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Climate campaigns down the pan

Richard Black | 17:01 UK time, Thursday, 29 July 2010

Apologies issued by two campaign groups, WWF and Oxfam, may or may not bring to a close one of the more bizarre yet telling episodes that have materialised within the UN climate convention.

Red Sea region from spaceAt the convention's annual two-week session in June in Bonn, activists removed the nameplate of the Saudi Arabian delegation from the conference hall, broke it, put it inside a toilet bowl and took a bunch of souvenir photographs.

The nameplate is what sits in front of delegations in the conference hall and what identifies them to the chair and everyone else; in symbolic terms, you can also view it as a totem of the country and its sovereignty.

The episode started with a proposal put forward to the conference by some small developing countries.

They were requesting that a technical analysis be prepared of options that the global community would have to consider taking should it be decided that the rise in average global temperatures since pre-industrial times should be limited to 1.5C.

The existence of such a document could influence wording put into draft treaties that might be drawn up in future.

And this was something that Saudi Arabia - supported by Kuwait, Qatar and Venezuela - did not want to permit, even in the teeth of some unusually frank criticism from their habitual allies in the developing country bloc.

The Saudis, in particular, have regularly been accused down the years of trying to stymie progress within the climate convention and other forums in an attempt to protect their oil industries.

Put this history together with their opposition to the 1.5C proposal, and you have the reason why the activists did what they did.

Oil tanker

From a reporters' point of view, it led to a surreal morning in the corridors outside the meeting rooms.

Representatives of campaign groups who are usually only too happy to give journalists information or pictures suddenly clammed up.

The pictures clearly existed - but mysteriously, no-one seemed to know who had taken them or where they might be. Organisations that usually complain bitterly about lack of openness and transparency in the UN process became markedly less open and transparent themselves.

The Saudis were incensed by the act, seeing it as an insult to their nation, and their protests were backed by other national delegations, keen to preserve good order in the diplomatic ranks. The secretariat of the UN climate convention was asked to mount an investigation.

It was a dicey situation for the campaign groups involved - and at that stage, we didn't know who they were - because such an event could mean they would lose the right to attend UN climate talks, and in principle, other UN bodies as well.

Well, now WWF and Oxfam have 'fessed up.

"The incident was gravely offensive to the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and to the meeting as a whole,"

... said WWF, whose delegate appears to have actually taken the plate and put it in the toilet bowl. (There are stories that both male and female toilets were involved, but these waters are far from clear.)

"The act itself was offensive, inexcusable and inappropriate. It broke UN rules that govern NGO behaviour,"

... said Oxfam International's executive director Jeremy Hobbs.

Oxfam's delegate was in the room when the decision to remove the nameplate was taken, but didn't actually carry it to the can.

The WWF person involved doesn't work for them anymore; the Oxfam employee has been suspended. Both have been barred from future UN climate meetings; and WWF is drawing up a code of conduct for its campaigners.

Clearly, part of both organisations' strategies in issuing such fulsome public apologies is to ensure that the damage stops there, and that the groups' influence in the climate arena doesn't disappear down the pan.

Christiana FigueresThey're planning to apologise again to the full meeting of the climate convention when negotiations re-open next week.

Whether this will be the end of the affair isn't certain, but it looks likely.

I haven't yet received a reply to an e-mail I sent asking whether Saudi Arabia considers the matter closed; but even if it doesn't, there's unlikely to be wider support for stronger measures such as the suspension of either organisation.

Both have done and continue to do a lot of research and analysis on climate change, sometimes working with governments, and often valued by them.

Many governments in the rich and poor worlds alike are likely to have more sympathy for these groups in private than for the Saudis.

Within the wider community of environmental groups and other organisations campaigning on the issue, there's a general recognition that the toilet incident was unwise at the very least and damnably stupid at the worst.

As well as risking the banning of the groups involved, the wider community sees its credibility diminished in some peoples' eyes; and the arguments that some countries make for keeping civil society organisations out of intergovernmental processes receive new ammunition.

But some are asking a different question: who is the real villain here?

Is putting a nameplate under water, albeit in the unpleasant context of a toilet bowl, more or less serious than blocking a proposal that could help prevent some small island states and heavily-populated coastal zones from disappearing under the sea?

After all, Saudi Arabia signed up to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment, so logically the government accepts its projections as at least credible.

At the end of the June meeting, the diplomatic noise over the toilet episode obscured this wider concern; and that's another reason why activists generally appear to think it was a stupid thing to do.

But that one incident doesn't turn everything the NGOs are saying into a busted flush; and once the waters subside, the bigger concerns will still be there.


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