By Robert Gampfer

Over the past two decades, civil society organizations (CSOs) have become integral to global climate negotiations. In 2011, 1490 organizations were accredited as observers; most of which were environmental groups, research institutions, and business associations. Moreover, 70% of national delegations to the COPs (2011) included CSO representatives among their members.

Both activists working in these organizations and political scientists agree that one of the main benefits of civil society involvement is that it improves the democratic legitimacy of global climate governance. Legitimacy is often thought to be low since negotiations occur on an intergovernmental level far away from most citizens, despite the potentially large consequences global climate policy has for individuals. Civil society involvement can improve legitimacy by affecting both the process and the outcome of negotiations. First, CSOs can increase transparency of the process thus providing citizens with better information to hold their governments accountable (e.g. through elections) for their international policy. Second, CSOs may create a more balanced representation of society’s various interests regarding climate change. And third, CSOs often have expert knowledge on environmental issues that can help achieve outcomes potentially more effective in addressing global warming.

However, the question remains whether individual citizens actually agree with this account and perceive climate governance as more legitimate if civil society is involved. After all, it could also be that CSOs advance narrowly-defined special interests in negotiations instead of improving overall representation. Furthermore, having a multitude of different organizations, in addition to governments, at the table could hamper and impede agreement on an effective climate treaty. Even though the behavior and influence of CSOs in the UNFCCC negotiations has been examined by many scientific studies (Bernauer and Betzold 2012, Schroeder et al. 2012), their effect on legitimacy has not been investigated. We have conducted several survey experiments with a large international participant sample via Amazon Mechanical Turk to answer this question (Bernauer and Gampfer 2013). The main results are summarized below.

In a first experiment, we asked participants which organizations they would include in their national delegation to the next COP. They had to pick representatives from a diverse pool of government agencies and CSOs. Most participants included government and CSO representatives more or less evenly (two or three each in a five-post delegation). Interestingly, there was no difference between treatment groups primed either with information that negotiations should be transparent and representative, that they should yield an effective outcome, or with no information at all. This suggests that individuals think civil society should be involved in global climate governance, but not necessarily because of reasons of transparency, representation, or effectiveness.

In a second experiment, we showed participants a fictitious delegation that would represent their country at the next climate conference. In one group, this delegation included only government officials. In the other group, we added a representative of an environmental NGO, a scientific institution, and a business association. We then asked respondents to assess how transparent and representative the negotiations would be as well as whether the delegation had the skills and expertise to reach a climate agreement that would be beneficial for their country and effective in tackling global warming. The differences between the two groups were very small, indicating that our respondents did not think civil society involvement per se improves one of the three aspects of legitimacy. We further examined whether the type of civil society organizations mattered. The result showed that respondents somewhat distrust business representatives, but rated environmental NGOs, scientific institutions, and government officials about the same.

In the third experiment, we presented participants the same delegation (including CSOs) as in the second group in the former experiment, and asked the same questions. But afterwards, we told them to imagine that starting next year, CSO representatives would no longer be included leaving only government officials in the delegation (the other group saw a government-only delegation first and was then told that civil society would be included for upcoming years). After learning this information, respondents had to rate negotiations again on their expected transparency, representation, and effectiveness. In the group where CSOs were removed for subsequent years, ratings on all three aspects fell dramatically. In the group where CSOs were added, ratings rose substantially. Policy changes regarding civil society involvement thus seem to strongly affect perceptions of legitimacy.

Overall, our results speak in favor of civil society involvement. At least in democratic countries, where public views on legitimacy matter to some extent for global environmental governance, attempts to create a “leaner” bargaining process through exclusion of civil society would clearly have negative effects. In many countries where public support for ambitious climate policies appears rather low, our findings suggest that governments could increase support through stronger involvement of civil society.
Robert Gampfer,  ETH Zürich,
Center for Comparative and International Studies (CIS)

By Robert Gampfer, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETH Zurich)


Bernauer T, Betzold C (2012) Civil Society in Global Environmental Governance. Journal of Environment and Development 21 (2):62-66

Schroeder H, Boykoff MT, Spiers L (2012) Equity and state representations in climate negotiations. Nature Climate Change 2 (12):834-836

Bernauer T, Gampfer R (2013) Effects of civil society involvement on popular legitimacy of global environmental governance. Global Environmental Change 23 (2):440-450.