Climate News

Public Participation and Human Rights Remain Critical at COP25

An Interview with the World Resource Institute’s Jesse Worker

First Meeting of the Signatory Countries of the Escazú Agreement in Costa Rica

With this year’s UN climate conference (COP25) taking place December 2 to 13 in Madrid, it is critical to keep a focus on public participation in the climate governance process and ensure that human rights-based approaches play a central role in the negotiations.

La Ruta del Clima recently spoke with Jesse Worker, an Associate at the World Resources Institute. Worker focuses on issues of climate governance, including rights-based approaches, institutional coordination, and the political economy of policymaking and implementation. Previously, he developed and managed the Environmental Democracy Index—the first tool to measure how well laws in 70 countries provide for transparency, public participation and access to justice for the environment.  

Worker spoke with La Ruta del Clima’s Sam Goodman and Adrian Martinez.

Jesse Worker, WRI

Worker spoke with us about COP25, the Escazú Agreement, which promotes public access and environmental justice in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the role civil society must have when drafting climate policy.  What follows is an edited transcript.

La Ruta: Heading into COP25, what do you think are the most important issues when it comes to rights-based approaches to climate governance?

Worker: I think the most important issues are going to be to make sure that human rights and rights-based approaches are not treated as peripheral or nice-to-have issues in terms of how countries are going to deliver on increased ambition, making sure that their climate action supports sustainable development and addressing critical issues of equity, inclusion and just transition.

Civil society demonstration at COP24

A lot of civil society movements, especially in Latin America, are really pushing for a stronger role for the public in the monitoring, reporting and verification process that have been established to ensure that the public has access to information on the specific policy measures that the government has taken to fulfill its targets.  Making that information accessible and making those practices more clearly defined can really go a long way toward strengthening the implementing environment.

La Ruta: Last month, you co-wrote a blog piece about how climate transitions won’t happen without social justice and greater democracy.  How do we help turn the focus on social justice and greater democracy at this year’s negotiations and future negotiations?

Worker:I think that the events of the past two years –– the amount of anger and protests that have come across cities and countries around the world –– have come about for obviously different reasons. They have often been triggered by specific policy challenges. 

Some of them are ostensibly climate-friendly policies that they are trying to implement, such as reducing fossil fuel subsidies. But even if you try to implement good climate policies, if you do it in a way that is sudden and without the involvement of civil society, that is without good measures to phase them in and make sure there is proper compensation and so forth,  you could face political backlash. I do think that this past year highlighted that rising inequality, poor governance, and elite capture of regulations and the policy-making process are just boiling over in some countries.

I think what could make its way more into the negotiations is specifically what are the practices and procedures that countries are actually going to do to make sure they are being inclusive? How are they going to make sure that their climate policies are going to be focused on building equity as well?  How are they are going to make sure they are going to be communicating on adaptation in their NDC’s (Nationally Determined Contributions)? How are they specifically addressing vulnerability and multidimensional access to climate vulnerability?

You have to make sure that civil society understands what the governments are committing to, and where they are not being ambitious, so they know where they can push them on greater ambition.

La Ruta: Being a Latin American NGO, one of our areas of focus is on the Escazú Agreement. How does the Escazú Agreement help countries establish more transparent, participatory and accountable enabling environments for developing and delivering their commitments?  

Worker: I think the Escazú Agreement was, of course, informed by the experience of organizations and experts who took part in the development and implementation of the Aarhus Convention.   It was also built on good practice from around the region, including access to information in Mexico and access to justice in Argentina with the contributions from organizations and experts from the region on Principle 10.

Some of that you can see in very specific types of articles in the convention around making sure that, for instance, access to information is made understandable and accessible to populations that need it most. That these are protected by laws. That there is assistance provided to the public. That information is available proactively whenever possible.  

The way that Escazú goes beyond Aarhus specifically is on protections for environmental land defenders. I don’t need to tell you about the attacks on civil society, indigenous leaders and environmental land defenders around the world. It’s been well-documented.  I think these kinds of protections are going to be increasingly critical as indigenous and environmental defenders seek to defend and protect pieces of land and forest from logging or freshwater sources from any kind of activities. 

We know that there has been increasing evidence now from the field of impact evaluation that if you provide civil society groups with the ability to monitor and report pollution and violations, you do see an uptick in these types of violations being caught.  So we know that not only is it a normative right, but it can be an effective instrument toward compliance and enforcement.

Guyana representative speaks at the First Meeting of the Signatory Countries of the Escazú Agreement

La Ruta: One of those things that worries me a lot is that we are on a super short timeframe when it comes to the Escazú Agreement. We do not have the time to develop the governance structure and experience that, for example, the Aarhus Convention may have helped develop. 

How would you see, on the one hand, being able to continue to trust that the Escazú Agreement is this tool that will help us in light of the drastic change, for example, that the UNFCCC did in moving COP25 from Chile to Europe with no civil society consultation or consideration at all? How can we keep our focus and be able to say, yes, the Escazú Agreement is something that will help us if we know that we are talking on a timeframe of months? We have months to review the NDC process that will lock in what countries will do for the next five years.

Worker: You’re right of course. You can’t sit back and wait for the Escazú ratification process to pass through. 

I think there are human rights campaigners and climate environmental campaigners who talk all the time about needing a rights-based approach to climate.  The converse is true as well. Climate is creating new or exacerbating human rights problems and making them worse. We need to get an understanding of why these rights need to be protected in the climate space.

In terms of what we can do, I think there is already plenty of public acknowledgement, understanding, practice and procedure to draw from in terms of how you draw up and implement laws, regulations, practices and institutions to make sure that you are implementing strong procedural rights.

Personally, I don’t think that’s a knowledge problem. I think it’s a politics and power problem.  Who is controlling the decision-making processes? Do they have an obligation to give up or share power? What does it mean to include new sets of actors who haven’t been involved in the process?

There’s some truth to that. When you make decision-making processes more inclusive and more participatory, it does take more time. It’s not always going to lead to a nice and easy and clean concession. The public is not a monolith. And people have different ideas and opinions and sometimes they are really going to disagree. But failing to do this is really not a viable option if you are actually on board with developing climate policies or responses to the needs of society. 

One of the things I can tell you that some of our partners we work with are focused on is how do we bring in new organizations or constituencies into the conversation and understanding? Why is it so critical that our government address climate ambitiously and do so in a way that is socially equitable? How do we get them to see their interests, whether it is urban development, biodiversity or watershed issues, to broaden their national constituencies and coalitions to create a stronger political base? How do we get more La Ruta del Climas in countries around the world to really engage in climate on a deep level and hold governments accountable and build public awareness?

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