commitments.

The America’s Pledge initiative will aggregate and quantify the actions of states, cites, businesses and other non-national groups in the United States to drive down greenhouse gas emissions. This is no small outcome: If the America’s Pledge community were a country, it would be the world’s third largest economy.

A role for academia

There is no shortage of academics, including many students, at the climate change meetings. York University professors, staff and students have attended annual COP meetings since 2009 as part of an observer group known as the Constituency of Research & Independent Non-Governmental Organizations to the UNFCCC (RINGO).

RINGOs advocate for the use of the best available research — from science, technology, engineering, mathematics, social sciences and humanities — to inform climate policy. In Bonn, we have been meeting first thing every morning. At one meeting this week, we learned how our daily summaries of the negotiations have been a valuable resource for other civil society groups such as environmental non-governmental organisations.

These meetings provide students with the chance to learn about the negotiation process by being involved in it. For professors, they’re an opportunity to provide experiential education, and to design classes around the climate change meetings.

Intersections and interactions

The near-constant news conferences provide a clear picture of how RINGOs and other NGOs influence the parties and the negotiations.

Speakers from diverse constituencies launch policy and research reports at these events. Earlier this week, the Civil Society Review, a group of 120 organisations, released their assessment of global climate change commitments. The panelists explained that countries cannot delay action on climate change because it is already affecting the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Their message was clear and accessible.

Many observers and delegates from less-developed countries are displaying frustration at the slow progress on some of the COP23 agenda items. During the news conference, a climate scientist in the audience asked the panel whether civil society should abandon the UNFCCC process. The panelists were unanimous in saying that civil society should continue to work with the UN framework.

“There is no space other than the UNFCCC where we can talk about multilateral finance for developing countries. Developed countries are, currently, just not willing to discuss loss and damage finance,” said Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid USA.

The ConversationDespite the progress made with the Paris Agreement, the task ahead remains formidable. According to Carbon Budget, CO2 emissions are rising again following three years of stability. There is still much work to do on adaptation, climate finance and protecting the countries most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. This work does not always go smoothly. Nevertheless, observers are clearly cautiously optimistic.

Dawn R Bazely, University Professor in Ecology, York University, Canada; Idil Boran, Associate Professor of Political Philosophy, York University, Canada, and Sapna Sharma, Associate Professor and York University Research Chair in Global Change Biology, York University, Canada.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.