Abstract

Observer organizations in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are clustered into nine constituency groups. Each constituency has a “focal point” (representative) to mediate between the Secretariat and the 1800 NGOs admitted during each Conference of the Parties meeting by collating information, coordinating interactions, offering logistical support, and providing collective representation. Drawing upon a series of interviews with constituency groups and other qualitative data, we explore how the focal point of each constituency group remains accountable to the observer organizations he or she represents. We make two major contributions. First, we map the accountability mechanisms that exist between the observer organizations and focal points in each constituency. Second, we argue that variation in the usage of accountability mechanisms across constituencies corresponds to the existence of parallel bodies operating outside the UNFCCC. This article speaks to broader issues of accountability and representation in global climate governance.

Political representation—the act of speaking on behalf of others—is a pervasive element of today’s globalized world. Within global environmental governance, in particular, claims of representation abound. At the 20th United Nations (UN) Conference of Parties (COP) in Lima, Peru, representatives from the Climate Action Network (CAN)—speaking on behalf of its 900 members—called for governments to “show clear and tangible progress on an agreement that will be finalized in Paris” (CAN 2014). Likewise, the trade union constituency claimed their member bodies were “united in a call for a global framework for action on climate change that prevents a concentration of GHG emissions in the atmosphere” (Trade Unions 2014). Finally, representatives from the Women and Gender constituency argued that parties are “failing to implement solutions that take into account the critical role of women and the importance of gender equality in tackling climate change” (Women and Gender 2014).

As these examples highlight, nonstate actors within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) often engage in making representative claims.1 And as the number of nonstate actors accredited as observer organizations in the UNFCCC continues to rise, so does the importance of these claims. Observer organizations in the UNFCCC are clustered into nine different constituency groups.2 Each constituency has a designated “focal point,” a representative who acts as an intermediary between the Secretariat and the more than 1800 observer organizations admitted during each COP meeting, by collating information, ensuring participation, coordinating interactions, offering logistical support, and providing collective representation. Given the prominence and prevalence of representative claims by nonstate actors in the UNFCCC, questions do arise about how, and to whom, these agents are accountable.

The aim of this article is to examine how nonstate actors in the UNFCCC are rendered accountable by those they formally claim to represent. Specifically, we engage in case study analysis of the constituency groups in the UNFCCC to examine two questions: Through what modes and mechanisms can observer organizations within each constituency (the represented) hold the focal point to account? And what explains the variation in the number and designs of these mechanisms between different constituency groups? These questions correspond with the two main contributions of this article. First, we map the accountability mechanisms at play across each constituency group within the UNFCCC. Second, we discuss—and provide an explanation for—the variation in the number and types of accountability mechanisms used in different constituency groups. We highlight how several constituencies have transferred governance functions to organizations outside the UNFCCC to align preferences and manage internal diversity. Consequently, these same constituencies have fewer accountability mechanisms within the UNFCCC system to curtail the focal point. While accountability of the focal points may occur in those outside organizations, exercising governance beyond the UNFCCC undermines the ability of observers listed with a constituency group—but who are not members of the external organization—to demand accountability for representative claims.

To undertake our analysis, we draw upon a range of primary and secondary sources, including UNFCCC documents, data from event observations, position papers from different constituency groups, the websites of various NGOs, and academic publications. This research is supplemented by 45 semistructured interviews from the Bonn Intersessionals in 2013 and 2015 and from COP19 in Warsaw, COP20 in Lima, and COP21 in Paris. The interviews cover the focal points for each constituency group, a range of individuals from different observer organizations, and the UNFCCC Secretariat.3 Our identification of accountability mechanisms, as well as explanation of the variation across constituencies, was arrived at inductively as we surveyed the academic field and engaged in interviews and participatory observation.

The article includes five sections. First, we canvass current work on the representation and accountability of nonstate actors in global environmental governance and outline a lens of accountability to advance thinking on contestation and power struggles between nonstate actors. Second, we provide background to the UNFCCC system, with special attention to the roles and characteristics of the nine constituency groups and their respective focal points. Third, we map each constituency group and explicate the range of accountability mechanisms that operate between the focal point and a constituency’s members. Fourth, we expound our empirical findings and show how each constituency group finds specific mechanisms to hold the focal point accountable. We explain variation across the groups by looking at whether the constituency group operates in parallel with an organization outside the UNFCCC. Our findings suggest that nonstate actors can be accountable to those they formally represent, but that in-depth analysis of power dynamics and their institutional context is required. The final section summarizes and outlines future directions for research.

Nonstate Actors in Global Environmental Governance: Representation and Accountability

It is increasingly recognized that nonstate actors in global environmental governance make representative claims on behalf of others (Dombrowski 2010). In this article, we use the analytical lens of accountability to interrogate the representative-represented relationship (Newell 2008, 128). Specifically we employ Grant and Keohane’s (2005, 29) notion of accountability to map how the represented set standards for their representatives, judge whether the representatives have fulfilled their responsibilities in light of those standards, and impose sanctions if those responsibilities have not been met. In turn, we look at how representatives can satisfy or elude responsibilities, by unpacking how the represented are included in, or excluded from, accountability mechanisms (Newell 2008; Sending and Neumann 2006, 658). As such, this lens enables us to discuss why accountability mechanisms arise in some institutional contexts but not others, and how the represented-representative relationship operates in practice. We look at how day-to-day power struggles between nonstate actors feed in to the politics of accountability and representation, against the backdrop of rules and norms that constitute international climate diplomacy.

To make this topic more tractable, we hone in on how focal points are held to account by observer organizations within the UNFCCC. This research fits within the broader literature on the role of nonstate actors in global environmental governance. To date, this work has contained two major threads: one analyzing the normative legitimacy of nonstate actors, and the other unpacking their influence and effects. On the former topic, Paul Wapner (1996), Peter Newell (2008), Elisabeth Friedman and coauthors (2005), David Ciplet (2014), and many others have probed how civil society actors—who are often considered (or present themselves as) harbingers of more legitimate and just climate governance—live up to standards of democracy, justice, representation, and accountability. On the latter, Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink (1998) have done much work analyzing the tactics and influence of nonstate actors in transnational advocacy networks spanning climate governance, human rights, and other issue areas. Michele Betsill and Elisabeth Corell (2001; 2008) have striven to determine whether, how, and under which conditions NGOs influence international negotiations. Harriet Bulkeley and coauthors (2014) have documented the plethora of nonstate actors in transnational climate governance and examined how these agents legitimize their newfound authority. Jennifer Hadden (2015) uses network analysis to explain the choice of tactics in an increasingly diversified and divided climate change movement, and how those choices in turn impact the mobilization and exercise of political influence in the UNFCCC.

Although in both threads scholars are interested in the accountability and representation of nonstate actors in climate governance, these topics have largely been approached separately (Betsill and Corell 2008). For instance, the accountability of nonstate actors in climate governance has generated a wealth of scholarship. Peter Newell (2008) has extensively categorized how nonstate actors turn accountability demands against business and public authorities for their (lack of) action. Peter Willetts (2011) has examined the accountability of nonstate actors in the wider UN system. Karin Bäckstrand (2008) has developed a typology to capture the accountability of nonstate actors in public-private partnerships. Likewise, Jessica Green (2014, 177–178) has studied the emergence of private authority in global environmental governance. She identifies two kinds of private authority—delegated and entrepreneurial—with accountability being more problematic in the latter. While productive, this work has often omitted questions of representation.

Alternatively, many other scholars have probed how nonstate actors operate as representatives in global environmental governance. Betsill and Corell (2008, 2) argue that NGOs in environmental diplomacy “act as diplomats who, in contrast to government diplomats, represent constituencies that are not bound by territory but by common values, knowledge, and/or interests.” Johannes Kruse (2014) has looked at how and why women are included in state delegations in the UNFCCC and the implications of this inclusion for descriptive representation. Dana Fisher (2010) has examined the tensions and power struggles within the climate movement between reformist and climate justice NGOs after the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. Heike Schroeder and coauthors (2012, 834) have mapped the various state and nonstate representatives in climate governance, rightly noting that “the boundaries between who constitutes an ‘authorized’ representative (and who does not) and who has agency have shifted.” Much of this work on representation, though, has not attended to the issue of accountability.

This article moves beyond these literatures in two ways. First, although some scholars have begun examining the connections between representation and the accountability of nonstate actors, these treatments remain at a fairly high level of abstraction, involving theoretical analysis, detailed typologies, or surveys of transnational climate governance activities in general (Bulkeley et al. 2014; Dombrowski 2010; Gareau 2012; Stevenson and Dryzek 2014). In contrast, we undertake an in-depth empirical analysis of nonstate actors within the UNFCCC—including observation and interviews at COPs and Intersessionals—to uncover how accountability mechanisms are manifest in practice. Our lens enables us to look at how the represented constituencies set standards, monitor their implementation, and sanction their representatives (or are excluded from doing so) as part of ongoing political battles between observer organizations and focal points within constituencies. This examination is important because, as Peter Newell (2008, 128) argues, “the analytical lens of accountability can also bring into sharp relief power imbalances within systems of global governance.”

Second, our lens also permits us to look at how nonstate actors are held to account by other nonstate actors. Previous scholarship has tended to look at how civil society holds government or business to account, or by contrast, how governments and stakeholders render nonstate actors accountable. Much less work has been done on the way that nonstate actors turn accountability demands against one another. This warrants attention because within the UNFCCC, nonstate actors routinely claim to speak for other nonstate actors in attempts to mobilize support and legitimize their actions. Because formal institutional structures often have means of collective representation, work is required for mapping and understanding how nonstate actors remain accountable to those they are supposed to represent.4 To our knowledge, this study is the first to identify, systematize, and analyze the representation and accountability of focal points within the UNFCCC system.

Although we focus on mapping and analyzing representation through the analytical lens of accountability, our results speak to neo-Gramscian and Foucauldian governmentality critiques of civil society (Lipschutz 1996; Methmann et al. 2013; Stripple and Bulkeley 2013; for a synthesis, see Okereke et al. 2009). Neo-Gramscians posit that civil society actually works in the service of the hegemonic capitalist and intergovernmental order (Ford 2003). Foucauldians, in a similar vein, argue that governments engage in practices and tactics to direct and define civil society activities (Okereke et al. 2009; Sending and Neumann 2006). In particular, they are interested in how the microphysics of power aggregate to create structures of governance. Our empirical findings highlight how nonstate actors within the UNFCCC, bound already by formal institutional rules, routinely turn accountability demands against one another for representative claims. This emphasizes how nonstate actors structure and even discipline each other within frameworks crafted by state governments, helping to legitimize the current order and make civil society actors more governable (Gareau 2012, 91). By looking at microbattles for power and institutional rules, our empirical analysis lends itself to a neo-Gramsian and Foucauldian interpretation. Although we think that these literatures have much to offer, we limit ourselves to mapping accountability mechanisms and explaining their variation by analyzing how power dynamics unfold in the context of nonstate actor representation.

The UNFCCC, Nonstate Actors, and Constituency Groups

UNFCCC: States and Nonstate Actors

From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, the UN played a crucial role in the governance of global climate change (Biermann et al. 2009). The UNFCCC in particular coalesced into a central pivot of the climate change regime and put the issue of anthropogenic global warming on the global agenda. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol reaffirmed the notion that the UNFCCC was the central venue to negotiate greenhouse gas emission reductions. Since the turn of the century, though, the centralized nature of global climate governance has given way to a more fragmented and polycentric system. The 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen—framed as a legitimacy crisis for climate diplomacy—reinforced the institutional fragmentation of climate policy architecture and invited debates on “regime complexes” (Biermann et al. 2009; Keohane and Victor 2011). The Copenhagen Accord also paved the way for a decentralized system of bottom-up pledges for carbon emission reductions, replacing quantified targets and timetables. This system was formalized in the Lima Call for Climate Action, as countries agreed to submit their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) in the lead-up to Paris (ENB 2015, 41).

Although the Paris Agreement in 2015 has reaffirmed the importance of the UNFCCC in tackling climate change, years of multilateral gridlock sparked interest in the emergence and effects of new modes of public, private, and hybrid transnational climate governance (Andonova et al. 2009; Bäckstrand 2008; Bulkeley et al. 2014). This has led to recognition of the growing number and importance of nonstate actors, both outside and inside the UNFCCC system (Betsill and Corell 2008; Biermann et al. 2009; Green 2014; Newell 2008). Outside the UNFCCC, multistakeholder partnerships (such as the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership), voluntary and market-based standard-setters (such as Gold Standard), civil society organizations, and subnational bodies occupy key roles in the mitigation of climate change. Within the UNFCCC, nonstate actors are increasingly on numerical parity with government delegates (whose delegations also increasingly include nonstate actors). COP21 in Paris gathered 36,000 participants, of whom 23,100 were governmental representatives, 9,400 observers from civil society and UN agencies, and the remainder media representatives (ENB 2015). Ahead of the Paris summit, the UNFCCC established the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action to bolster private sector and subnational climate action through voluntary commitments. Overall, it is well recognized that nonstate actors are a vital part of the UNFCCC system, performing diverse functions such as organizing side events, providing expertise and information, lobbying national delegates, organizing protests, monitoring implementation, and so on. Given these roles, it is important to probe the representation and accountability of these actors in ways that attend to the power struggles between nonstate actors (Grant and Keohane 2005; Kruse 2014; Newell 2008).

Observer Organizations, Constituency Groups, and Focal Points

At COP20 in Lima, more than 1800 nonstate actors were accredited and admitted as observer organizations as part of the nine constituency groups (UNFCCC 2014). To receive accreditation, an organization had to be nonprofit—such as an NGO or an industrial branch organization—nonviolent, and noncriminal. This model of institutionalized participation emerged from the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, where Agenda 21 divided civil society into Major Groups (Willetts 2011). The UNFCCC has subsequently adopted such a system of organizing civil society into constituencies to facilitate coordination and interaction (Muñoz Cabré 2011).

The first two constituency groups to organize within the UNFCCC system were the business and industry NGOs (BINGO) and environmental NGOs (ENGO). At COP1 in 1995, local government and municipal authorities (LGMA) joined the fold, followed by the indigenous peoples’ organizations (IPO) at COP7 in 2001, the research and independent NGOs (RINGO) at COP9 in 2003, and trade union NGOs (TUNGO) before COP14/CMP4 in 2008 (UNFCCC 2014). Women and Gender, along with youth NGOs (YOUNGO), became full constituencies in 2007, just before COP17. Currently, farmers and agricultural NGOs (Farmers) have provisional status as a constituency group at the COP. These nine constituency groups include around 90 percent of all NGOs admitted during each COP (with Climate Justice Now! [CJN]—once part of ENGO—being a notable exception). Although there is clearly much crossover between the groups, each constituency stands for a different set of interests and ideas. Observer groups are allowed to list themselves with more than one constituency group when they become accredited, but this is not a common choice, indicating that many groups feel aligned with their constituency.5

Being part of a constituency group is not mandatory, but it is certainly beneficial for observer groups according to most of our informants, who argue that constituency membership amplifies voice, visibility, and influence in the negotiations.6 Constituency members receive access to the plenary floor to make interventions, allocation of secondary badges when site access is limited, advance information from the Secretariat, information through daily meetings with the constituency group, occasional invitations to ministerial receptions, access to bilateral meetings with officials, and invitations by the Secretariat to limited-access workshops between sessional periods.7 In interviews with many observer organizations, it is evident that these functions give NGOs greater access and participation within the UNFCCC system that complement traditional insider strategies (such as lobbying and providing information to government delegations).8

Structurally, each constituency interacts with the Secretariat through a focal point. Six of the groups have one focal point (BINGO, ENGO, TUNGO, RINGO, LGMA, and Farmers), and the remaining three (Women and Gender, IPO, and YOUNGO) have two focal points (UNFCCC 2015). The jobs of the focal point are to pass information between the Secretariat and the constituency, assist the Secretariat in ensuring effective NGO participation (i.e., that UNFCCC rules are followed by the observer groups), and provide logistical support to their constituencies during sessions. Moreover, focal points provide collective representation for their constituencies. For instance, the focal point coordinates observer interactions at sessions, convenes constituency meetings, organizes meetings with officials, provides names for speaker lists, and offers “representation at official functions” (UNFCCC 2014). This representation occurs at semiannual meetings, when all focal points meet with the Secretariat to convey the interactions between, and interests of, their constituency organizations. The focal point also assists “the Secretariat in realizing representative observer participation at workshops and other limited-access meetings” (UNFCCC 2014). Observer organizations can contact the Secretariat directly, without going through a focal point. However, the institutionalized channels of communication between focal points and the Secretariat make it more time effective and authoritative to work within these relationships.

In many instances, then, the focal point is required to speak on behalf of the constituency, choose which information to present to and take from the Secretariat, convene and chair group meetings, meet with other focal points outside the COP to discuss constituency interests, and build networks. The focal point has much leeway to determine how and which information is relayed between the Secretariat and the rest of the constituency group, the manner in which competing interests are adjudicated at group meetings, and how the constituency is represented at workshops and other meetings. Although several interviewees claimed that the focal point’s role is just to funnel or reflect constituency views,9 many others stressed instances in which the focal point stands as a representative of the constituency at the COP and throughout the year.10

The remainder of this article is centered on the nexus of representation and accountability that exists between focal points and the observer organizations in each constituency. We recognize that this is just one limited case of nonstate actor representation in climate governance. Indeed, several of our interviewees noted related issues regarding how focal points and observer organizations remain accountable to those they speak for outside the UNFCCC system.11 For example, the constituencies of Women and Gender and IPO seek to accommodate the views of members that are not accredited as observers by circulating draft statements that can be commented on by stakeholders.12 It is beyond the scope of this article to assess whether nonstate actors are accountable to everyone they speak for, or whether the range of accountability mechanisms is normatively acceptable. Rather, our analysis employs the lens of accountability to study which mechanisms are employed between observer organizations and focal points, whether representatives’ responsibilities are satisfied or elided, and why the number and types of mechanisms vary across different constituencies.

Mapping Political Representation and Accountability

Table 1 provides an overview of the nine constituency groups and the range of accountability mechanisms that link the focal point with the observer organizations of that constituency. On the y-axis, the constituencies are listed chronologically in order of accreditation (oldest to newest). The mechanisms along the x-axis are arranged on a continuum that moves from formal to informal (left to right). Although we treat each mechanism as a binary (either present or absent) rather than a gradation (less or more absent), our analysis below emphasizes how the mechanisms work in practice, thus tapping gradational differences.

Table 1 

Mechanisms of Accountability (moving from formal to informal, left to right)

ConstituencyMechanism
ConstitutionVotingDaily MeetingWorking GroupsAnnual Meetings
BINGO     
ENGO  
LGMA     
IPO   
RINGO    
TUNGO     
Women/Gender 
YOUNGO 
Farmers     
ConstituencyMechanism
ConstitutionVotingDaily MeetingWorking GroupsAnnual Meetings
BINGO     
ENGO  
LGMA     
IPO   
RINGO    
TUNGO     
Women/Gender 
YOUNGO 
Farmers     

These mechanisms were derived through an examination of the official websites of all constituencies, documentation provided by the UNFCCC, participatory observation at COPs, and interviews with members of each constituency group, the focal points, and the Secretariat. The interviews lasted 45–60 minutes. Although we followed a semistructured method, we employed the same protocol for all interviews.13 Given that the interviews were undertaken by four individuals working on the same project, using the same protocol, reading each other’s transcripts, and discussing interpretations of interviewee statements and onsite observations became important ways to cross-check our interpretations (Campbell et al. 2014). To generate a list of interviewees, we employed a snowball technique by asking interviewees to suggest other interviewees. Snowballing can lead to selection bias in the results, since interviewees often form part of the same network. However, because we interviewed focal points from every constituency over the past three years, individuals from organizations within each constituency, and officials from the Secretariat, we actively sought to dampen any selection bias effect by stratifying our interviewee pool.

Constituency Groups, Representation, and Accountability

From Table 1, it is clear that each constituency group has developed a set of accountability mechanisms that operate to empower the observer organizations in each constituency (the represented) vis-à-vis the focal points (the representatives). Importantly, though, the number and types of mechanisms employed vary substantially. In each subsection below, we employ the lens of accountability to unpack how various mechanisms fulfill different functions, from standard-setting and monitoring through to sanctioning (Grant and Keohane 2005). To explain the variation we observed—and unpack how representatives maintain or abrogate their responsibilities—we contend that several constituencies have delegated governance procedures to organizations outside the UNFCCC. These organizations become important sites for coalescing representative claims and interests. This lens enables us to discuss the problem that many observers who are listed with a constituency, but not members of the external organization, are excluded from holding the focal point to account for representative claims.

Constitutional Rules

The most formal mechanism to constrain the focal point is the existence of a written and publicly available constitution or charter. Three of the nine constituency groups—ENGO, Women and Gender, and YOUNGO—have a formal constitution that relates specifically to the UNFCCC process. These charters outline the role of the focal point and stipulate the relationship between the focal point, the constituency’s observer organizations, and the Secretariat. This mechanism provides a type of standard-setting for the represented during periods of constitutional formation and amendment. The constitutional rules also offer provisions for monitoring and (in some instances) sanctioning the focal point.14

When a formal constitution is in place, it tends to be quite detailed and specific. For instance, YOUNGO maintains a draft constitution dictating the rights and responsibilities of the focal points (YOUNGO 2013). Interestingly, this document attempts to curtail the representative mandate of the focal points by limiting the representative function to “communication between constituency members and the UNFCCC Secretariat” (YOUNGO 2013). Similarly, ENGO has a constitution that helps hold the focal point to account. ENGO is composed (almost entirely) of the 900 NGOs within CAN. Historically and currently, the focal point for ENGO is the director of CAN. CAN has an official constitution that describes in detail the role of the director, the right of the CAN board to “hire or fire” that individual, and the governance principles that must be followed by the director at each COP (CAN 2012). Although some interviewees stressed the dominance of Western ENGOs in swaying CAN’s position, others noted the importance of internal consensus-building for holding the focal point to account to diffuse interests.15 The Women and Gender constituency also has a detailed charter relating to the UNFCCC system, which outlines the role of the focal point (Women and Gender 2015).

Although three of the nine groups have a formal constitution, many do not. The latter mostly consist of constituency groups that operate through another NGO: BINGO is hosted through the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC); LGMA is run through Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI); TUNGO is run through the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC); and Farmers operates through the World Farmers’ Organisation (WFO). These other bodies have charters or formalized governance structures, but none make reference to the focal point. These constituency groups therefore do not have a publicly available constitution that dictates the obligations of the focal point as representative or provides formalized accountability procedures for observer organizations.

As such, we explain the existence of a public constitution at the constituency level in relation to the existence of a parallel membership organization outside of the UNFCCC. YOUNGO and Women and Gender are not operated through external bodies, so the constituency as a whole requires a constitution.16 Likewise, although ENGO is run through CAN, almost every single NGO in ENGO is also in CAN, so the entire constituency is part of the same framework.17 CAN is thus not an external body of ENGO, but rather is coterminous.18 IPO and RINGO are both exceptions to the argument here: they do not have an external body, but they also do not have a publicly available charter or constitution. We attribute this to the fact that the installment of RINGO as a constituency group was conditional on the premise that their mandate did not allow for advocacy.19 This reduces the numbers of representative claims made by the group and of accountability mechanisms required. Similarly, IPO is a very informal constituency that relies on networked interactions.

Our argument has implications for holding to account the focal point of each constituency for representational functions. Having a publicly available constitution that covers the constituency group provides accountability mechanisms that curtail the focal point’s space for representation. ICC, ICLEI, ITUC, and WFO may well have in-built mechanisms for generating common positions and holding the focal point to account. However, because governance has been shifted to these external organizations, this undercuts the ability of observers within each constituency—who are not members of the related body—to exercise accountability (Newell 2008).

Voting

From Table 1, it is also evident that three of the nine groups employ voting to authorize and hold the focal points accountable. This indicates that most constituency groups do not immediately try to rely upon elections to maintain accountability between the representative and the represented. This mechanism provides standard-setting, since observers can vote for the focal point aligned to their interests, as well as offering a publicly viewable platform that makes it easier to monitor the focal point. However, the fact that no constituency allows a focal point to be re-elected suggests that sanctioning is not induced through this mechanism. Instead, informal peer pressure is used to influence the focal point and steering board members, as well as to increase the representation of women, as exemplified by RINGO.20

In terms of explaining variation, two features are particularly relevant. First, the three constituencies that employ voting also have dual focal points. YOUNGO, IPO, and Women and Gender elect two focal points on an annual or biannual basis. YOUNGO and Women and Gender have embedded these voting systems into their formal constitutions, whereas IPO has developed a more ad hoc approach. In all three cases, the use of dual focal points is designed to ensure that the focal points reflect different perspectives. Of the two focal points for Women and Gender and YOUNGO, one must come from the Global North and one must come from the Global South.21 For IPO, one focal point must be elected from the Americas, while the other must come from Africa/Asia.22 The utilization of dual focal points provides observers two channels within the constituency to receive information from the Secretariat. While dual focal points may also heighten the possibility of conflicting information and interests, they also help ensure that different sets of interests are represented adequately. Interviewees stressed that having dual focal points provides a “balance of power,” so that each focal point holds the other to account by monitoring their activities.23

Second, the constituencies that do not have voting mechanisms are mostly those operating through an organization outside of the UNFCCC. The focal points for BINGO, LGMA, TUNGO, and Farmers are all from their respective outside bodies—ICC, ICLEI, ITUC, and WFO. For example, the focal point for LGMA is appointed by the Secretary General of ICLEI and is a paid civil servant in the World Secretariat of ICLEI.24 These bodies, as far as we can tell, do not vote for the focal point. This system of appointing the focal point undercuts the ability of observer organizations within the UNFCCC to hold focal points accountable if the organizations are not members of the external body.

Again, though, several caveats to this argument are worth mentioning. Although the focal point for ENGO is appointed by the board of directors, the board is accountable to observer organizations through the annual or biannual meetings at which votes are taken. RINGO also does not vote for their focal point, but rotates the position when there is demand.25 Finally, TUNGO observers do not vote for the focal point, but the organization has an impressive and intricate system of voting within national trade unions that enables national representatives to relay information to the ITUC.26 While this does not provide accountability for the focal point, it does enable the constituency to speak collectively. Overall, we suggest that once again, constituencies in which the focal point operates in an organization outside the UNFCCC explain the variation observed. Troublingly, though, this situation also creates accountability deficits: observers in a constituency that are not members of the outside organization are structurally excluded from the focal point. While these observers can approach the Secretariat directly to voice their opinions, this does not help limit representative claims made by the focal point of the constituency to which they belong.

Daily Meeting

Each constituency group during the COP has a daily meeting led by that constituency’s focal point. The meeting offers observers a chance to engage with the focal point; ask questions about communication with other constituencies, state delegations, and the Secretariat; air issues with constituency members; decide on the strategic direction of the group; take part in deciding what the constituency group will say in plenary sessions; and draft statements for high-level segments. The daily meeting is thus an important source of representational accountability in terms of standard-setting, monitoring, and even sanctioning: the group can decide on a future direction, evaluate current activities, and demand answers of the focal point. Reciprocally, the daily meetings also heighten the role of the focal point as a representative. The meetings grant a forum for the focal point to adjudicate between different interests and share his or her own point of view. In many cases at the past two COPs, we saw focal points mounting clear discursive arguments, making claims on behalf of members, setting the agenda for the group, and overriding minority dissent.27 This highlights the importance of accountability to the representative relationship (Newell 2008, 149; Stevenson and Dryzek 2014).

Although all nine constituencies have a daily meeting during the COP, the openness, transparency, and consistency of these meetings vary widely. We also explain this variation by reference to outside organizations. For instance, LGMA, Farmers, and BINGO have restricted meetings open only to individuals from observer bodies in that constituency. These constituencies can have closed meeting because the rules for whether daily meetings will be open or closed are set by their respective outside bodies, where common positions are forged. As two interviewees from BINGO stated, their constituency has been better equipped to work together than constituencies that operate in more public venues.28 But the setting of these rules in external organizations divorces the constituency from the rule-making procedures and, ultimately, from holding the focal point accountable. Thus, although we stress the myriad ways that nonstate actors hold each other to account, there are also clear structural deficits (Newell 2008, 148–149).

The functioning of meetings in BINGO, LGMA, and Farmers stands in stark contrast to those in Women and Gender, YOUNGO, and IPO, which have completely open meetings for anyone at the COP. Because the latter constituencies do not have outside organizations to organize interests and formulate representative claims, daily meetings at the COP become key sites of openness, helping to maintain accountability for decision-making. It is worth noting that from Paris onward, Women and Gender is switching to closed-door meetings, to offer more strategic policy advice.29 TUNGO, which formally has closed meetings, runs an open-door policy in practice. ENGO, due to its size, also struggles to limit attendance at its meetings. Although ITUC and CAN may be arenas to hold the focal point to account, the daily meetings are still important to understand the wider range of views within the constituency.

From both interviews with multiple individuals and onsite observation, it is clear that the failure of focal points to maintain daily meetings can become a source of frustration, as interests are not aired and constituency decisions are taken unilaterally by the focal point (because observers are isolated). There is little Secretariat oversight to ensure that these meetings actually take place. Occasionally, focal points cancel or fail to attend meetings without prior notification, as we observed on multiple occasions for LGMA.30 Taking decisions, building common positions, and formulating representative claims in bodies outside the UNFCCC may facilitate decision-making, but it can also undermine the accountability of the focal point to the wider constituency. Understanding and observing these accountability deficits require attention to the day-to-day practice within each constituency (Newell 2008; Okereke et al. 2009).

Working Groups

Four of the groups—ENGO, RINGO, Women and Gender, and YOUNGO—also have active working groups within the constituency. On one level, working groups are employed for pragmatic and technical reasons. CAN has working groups on mitigation, finance, agriculture, REDD+, and equity/effort sharing.31 RINGO, due to its research-based nature, also utilizes working groups on a variety of topics.32 Likewise, Women and Gender has working groups on adaptation, mitigation, technology, and finance. These working groups are pragmatic, in the sense that small groups can develop in-depth knowledge about specific parts of the UNFCCC negotiations. However, from interviews it became clear that working groups are often the sites of political battles waged to maintain the focal point’s accountability.33 Working groups, we suggest, are useful as both standard-setting and sanctioning mechanisms for observers to hold the focal points to account.

Explaining why working groups develop in some constituencies and not others is again challenging work. We argue that working groups are particularly useful for constituencies that do not operate in parallel with external organizations. In ENGO, RINGO, Women and Gender, and YOUNGO, each working group reports back to the focal point and the wider constituency. The ability to address the wider constituency on a specific topic gives individuals an institutionalized mechanism through which to air their views. This provides a counterweight to the focal point, who might have alternate views on core topics. As one interviewee made clear, working groups can be employed to “bring issues within your orbit” and remove power from the focal point.34 The working groups can also circumvent the focal point altogether and address the UNFCCC Secretariat directly. This helps render the focal point accountable to the rest of the constituency: the possibility of losing authority through the formation of working groups provides the focal point with a reason to take the views of constituency members seriously and reflect these interests appropriately in discussions with other members of that constituency, the Secretariat, and other constituency groups.

By contrast, BINGO, LGMA, TUNGO, and Farmers do not have working groups at the constituency level. This is because many technical issues are tackled in their respective organizations outside of the UNFCCC. This is important because, as we previously accentuated, this shift severs the chains of accountability. Because the focal points of BINGO, LGMA, TUNGO, and Farmers all come from the external organization, the production of knowledge, the formation of internal constituency positions, and claims for collective representation remain separated from members of the constituency that are not part of the parallel organization.

Meetings During the Year

Finally, although the COP is surely the busiest period for focal points, their role continues throughout the year. During this time, there is a semiannual meeting where all focal points and the UNFCCC Secretariat meet to discuss issues, ask questions about procedures for the upcoming COP and/or Intersessional, and discuss topics that cut across constituency groups.35 Moreover, updating websites, dealing with new observer organizations, and providing information to and from the Secretariat makes the process of representation dynamic. During the year, then, meetings with observers and managing a website are required to ensure that the representatives remain responsive and accountable to their represented observer groups. This mechanism provides both standard-setting and monitoring of the focal point.

ENGO, IPO, Women and Gender, and YOUNGO all have formalized meetings throughout the year that pertain to the focal point. ENGO, through CAN, has a general assembly meeting at least every two years that comprises at least 90 percent of the observer organizations within that constituency (CAN 2012). This meeting helps air views from the regional and national nodes, observer organizations, and CAN staff (including the focal point). All decisions are reached by “near consensus” (i.e., by more than 95 percent of participants not vetoing a decision). In a slightly more innovative way, both IPO and Women and Gender have at least two Skype meetings throughout the year to relay ideas and interests from local communities to other local groups and the constituency focal points. These are often administered and organized by the focal points.36 These rolling meetings throughout the year ensure that the constituency knows that the focal point has viewed and considered different interests.37 Meetings and public decision-making processes thus help constrain the types of decisions taken by the focal point and organization.

We again contend that the constituencies that operate in conjunction with an external body are less likely to have these rolling meetings. While LGMA, BINGO, and Farmers might run these types of meetings throughout the year, we did not find evidence for this in our interviews or website analysis. This indicates that these constituencies rely on their key organizations—ICLEI, ICC, and WFO, respectively—to form the constituency’s position. But this detaches the focal point from being held accountable to the wider constituency. This became clear in our interviews when the focal points from Farmers and BINGO stressed the ability of their organizations to work out issues internally, without wider consultation.38 It is worth noting that, while TUNGO does not have constituency-wide meetings, trade unions meet at the national level every year to take votes on key issues. This information is then relayed to the focal point.39 By and large, though, the variation between constituency-wide meetings follows a divide between those constituencies that function in tandem with outside organizations and those that do not.

Conclusions

In conclusion, we make three points. First, nonstate actors in climate governance are increasingly engaged in processes of representation. While many scholars have analyzed the (democratic) legitimacy and effect of nonstate actors in transnational affairs, the accountability of these actors—especially as representatives—requires more sustained treatment. In this article, we have focused on the constituency system within the UNFCCC. We have highlighted the representative function played by the focal points within each constituency and documented how different mechanisms can fulfill different aspects of accountability.

Second, in addition to mapping the mechanisms, we have used the lens of accountability to explain the wide variation across constituency groups. This has helped elucidate how nonstate actors in the UNFCCC are (or are not) accountable to those they are formally supposed to represent. We have contended that several constituencies have transferred governance functions to organizations outside of the UNFCCC. The focal points from BINGO, LGMA, TUNGO, and Farmers all come from external organizations. Although accountability mechanisms may exist in these organizations, observers who are in the relevant constituency (but not in the external organization) are largely removed from mechanisms to maintain the accountability of these focal points. Alternatively, constituencies that are not governed by external groups—IPO, Women and Gender, and YOUNGO—have more accountability mechanisms that cover the constituency. Likewise ENGO—although operated through CAN—covers the entire constituency group, and thus maintains quite a number of accountability mechanisms. Documenting these mechanisms, explaining variation, and looking at how they are used in practice has required in-depth observation and interviews at climate negotiations.

Finally, several caveats—and related directions of future research—should be noted. We have limited our examination to accountability mechanisms between focal points and observer organizations. But in many instances, the focal point (or the constituency at large) claims to represent agents outside of the UNFCCC. We have not delved deeply into how this claim-making can be held accountable by all those spoken for, though some interviewees noted the importance of representing the views of stakeholders/marginalized groups outside the UNFCCC. We did this to show how focal points (acting as representatives) can be held accountable under some conditions and through some mechanisms, but we recognize that much more work will be required to understand how agents outside the observer groups can hold nonstate actors to account.

It is also important to recognize that the rise of the climate justice movement—which revolves around notions of popular sovereignty and grassroots mobilization—reflects the return of a radical critique of global climate governance. This movement understands the climate crisis as a structural problem, generated by, and intertwined with, the global capitalist order. As such, it provides a systemic and outsider critique of the UNFCCC negotiations and market-led climate policy (Ciplet 2014; Hadden 2014; Hadden 2015). The UNFCCC constituency system has been criticized as a prime example of the mainstreaming and taming of environmental NGOs (Bond 2012; Ford 2003). We have explored how, by routinely turning accountability demands against one another, nonstate actors legitimate the current order and help govern (or even discipline) each other. Future research can draw upon our empirical analysis to examine how claims of representation—and counter-efforts at accountability—feed into neo-Gramscian debates regarding hegemony and Foucauldian analyses of governmentality and the microphysics of power. This being said, the point of the article has been to understand how nonstate actors (notably, focal points) can remain accountable to those they represent (the observer organizations in each constituency). We have undertaken in-depth work on this score, which in turn speaks to broader debates about the accountability and representation of nonstate actors in climate governance.

Notes

1. 

Authors’ interviews: Nira Amerasinghe, 2015; Kate Cahoon, 2015.

2. 

Authors’ interviews: Ulriikka Aarnio, 2015; Susanne Nolden, 2015.

3. 

A full list of the interviewees can be found in Appendix A, available at: https://sites.google.com/site/jonathanwkuyper/data-and-material.

4. 

Authors’ interviews: Nira Amerasinghe, 2015; Kate Cahoon, 2015.

5. 

Authors’ interviews: Gotelind Alber, 2013; Jamie Peters, 2013.

6. 

Authors’ interviews: Nira Amerasinghe, 2015; Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, 2015.

7. 

Authors’ interview: Nira Amerasinghe, 2015.

8. 

Authors’ interviews: Anette Engelund Friis, 2013; Dennis Mairenal, 2013; Jonathan Grant, 2014; Alexey Kokorin, 2015.

9. 

For instance, BINGO and RINGO place more emphasis on the “facilitative” or “coordinative” function of the focal point; authors’ interviews: Marilyn Averill, 2013; Barbara Black, 2013; Heleen de Coninck, 2014; Jonathan Grant, 2014.

10. 

Authors’ interviews: Kate Cahoon, 2015; Susanne Nolden, 2015.

11. 

Authors’ interviews: Tom Athanasiou, 2015; Saleemul Huq, 2015.

12. 

Authors’ interviews: Kate Cahoon 2015; Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, 2015.

13. 

Protocol available upon request from authors.

14. 

Authors’ interview: Montana Burgess, 2014.

15. 

Authors’ interviews: Nira Amerasinghe, 2015; Tom Athanasiou, 2015.

16. 

Authors’ interview: Sabrina Marquant, 2014.

17. 

Authors’ interview: Julie-Ann Richards, 2014.

18. 

ENGO used to be bigger than CAN, when it also included CJN. However, at Bali CAN and CJN split, as CAN found the number of views in ENGO too wide to manage coherently. See Hadden 2015, 49.

19. 

This condition was demanded by many parties, foremost the United States. Authors’ interviews: Axel Michaelowa, 2013; John Drexhage, 2015.

20. 

Authors’ interview: John Drexhage, 2015.

21. 

Authors’ interviews: Kate Cahoon, 2015; Usha Nair 2015.

22. 

Authors’ interview: Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, 2014.

23. 

Authors’ interview: Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, 2014.

24. 

Authors’ interview: Susanne Nolden, 2015.

25. 

Authors’ interview: Marilyn Averill, 2014.

26. 

Authors’ interview: Anabella Rosemberg, 2014.

27. 

Authors’ participatory observation, TUNGO daily meeting, 2014.

28. 

Authors’ interviews: Anonymous BINGO Observer Participant, 2013; Benito Muller, 2015.

29. 

Authors’ Interview: Kate Cahoon, 2015.

30. 

Author’s participatory observation, LGMA constituency meeting, December 10, 2014.

31. 

Authors’ interview: Ulriikka Aarnio, 2015.

32. 

Authors’ interview: Axel Michaelowa, 2013; Heleen de Coninck, 2014.

33. 

Authors’ interview: Gotelind Alber, 2013; Teresa Anderson, 2013.

34. 

Authors’ interview: Luke Kemp, 2014.

35. 

Authors’ interview: Megumi Endo, 2014.

36. 

Authors’ interviews: Usha Nair, 2015; Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, 2015.

37. 

Authors’ interview: Pasang Dolma Sherpa, 2014.

38. 

Authors’ interviews: Barbara Black, 2014; Anette Engelund Friis, 2014.

39. 

Authors’ interview: Anabella Rosemberg, 2014.

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Author notes

*

We thank the editors and three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments. We received constructive feedback from Stockholm University’s “Global and Regional Governance” seminar series, the 2015 Swedish Political Science Association annual conference, the 2015 International Studies Association conference, the 2015 International Conference on Public Policy, and a workshop on climate change at the University of Gothenburg, as well as from Matthew Hoffmann, Andreas Duit, Jonas Tallberg, and many others. This research was made possible through generous grants from the Swedish Research Council (Project No. 421-2011-1862) and Formas (Project No. 2011-779) for the research project “Non-State Actors in the New Landscape of International Climate Cooperation.”