Public participation in climate governance

In this background, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach

Durdana Najam June 15, 2023
The writer is a public policy analyst based in Lahore. She tweets @durdananajam


Climate change is about each one of us. If an industrialist is adding to the carbon concentration in the atmosphere by using fossil fuel, a woman somewhere in the interior of Africa might be doing the same when she burns wood in her kitchen to cook a meal for her children and family. An agriculturist and a farmer are equally responsible for polluting the environment when they burn stubble to clear their field for a fresh harvest. When we throw plastic into the sea while enjoying on the beaches and ignore recycling instructions on packaging or take for granted disposal guidance for domestic or hospital waste, we are all putting our share in loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses leading to climate change. Contaminated water, polluted air, overflowing sewerage, stubble burning, dark fumes from a broken engine or coal-fired power plants or trash sitting on streets are all affecting the climate leading to devastating outcomes — torrential rains, heatwaves, flooding, long summers, melting glaciers, rise in sea level, etc.

In this background, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach. We must change how we interact with nature and understand the issue’s sensitivity. We all need awareness about climate change, proper information about environmental pollutants, and the right to information about government’s actions on climate change. In 1992 the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, recognising the importance of public participation in climate governance, incorporated Principle 10 , which says: “Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available.”

This argument was carried forward by other international environmental institutions, such as the UNEP Bali Guidelines, International Human Rights Institutions and Agenda 2030. The Aarhus Convention in 1998 and the Escazu Agreement in 2017 also emphasised the principle of public participation in environmental decision-making. Both instruments viewed climate change in the context of the human rights of the individuals and communities being directly impacted by environmental decisions.

Given the increasing importance of a participatory approach to combat climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 1.5 Celsius Special Report, stated: “Civil society is to a great extent the only reliable motor for driving institutions to change at the pace required.”

Article 12 , of the Agreement further says: “Taking measures to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information, recognising the importance of these steps with respect to enhancing actions under this Agreement.”

Article 6 of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change seeks to mitigate the impact of climate change by making society part of the solution. It says: “Initiatives that are diverse, innovative and resource-efficient. They can include practical action in formal and informal education and training. These initiatives may cut across different types of learning, from preschooler classes and seminar rooms of universities, to vocational training and lifelong learning.”

For the last several decades, the discussion has shifted from government to governance. The former denoted a system involving a few institutions with a defined work methodology. Its limited scope did not allow the system to use the knowledge, experience and skills of relevant institutions, actors and people outside the government framework. Governance, on the other hand, is a process of decision-making that involves diverse people, institutions and actors. Governance talks about the rights and privileges of every segment. It is about power-sharing. Everyone becomes relevant in decision-making, from the leader sitting atop the party structure to the common man in the street. Governance gives citizens autonomy of actions, independence of thought and a process for collective action through civic engagement.

Participation is a broad term. Some scholars talk about participation in the context of the public only. For others, participation refers to stakeholders or some particular communities and organisations. Normally stakeholder is used when referring to a specific field. The term public, on the other hand, is used in the context of democratic participation as a fundamental right (general public). Nevertheless, both terms are used in the climate change discussion because of overlapping.

The consideration that climate governance is best dealt with a participatory approach is not new. In fact, stakeholder engagement has been part of every national and international agreement on climate change.

However, public engagement in due course became a cliche devoid of spirit and rigour. Upon close observation, it revealed that instead of rehabilitating the state of living of those most hurt by climate change, such as the marginalised and poor people, they were instead used as fodder by those with the ambition to milk climate funds that run in billions of dollars. For genuine participation, people should have an overwhelming presence in the accountability process to ensure that policies are implemented on target.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 15th, 2023.

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