Countless articles are available on different aspects of social forums, especially on-line, but increasingly also in academic publications. Most, however, are based on personal experiences, and most focus on the global and regional level. We, too, of course draw on personal experiences, but in addition we have mapped and analysed global, regional, thematic, national and local social forums, done a content analysis of World Social Forum programmes and selected regional, national and local Social Forum programmes, and pulled together other current research. We aim to provide a helicopter view of social forums, as well as a critical analysis of their functions for global civil society, and the tensions inherent in or attendant on this form of organising.

Deepening and widening the focus on economic and social rights

In academia, the Limburg Principles sparked innumerable articles and a spate of doctoral dissertations, constituting a new field of expertise within human rights scholarship. This began to address objections against economic and social rights as ‘too vague’, ‘too costly’, or ‘not amenable to judicial review’. The objection often raised against the justiciability of economic and social rights – namely, that the Covenant allows the rights to be ‘progressively realised’ rather than immediately guaranteed – was met with the notion that each right has a ‘minimum core content’ (and a related, operationalised and context-dependent ‘minimum threshold’) that does require immediate implementation. Shue’s tripartite division of obligations was elaborated for different rights, and supplemented with another categorisation into ‘four A’s’: food, health or housing must be available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable. Again, there are variations on this theme. More recently, scholars have taken their cue from activists’ work by transferring their focus from the nature of the obligations to a ‘violations approach’, working outwards from the most egregious violations.

The text of the Kyoto agreement having been secured, the key battleground for many NGOs has become the rules and mechanisms for realising the commitments contained in the agreement. Debates between governments, as well as within civil society, about compliance have focused on the rules for sinks and the ways in which the flexibility mechanisms contained within Kyoto can and should be used. What Gulbrandsen and Andresen (2004) call ‘advisory organisations’, such as the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and FIELD, have played a key role on many of the technical issues concerning benchmarking and measurement of activities for which credits are claimed against commitments. The authors contrast such groups with activist organisations that derive their legitimacy from a wide membership and a popular base of support.

Knowledge brokers, research-based institutions such as the World Resources Institute, Union of Concerned Scientists, WorldWatch Institute, Tata Energy Research Institute and Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD) are in many ways part of the epistemic communities that operate as conduits between the world of research and the world of policy (Gough and Shackley 2001). By providing, packaging and disseminating key findings of use to policy makers, such actors perform key roles as knowledge-brokers, agenda-setting within the international negotiations, as we will see below. As Yamin notes (2001: 157):

By publishing reports and providing information to states through briefing papers, and in many cases behind the scenes discussions with policy-makers about the implications of latest research before this has been published in peer-reviewed journals, such groups add enormously to government capacity to undertake international negotiations on an informed basis.

Mapping the role of civil society

By the time negotiations towards an international agreement on climate change began in 1991, there had already been almost 20 years of institutional activity, albeit mainly in the scientific realm. Scientific programmes such as the International Biosphere Programme had been running since the 1970s, helping to consolidate an international network of scientific institutions working on the different dimensions of global climate change. Although such groups should also be considered part of civil society, the focus here is environmental pressure groups, and particularly those groups that have evolved strategies aimed at influencing and shaping international policy on climate change.