Book Review - The New Climate Activism: NGO Authority and Participation in Climate Change Governance
The New Climate Activism: NGO Authority and Participation in Climate Change Governance by Jen Iris Allan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2020. 226 pp., $63.75 hardcover 9781487508388, $24.71 paperback 9781487525842, $24.71 e-book
Summer is the time of year when climate change dominates the public conversation, and it came earlier in 2021 than ever before. Hurricanes are battering the Caribbean, and record heat waves—exacerbated by climate change—are scorching Europe and Western North America, with wildfires increasingly encroaching on population centers. This year, over 100,000 acres have already burned than at the same time last year, though last year’s fire damage was record-breaking as well. Smaller, island nations are in a fight for their very survival.
Scientists agree that climate change is human-induced, but the question has long been how to create political will for the kind of measures needed to slow it. Despite the achievements of the Paris Accords, grounded in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, carbon emissions continue to rise, and a new International Panel on Climate Change report recently leaked while in draft suggests the world is nearing catastrophic tipping points. In this context, understanding how and why global civil society is or is not mobilizing for carbon reductions is a key research agenda of our age. Jen Iris Allan’s new book provides unique insights into these dynamics, while advancing scholarship on advocacy networks and regime complexes more broadly.
Allan’s new book, The New Climate Activism, examines the way in which climate advocacy has to be reconstituted from a purely environmental issue to a social one, drawing in efforts by multiple adjacent advocacy communities. And she explores an undertheorized question: why, how and with what effect a large issue like climate change can multiply across global forums, what this means for global governance, and whether it contains seeds of promise for a more robust international effort.
As a work of political science research, Allan’s book has numerous strengths. One is its methodological rigor. Many books in this genre are single case studies, or tackle the politics of advocacy networks using a single methodology. Allan uses a multi-method approach to sample and track what is happening in the climate change arena, combining quantitative network analysis to track the spread of climate advocacy beyond the environmental sector with a plethora of qualitative interviews, participant-observation at UN conferences, and content analysis of advocacy documents.
From this array of methods and data, however, Allan does advance a novel theoretical framework: that what she calls “forum-multiplying” is a form of agenda-setting itself, one with the power to transform global issues by linking not only issues together but entire regimes. As she notes on page 149, “NGOs’ forum-multiplying strategies can link regimes because, unlike with forum shopping or forum shifting, NGOs do not leave their home regime. They straddle multiple regimes, and this enable them to feed information to and from those regimes, building support and allies on all sides.” Thus, Allan’s work is not only a fresh look at climate politics but a different way to think about the politics of global issue networks more generally.
Another strength is its breadth of scope: Allan does not study just one advocacy network, but examines the politics of multiple advocacy communities’ efforts to incorporate and/or influence climate politics into and through their core agendas. In so doing, she is able to uncover a fascinating degree of variation: justice and labor networks were motivated and able to move into the climate arena. But health networks attempted to do so and failed due to being unable to identify a coherent frame. And with the human rights community has largely missed the opportunity to incorporate climate change into the work they do or influence the climate agenda, because they struggle to see the connections in light of their own agenda. The book does better at describing this variation, however, than by offering an overall argument that explains it.
The book would be stronger if the puzzle and argument were better specified. It is sometimes unclear whether the question is why certain niches of activists are willing to work on climate change while others aren’t, or why certain activists who do work on climate change have successfully reshaped the climate agenda while others have not? It’s sometimes unclear whether the book is about non-climate NGOs using climate to promote their own issues, versus climate NGOs using other issues to push climate change, versus non-climate NGOs joining climate NGOs in pushing climate solutions. Similarly, it’s sometimes unclear whether the unit of analysis is NGOs at all, or NGO networks, and where the boundaries of different networks lie if the story is one of networks morphing into one another.
Ultimately, these are different processes and different kinds of questions and answers, so it’s quite reasonably difficult, in a wide-ranging book about the overall picture, to get traction on any of them. But this is a problem for the regime complexity literature in general, not just for this author. What Allan does quite brilliantly, however, is paint a picture of regime complexity that focuses on how attention to climate change has proliferated globally in this new wave of activism, and open questions about what this means for climate as an issue and for climate governance.
As such, part of the value of this book is in setting a research agenda for the next wave of climate activism scholarship. One important area not studied in Allan’s analysis of the UNFCCC process, but presaged in her conclusion, are transnational movements that don’t use the UNFCCC as a hub at all. After all, the UN-based Paris Agreement on climate change, even if it achieves its goals, aims only to limit the average global temperature rise in this century to below 2 degrees Celsius, while “pursuing efforts” to limit it to 1.5 degrees and aiming for a “leveling off” of continued global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. And the agreement requires little of states other than that they report their emissions and pledge to work toward reducing them: countries set their own reduction targets, and there are no penalties for missing them. And even the targets are all about slowing continued fossil fuel use rather than ending it.
But other kinds of movements call for more drastic action. Allan mentions Extinction Rebellion and the Strike for the Climate movement, led by Greta Thunberg. In addition, there is the Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty, which seeks an outright freeze on oil exploration and a nonproliferation cum prohibition regime similar to what has been developed in the nuclear area. Allan may well be right that these new movements are the wave of the future, and that they owe much to the generation of climate activists she studies in her book, which transformed climate from an environmental problem to one implicating and engaging all sectors of society.
Charli Carpenter is Professor in the Department of Political Science and Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst specializing in international law and human security.