The third strand is that of parallel NGO forums to the large United Nations conferences of the 1990s (see Pianta 2001; Krut 1997). These meetings, dealing with the environment, human rights, gender and social policy and development issues, attracted an increasing number of professional NGOs, there to lobby governments, but also to network with each other. Ideologically, these NGO forums were not that much akin to the social forum phenomenon, but they created the habit amongst NGOs and wider civil society activists of going to broad-based international meetings, a function which the World Social Forum has to some extent taken over.

Another momentous area of synergy is over the right to water. This right was initially formulated largely outside the human rights movement. It has caught the attention of development organisations, particularly of Care International. But it also has connections with anti-dam campaigns, with political conflicts such as that between Palestine and Israel, and with anti-privatisation campaigns, the most famous case being that of Bechtel in Bolivia (see Chapter 5 in this Yearbook). Like food, water is so vital to human life that to claim it as a right has intuitive appeal. But until recently it had no explicit basis in international law. Gradually, it has been embraced by the human rights community as being constituted by particular aspects of the existing rights to food and health, culminating in the adoption of a ‘General Comment’ on the right to water by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in November 2002 (UN CESCR 2002; Filmer-Wilson 2005; Nelson and Dorsey 2003).

In this sense, many of the lessons from other environmental campaigns do not apply to climate change. In the case of ozone depletion, for example, with which climate change is often compared, alternative technologies (CFC substitutes) were available, regulation needed only to address a relatively small number of producers in a  small number of countries (mainly in the North) and the scientific consensus on the issue was in many ways more robust. The issue of climate change, despite a catalogue of recent extreme weather events which resemble effects associated with climate change, has less of the immediacy or moral outrage associated with issues such as toxic wastes and whaling. This negatively affects the prospects for short-term action on the problem.

NGOs generally oppose market mechanisms because they distract attention from the need for tough domestic action to reduce emissions. Groups such as FERN and Climate Trade Watch have been particularly critical of the delays caused by attempts to construct a carbon market, including trading in carbon sinks (Climate Trade Watch 2005; FERN 2005). The Durban Declaration on Carbon Trading, produced at a meeting on this issue in October 2004 that brought together a number of environmental groups associated with the climate justice movement (see below), stated, ‘As representatives of peoples’ movements and independent organisations, we reject the claim that carbon trading will halt the climate crisis’ (Durban Declaration 2004). Groups such as Carbon Trade Watch (part of the Transnational Institute) have lodged complaints over the carbon-neutral claims of companies and wealthy individuals. There has been a proliferation of organisations such as Future Forests and Climate Care, claiming that their work on tree-planting, for example, can ‘neutralise’ CO2 emissions (Future Forests 2005; Climate Care 2005). They offer clients, such as internationally acclaimed rock groups Simply Red and Cold Play, CarbonNeutral flights, driving and homes. Carbon Trade Watch, however, have challenged what it considers to be the ‘scientifically dubious practice of planting trees to compensate for pollution’. Their critique is informed by a broader position adopted by many environmental NGOs on this issue that such practices ‘distract attention away from the fundamental changes urgently necessary if we are to achieve a more sustainable and just future’ (CTW 2004).

Alongside these strategies of engagement and collaboration, a range of civil society groups seek to challenge the power of fossil fuel companies in the climate change debate in more confrontational ways. Groups such as Corporate Watch, for example, aim at exposing the machinations of power that enable fossil fuel companies to exercise what they perceive to be excessive influence in the climate change debate. One company that has come under particular fire in this regard is the oil company Exxon (Esso in Europe). The ‘StopEsso’ campaign has sought to encourage consumers to boycott Esso and lobby the company to reverse its strident opposition to the Kyoto agreement, manifested through extensive media work, funding for the Bush administration and the use of corporate lobbyists to slow progress in the climate negotiations. Exxon has been targeted in particular because it is the oil company that makes the largest contribution to the Bush campaign coffers ($US1.376 million to the Republicans in the 2000 campaign) and has been the most active and high-profile of the companies opposed to Kyoto (StopEsso 2005). The campaign forms part of a broader ‘boycott Bush’ initiative launched by the Ethical Consumer magazine in the UK in 2001 with the aim of encouraging consumers to boycott leading companies that contribute to Republican Party funds, including other high-street names such as Microsoft and Budweiser beer, and to let those companies know why they were boycotting their products (Boycott Bush url).

Yet a number of factors prevent the World Bank from making a greater contribution to the action on climate change. One of the most serious is its failure to integrate effectively and systematically the goals of climate change protection into mainstream lending activities. Others are its ‘market-fixated’ approach, which prevents direct support for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and the way it calculates the costs and benefits of projects, which, because it eschews life-cycle analysis, puts energy efficiency technologies at a disadvantage. The Power Failure report produced by Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense in March 1994 found that World Bank task managers are currently not subject to incentives or requirements to give end-use energy efficiency a high priority in power loans, and that few loans incorporate demand-side management or address energy efficiency other than through price increases (EDF and NRDC 1994). As noted above, the more research-oriented and conservative NGOs are currently working with the World Bank to reduce its contribution to climate change, through mechanisms such as the Ad Hoc Working Group on Global Warming and Energy under the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the GEF. They face an enormous challenge, however, in pushing a reform agenda within a bank which, through a combination of ideological imperatives, bureaucratic inertia and material necessity, systematically favours projects and forms of energy production that contribute to climate change.

[1] This is because these technologies are relatively expensive to install but save money over the course of their lifetime.


The vagueness of commitments agreed at the international level leaves enormous scope for national discretion in priority-setting and policy-making. NGOs rely once again on nationally-oriented strategies and networks of influence described above in the subsection on agenda-setting. At this stage of the process they can bear witness to governments’ commitments, engage in whistle-blowing when commitments are being violated and engage in ‘naming and shaming’ strategies to expose those most guilty of failing to implement their commitments. One recent strategy in this respect has centred on shaming parties that buy ‘hot air’ quotas from Russia and other Central and East European countries in order to meet their commitments under Kyoto (Gulbrandsen and Andresen 2004: 70). To dissuade parties from exploiting these loopholes, Greenpeace developed a computer ‘loophole analysis’ which highlights the country-specific consequences of exploiting the loopholes. As noted below, however, despite the efforts of groups such as SinksWatch and CDM Watch, monitoring the multiplicity of private transactions that may be undertaken under the purview of the Clean Development Mechanism and its associated mechanisms presents a formidable task for groups wanting to assess the extent of countries’ commitments to genuine emissions reductions.


In many ways the threat of human-induced climate change represents a classic collective action problem. It is a problem which affects everyone and which, to different degrees, is caused by everyone. The scale of international cooperation that is required is in many ways without precedent. The sources of the problem are widespread and ingrained in the everyday practices of production and consumption. The problem spans from the global to the local level and therefore requires changes at all levels of human activity from the household upwards. This presents an enormous challenge for effective interventions. As Geoffrey Heal (1999: 222–3) notes, carbon dioxide is produced as a result of ‘billions of decentralised and independent decisions by private households for heating and transportation and by corporations for these and other needs, all outside the government sphere. The government can influence these decisions, but only indirectly through regulations or incentives.’


Climate change is increasing recognised as one of the most serious environmental threats facing humankind. The rapidly growing consensus about the severity of the issue is at odds with the slow rate of progress to date in addressing the problem through international cooperation. The re-election of President Bush in 2004 in the United States did nothing to stem the tide of concern about the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, the key pillar of the global political architecture for tackling climate change, despite the agreement’s recent entry into force as a result of its ratification by the Russian Duma (UNFCCC 2004). Against this background, Pettit (2004: 102) cites a climate activist who suggests that ‘The chances of our getting anywhere near where we need to be with international diplomacy are grim’. Other activists, though increasingly frustrated at the low returns from continued engagement with the negotiations, see Kyoto as in many ways the only game in town and are unwilling to give up on an agreement they worked so hard to secure. Stalemate continues to prevail over the extent to which, and the ways in which, developing countries should assume commitments to reduce their own emissions. This, and other key issues regarding the mechanisms for delivering the goals of Kyoto, and the UN Framework Convention before it, have served to create divisions within the environmental movement, mirroring those which continue to cause fissures within the broader international community.

But Peter Newell shows in Chapter 3 in this yearbook that, in fact, global civil society actors are now busy reconnecting class to risk even with respect to climate change, not just between but within societies. Since 2002, a self-styled ‘climate justice’ movement has joined the more conventional Northern-based environmental NGOs. It is not just more global and more radical, but also more holistic in its analysis than the old actors, who would not have connected greenhouse effects to either social justice or human rights.

In particular, as we argued in Global Civil Society 2003, the last 20 years witnessed the institutionalisation of a social movement industry (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001; Smith 1997; Kaldor 2003). Indeed, environmental NGOs now make up 1,781, or 4 per cent, of the over 50,000 INGOs reported by the Union of International Associations in Brussels. In 1980, there were about 200 and in 1924 just one. In recent years, their number has been growing between 3 and 5 per cent annually( Kaldor, Anheier and Glasius 2003). The new social movements, and the NGOs they spawned, provide the institutional connection between the drop in confidence in conventional, nation-state institutions and the growth of global civil society.  In the environmental and other fields, they helped fill and, in cases like the Brent Spar case, expanded the confidence gap.

The precautionary principle and world risk society

The precautionary principle

The modern, state-centred concept of risk assumed its most developed expression in what has become known as the precautionary principle of policy-making (Lofstedt 2003; European Commission 2000). In its simplest formulation, taken from the 1992 Rio Declaration, the principle states, ‘where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’ Subsequently, the application of the precautionary principle spread to other fields such as the chemical industry, pharmaceuticals, climate change, and even the threat of terrorism, although the term is largely used in relation to environmental risk. Indeed, it can be argued that the state’s responsibility for physical and material security – for protecting people against risks which range from nuclear war to poverty – was always an expression of the precautionary principle within the boundaries of the nation-state.

Oil has two characteristics that make it of particular interest from a global civil society perspective. First, oil is a global commodity in as much as it has been traded on the global market for decades. Both exporters and importers of oil have experienced the forces of globalisation, from interdependence to loss of sovereignty, before it became a pervasive phenomenon. Second, oil brings together concerns as diverse as war and human rights, development and environmental sustainability, governance and corporate responsibility. Therefore, oil campaigns involve the building of cross-border and cross-disciplinary activist networks and alliances.