Non-Governmental Organizations Wield Great Influence Over Climate Treaty

Published December 1, 1997

For much of its history, the United Nations has relied heavily on the participation of non-governmental organizations–self-appointed guardians of the environment and the public good. Recently, the non-governmental organization–“NGO” in UN parlance–has taken on increased importance, most notably in global climate change negotiations. Environmental groups in particular have used their official UN observer status to push for strident greenhouse gas emission targets, and they played a major role in the public debate leading up to December’s global warming conference in Kyoto, Japan.

The global warming lobby has made serious demands on the world’s governments. Greenpeace, for example, insists that industrialized countries reduce their carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2005. Other groups, however, deny that even that effort would be sufficient to avert a global warming catastrophe. “To stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere at their current levels” writes Ozone Action, “would require an immediate reduction of emissions by 50-70 percent, with further reductions later.”

At various climate negotiations, NGOs have influenced the proceedings by publishing daily newsletters. Eco, produced by the Climate Action Network, and Earth Negotiations Bulletin, from the Canada-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, are journals that have reported and editorialized on the issues under consideration at such negotiations. Bombarding negotiators with daily tips and admonitions, these and other NGO outlets provide a rhetorical framework and set a radical ideological tone for conference delegates.

Environmental NGOs have played a substantial role in the public debate over global warming and were nearly successful in silencing dissent by their opponents. In October 1997, Cable News Network (CNN) announced it would discontinue the airing of issue advertisements paid for by the Global Climate Information Project, a coalition of auto, chemical, and oil companies. The Environmental Information Center, an advocacy group, had complained to CNN that industry’s anti-climate treaty ads were inaccurate.

Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business Survival Committee and cosponsor of the advertisements, complained that CNN’s decision would “shut down debate and shut out millions of voices” that oppose the climate treaty. Several days later, having been inundated by protests from the business community, CNN reversed its decision to suppress the ads.

Environmental groups also played a key role in formulating the Clinton administration’s strategy for the Kyoto conference. Vice President Gore, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and President Clinton himself met with leaders of fourteen NGOs–including the Environmental Defense Fund, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Ralph Nader’s U.S. Public Interest Research Group–in preparation for an October 6 White House conference on climate change. The groups pressed the administration to come through with a tough U.S. proposal for Kyoto, including strict targets and carbon-reduction timetables.

James M. Sheehan is research associate at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.