Climate change is here to stay: heat waves, flooding, and wildfires have become noticeably more frequent and severe. After years of inaction and despite decades of advanced notice by scientists, there is no longer a possibility of preventing additional changes from occurring. Scientists predict that enough greenhouse gases are already trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere to guarantee that the impacts of climate change will continue to worsen over the coming decades. When international climate negotiators gather for their next summit in Egypt in November, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), they will try to avert the most catastrophic scenarios and mobilize enough resources to help vulnerable populations adapt to the already inevitable impacts. Achieving these worthy goals, already behind schedule, will require unprecedented global cooperation in the near term.
Democratic and authoritarian regimes alike have much at stake and have participated actively in international climate negotiations. But it is becoming increasingly clear that authoritarian regimes are using their seat at the table to greenwash their reputational standing in the global community, potentially undermining the climate change commitments that will be announced at COP27.
The Case of the “Vietnam Four”
Vietnam is an emblematic example. For years, the government has imprisoned political dissidents but sent clear signals that people could speak up on a number of environmental issues. The open civic space around environmental issues yielded positive results — Vietnamese civil society worked closely with the government to adopt ambitious climate change goals that paved the way for the country to potentially receive billions of dollars in financing from the G7 during COP27.
Civil society organizations worked for over a decade to educate the Vietnamese public about the harm climate change will cause to rice production in the Mekong River Delta and other core parts of the economy. They also worked closely with the government on its commitment to phase out coal by 2040 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, which the government announced at last year’s climate summit to widespread international acclaim.
Just a few months before announcing its 2040 and 2050 climate goals, the Vietnamese government began to close the door for civil society participation in environmental issues. In June 2021, police arrested the country’s top public interest environmental lawyer, Dang Ding Bach, and two other climate advocates. Bach’s arrest and detention are notable in that he was charged ostensibly with tax evasion yet investigated by a national security agency and detained before any charges were filed. He has been held largely incommunicado ever since. Bach was repeatedly refused access to his lawyer, unable to see his wife, and unable to spend time with his infant son, who was born two weeks before his arrest. Earlier this year, he was sentenced to five years in prison, a punishment far beyond the typical sentences in Vietnam for tax evasion and the three years requested by the State prosecutor. Despite this harsh and unprecedented sentence, Bach has maintained his innocence.
Within months of Bach’s arrest, the Vietnamese government used the same tax laws to arrest Vietnam’s most famous environmental activist, Nguy Thi Khanh, winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize. Khanh was sentenced to two years in prison.
The imprisonment of four high-profile environmental defenders — known collectively the “Vietnam Four” — has had a chilling effect on Vietnamese civil society. All four were actively involved in climate change advocacy, including the government’s efforts to phase out coal. With these arbitrary detentions, the Vietnamese government has sent a clear message that climate change advocacy is now off-limits to the public.
The United Nations, United States, and EU raised concerns about the arrests at the highest diplomatic levels and have issued public statements of concern regarding Vietnam’s shrinking civic space. In June, for example, the U.S. State Department published a statement observing that several civil society leaders had been sentenced to prison on similar charges and saying that “[c]ivil society partners are a crucial part of helping countries like Vietnam meet their climate change and environmental protection goals.”
But during the same period, the United States, UK, and EU governments rushed to secure climate deals with the Vietnamese government in the run-up to COP27. In September, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi published a statement about the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s visit to Vietnam, announcing several new climate change initiatives and investments that made no mention of the very same civil society members detained in Vietnam who worked for over a decade to lay the groundwork for these deals.
The United States, UK, and EU governments appear to be struggling with a similar challenge – whether to compartmentalize discussions about Vietnam’s human rights record to avoid jeopardizing climate finance negotiations. Part of the complication in the Vietnam Four cases is that the Vietnamese government is successfully exploiting gray areas in the law that make it more difficult for the international community to respond. By relying on obscure tax law to imprison the civil society leaders, the Vietnamese government has been able to claim that its attacks are not politically motivated and were a simple law enforcement matter. In reality, it is a stark example of the “criminalization” of human rights defenders, which explains why so many civil society leaders were targeted, received such harsh sentences, and held incommunicado. The tax evasion narrative is strong enough to muddy the waters and make the international community hesitate before intervening.
Vietnam Is Not the Only Example
Yet even when the human rights violations are crystal clear, the international community has not always been sure how to respond. In 2021, several media outlets reported that China was trying to use climate change diplomacy to weaken U.S. pressure on its human rights record, especially after the U.S. government placed sanctions on China’s solar industry for its links to forced labor of Uyghur people. U.S. government agencies reportedly struggled internally when China’s actions created confusion between offices charged with reducing global greenhouse gas emissions versus those focused on stopping genocide, leading to allegations that senior Biden administration officials were lobbying against the forced labor protections.
Likewise, Vox journalist Jonathan Guyer published an investigation in October describing how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz had succeeded in rehabilitating his public image after ordering the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in part by using climate change. A think tank belonging to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and controlled by the Crown Prince held a conference on the sidelines of this year’s U.N. General Assembly in New York that focused on climate change investments. Guyer described how prominent American investors, academics, and nonprofit leaders attended and seemed willing to look past the assassination in the name of mobilizing more climate change funding.
This year’s U.N. climate change summit also poses challenges of its own. COP27 will be held in Egypt, a country that is both a strategic ally of the United States and a repressive regime with an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in its custody. The United Nations and Egyptian civil society organizations have already raised concerns that Egypt is blocking local civil society from participating in the summit and taking steps to mute concerns over its human rights record.
Authoritarian Governments Are Key Partners, but so Is Civil Society
At first glance, it might seem rational for Western governments to separate their climate change and human rights diplomacy. Some authoritarian countries like China are major polluters whose participation is necessary to reach global greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, while other authoritarian countries like Vietnam will be among the world’s hardest hit by climate change.
However, Western governments are taking a big risk by not linking their climate change goals more strategically to the protection of civic space. Support for civil society and human rights defenders is not just window dressing in a global climate change strategy. Rather, there’s a good chance that global climate action will fail without an active role for these local reformers.
Much like the industrial and internet revolutions, the transition to a low-carbon economy will cause major disruptions to the interests of society’s elites. A scramble is already underway to secure access to the critical resources and supply chains needed to scale up renewable energy technologies. Many of these resources require mining extraction and land acquisition in countries with weak governance systems, like the Democratic Republic of Congo. The risk of corruption, and related human rights abuses, is high.
In the worst case, the transition to a low-carbon economy could follow the pathway that Russia followed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Three decades ago, the West actively encouraged the privatization of the USSR’s state assets in order to remake Russia into a market-based economy. The intentions were good, but oligarchs seized most of the privatized assets, leading instead to the rise of a mafia state. We all know how that turned out.
Where successful societal transitions have occurred, civil society has always been at the forefront, acting as a check on the abuse of power. With the industrial revolution, civil society helped strengthen protections for workers and consumers. With the internet revolution, civil society put a spotlight on the misuse of digital technologies to infringe on people’s rights. As the world has worked to counter the malign influence of Russian oligarchs, civil society has played a central role in creating and expanding use of Global Magnitsky sanctions and other tools to hold Putin’s inner circle accountable. Without civil society and human rights defenders to speak truth to power, the transition to a low-carbon economy could veer in a direction that brings more harm than benefits.
In Vietnam, for example, now that civil society cannot track the government’s progress towards its commitments to phase out coal, it is easy to see how those with significant vested interests in the country’s multibillion-dollar coal industry will prevail in delaying or undermining progress.
The repression of civil society and human rights defenders will be front and center during COP27. Numerous civil society organizations will raise these concerns, while journalists covering the event will scrutinize Egypt’s behavior. Constituents of Western countries will expect their governments to have something to say about this issue.
During the summit, there are several steps that the international community can take to send a clear message that protecting civic space is a baseline expectation for all climate change action.
First, delegations from democracy-supporting states should demonstrate to authoritarian governments that they will stand up for civil society activists, including by calling publicly and persistently for the release of the Vietnam Four. They should encourage allies to raise this issue in every bilateral discussion with Vietnam. To avoid the perception that they are caving to international pressure, Vietnam’s government could commute the sentences and provide civil society with a grace period to comply with the obscure tax law, or at least allow the imprisoned climate activists to serve their sentences under house arrest or temporarily leave the country. Continuing to pressure Vietnam is strategic because failure to address this issue could have a ripple effect: we know that authoritarian leaders watch and learn from each other. Autocrats will note how the international community responds to Vietnam’s attacks on civil society.
Second, negotiators should develop a protocol for governments hosting future U.N. climate summits to guarantee robust participation for civil society. For years, civil society has raised concerns about restrictions on access, participation, and freedom of assembly at U.N. climate meetings. With respect to this year’s summit, the Egyptian government should stop blocking the participation of genuine Egyptian civil society and should not retaliate against those who speak up during the event. Likewise, the international community should closely monitor and respond to any cases of retaliation against civil society participants upon their return to their home countries.
Third, there are several opportunities to embed stronger protections for civic space into the actions that are taken at this year’s summit. This includes, for example, reporting on reprisals against civil society and human rights defenders as part of the “Global Stocktake” on progress made in implementing the Paris Agreement, strengthening the inclusion of access to information and public participation in countries’ national climate change policies through the “Action for Climate Empowerment” plan to be adopted during the summit, and creating a multi-stakeholder task force to propose future measures to strengthen protections for human rights defenders participating in U.N.-level and national climate change activities.
Finally, the U.S. and EU governments should plan to lead on this issue after the Egypt summit ends. For example, the Biden administration could feature climate change as a key issue in its sequel to the Democracy Summit scheduled for early 2023 — climate change was conspicuously absent from the inaugural Democracy Summit in December 2021. The first step to addressing this issue is to acknowledge it.
Stay Focused on the End Goal
The United States, UK, and EU need to collaborate with authoritarian regimes, but a successful global response to climate change also depends on civic participation. It is important to remember that the ultimate goal of international climate negotiations is to provide current and future generations with the opportunity to live safe, healthy, prosperous, and dignified lives. That’s also the goal of the human rights movement.