(Editor’s Note: The author discussed how to protect civic space and human rights at COP 28 on The Just Security Podcast. Listen to the episode here.)

In September, the New York Times reported on a secret recording of the United Arab Emirates’ plans to deflect scrutiny of its poor human rights record while it hosts this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12. The UAE has reportedly hired an army of public relations firms and consultants to help manage its reputation during the two-week event and keep international attention focused away from its crackdown on civic space. Their hope is to showcase the UAE as a global hub for green technology.

Following last year’s COP27, which took place in Egypt, COP28 will mark the second year in a row that an autocratic regime hosts the global climate change negotiations. The summit’s delegates will try to agree on next steps to respond to the growing climate crisis, while international civil society leaders and organizations gather to demand bolder action in the summit’s carefully contained “green zone,” insulated from the UAE’s public spaces and under the watchful eye of its robust surveillance systems.

The choice of such a repressive host provides a dramatic stage for some of the key issues likely to surface at COP28. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, will preside over the summit and is expected to resist the growing calls for a fossil fuel phaseout.

The UAE’s disregard for the U.N. human rights system also contrasts sharply with demands from civil society that governments treat the protection of civic space and human rights as integral parts of global climate negotiations. Each year, hundreds of environmental defenders on the frontlines of the climate crisis are assassinated, while thousands more face criminalization and other forms of attack, a trend which carries profound implications for the success of global climate action.

Yet the world’s largest democracies, including governments that have traditionally been champions of civic space and human rights, continue to lack a clear vision for protecting civic space in the climate change context. Their silence on this issue during climate negotiations – as illustrated by the U.S. negotiating position, which makes only two passing references to civil society – is allowing an authoritarian model of climate action to prevail.

Civic Space is Essential for Climate Solutions

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N. body that publishes authoritative assessments of climate science, warns that climate change effects have already arrived, and that the world is not on track to prevent average global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Temperature increases beyond that point mark when climate change will become potentially irreversible. To stay within this limit, the world needs to reduce emissions by 43 percent below 2019 levels by 2030. Current commitments arising out of U.N. climate negotiations would only result in a 7 percent reduction. As the IPCC notes, the “window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all” is “rapidly closing.”

The possibility of crossing the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold in the next decade has prompted scientists to call for drastic, unprecedented measures, including phasing out fossil fuels, ending deforestation, and mobilizing trillions of dollars in climate financing. World leaders, including U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Pope Francis, and the Elders – a group of former heads of State and other dignitaries founded by Nelson Mandela – have echoed these calls.

In times of crisis, some people gravitate towards authoritarian strongmen. However, there is no evidence that necessary climate reforms can be accomplished exclusively through the top-down, technocratic approaches that authoritarians favor. Centralized planning built around national level targets often fails to account for the nuanced aspects of societal reform that can only come to light through public participation and independent monitoring of progress. According to the IPCC, “broad and meaningful participation of all relevant actors in decision making at all scales can build social trust which builds on equitable sharing of benefits and burdens of mitigation that deepen and widen support for transformative changes.”

We are already seeing the climate benefits of open civic space. Local communities are driving the innovation of new climate solutions. Indigenous communities are leading efforts to stop deforestation, safeguarding biodiverse regions, and spearheading clean energy projects. Social justice movements have mobilized to stop new fossil fuel development. Civil society organizations are serving as watchdogs to prevent corruption from undermining climate change financing. Community voices will be critical in ensuring that the race to acquire critical minerals, which are essential to power electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies,  respects human rights. And these efforts are just the tip of the iceberg.

Civic Space Needs Greater Protection

These climate benefits cannot arise, however, if governments and the private sector are actively restricting civic space and punishing those who try to participate in public life.  While authoritarian regimes such as the UAE and China are responsible for many of these restrictions, democratic governments also share responsibility. Most of the reported killings of environmental defenders take place in democratic countries and are linked to business activities. The United States and the European Union have also drawn scrutiny for their attempts to punish climate activists’ civil disobedience with disproportionately harsh penalties. In the United States, for example, 20 states have passed “critical infrastructure” laws that convert protest-related misdemeanors such as trespassing near oil, gas, and mining projects into felonies.

The centerpiece of the COP28 negotiations will be the “Global Stocktake” – essentially a report card for the international community on how well it is doing to fulfill the commitments of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. This is an important moment for the international community, both to acknowledge the links between civic space and climate change solutions, as well as the need to better protect civic space.

Although the Global Stocktake is evidence-based, it will emerge first and foremost as a political process requiring governments to settle on a narrative to explain why the climate crisis continues to worsen. That narrative will in turn set the stage for what steps the international community prioritizes in the coming years. In a recent analysis of government positions, the U.K.-based climate policy site Carbon Brief anticipates heated debate at COP28 between developing and developed countries on whether the narrative should consider the historical drivers of the climate crisis or only look forward to solutions, including whether to phase out fossil fuels.

In September, the U.N. released a technical report to inform the Global Stocktake negotiations which repeatedly describes the importance of civil society, indigenous communities, and public participation. But the report misses an opportunity to call out the widespread crackdowns on civic space that are chilling public participation in climate activism.

So far, two negotiating blocs of countries – the Asociación Independiente de Latinoamérica y el Caribe and the Environmental Integrity Group – have called for protection of civic space and environmental defenders to be a part of the Global Stocktake. Several of the countries in these blocs, such as Mexico and Colombia, have experienced high levels of violence against environmental defenders in recent years and are actively looking for solutions. Meanwhile, the United States, the EU, and nations and groups that usually champion democracy, human rights, and civic space in multilateral spaces have remained silent.

Why is Civic Space Being Sidelined?

There are at least two reasons why democratic governments are sidelining civic space in climate change negotiations. First, U.N. climate negotiations are based on the principle that everyone – including autocratic regimes like China – needs to play their part in curbing climate change. Many policymakers believe that too much talk of civic space and human rights could scare these stakeholders away from the table. Indeed, China has threatened to abandon its climate cooperation efforts for these reasons in the past, although it also has strong incentives for staying involved in climate negotiations, especially given its strategic decision to become the world’s leading supplier of renewable energy technologies.

Second, many authoritarian petrostates are planning further oil and gas development and have powerful allies in the fossil fuel industry, including the hundreds of representatives who will attend COP28. As many civil society groups push to stop new fossil fuel development, the industry and petrostates have a shared interest in sidelining the issue from the range of climate change solutions. The industry also has a long track record of abuses against its critics, such as its widespread use of judicial harassment tactics in the United States, as well as a powerful lobbying apparatus that has incentivized lawmakers to delay climate action for decades. Many democratic governments are still beholden to the fossil fuel industry. Indeed, the United States is responsible for more than one-third of all planned global oil and gas expansion through 2050, outpacing China, Russia, the UAE, and other authoritarian regimes.

These two pressures – from authoritarian regimes and the fossil fuel industry – are the likely reasons why governments that have traditionally championed democracy, human rights, and civic space in the international system have tried to keep these issues on separate tracks from climate change.

Where Do We Go Next?

Without a doubt, engagement with authoritarian countries must continue. Repressive regimes do not get a free pass when it comes to their climate change responsibilities. Nevertheless, democracies can do much more to strengthen protections for civic space.

In particular, the United States, the EU, and other key States can make ambitious commitments that go beyond whatever consensus might emerge during this year’s global negotiations. They can also work together in negotiating blocs to advance a human rights-based approach to climate change.

Key next steps include:

  • Ensuring that Global Stocktake political statements highlight the essential role that civic space plays in successful climate solutions, as well as the need to do more to protect civic space.
  • Convening a human rights and civic space negotiating bloc for future COPs, especially one that is dedicated to the protection of environmental defenders. COP30, which will take place in the Brazilian Amazon, would provide an optimal moment for such a bloc to announce high-level political commitments on environmental defenders and civic space, because Brazil has experienced more killings of environmental defenders than any other country over the past decade.
  • Creating a civic space protection mechanism for climate financing through which donor governments can engage with recipient countries and ensure that climate financing does not contribute to or legitimize crackdowns on civic space, in order to prevent a recurrence of what has happened in Vietnam. The mechanism could build on the strong foundations of the 2021 civic space recommendations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee, which helps set standards for international development cooperation and humanitarian assistance.

Of the last 125,000 years of Earth’s history, the past twelve months were the hottest on record. The Earth has limits. While we have not yet reached the dangerous 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold, that point might arrive in less than a decade. Meeting this challenge requires all hands on deck – which means that the international community needs to create and protect the space for the public to participate in this collective effort before time runs out.

IMAGE: The president of the upcoming COP28 climate change Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber (C) speaks during the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition at ADNEC Exhibition Center Oct. 2, 2023. (Photo by RYAN LIM/AFP via Getty Images)