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Venezuela urges civil society to boost “boring” UN talks

Caracas government to focus on social impacts of climate change ahead of UN Lima conference

UN climate talks are taking place this week in Bonn (Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

UN climate talks are taking place this week in Bonn (Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

By Sophie Yeo in Bonn

Venezuela plans to canvass civil society for their views on climate change during a four-day meeting in July—an attempt to rejuvenate “boring” UN talks, according to the country’s chief climate negotiator. 

The meeting will focus on the “social impact of climate change”, said Claudia Salerno, who outlined her intentions during UN negotiations taking place this week in Bonn.

“It is a humbling process for us [the government], and it is an empowering process for people,” she said, adding that it was an opportunity to “change the debate a little bit”, including issues such as gender, health and ethics—topics which are frequently sidelined in favour of discussions such as reform of the energy and transport sectors.

The meeting, called the “Social Pre-COP”, is being held in advance of the UN’s forthcoming December Conference in Lima—the world’s final chance to discuss dangerous climate change before a landmark treaty is scheduled to be signed off in Paris in 2015.

Leading green groups walked out of the last major UN climate summit in Warsaw, claiming “rich industrialised countries had held action on climate change hostage.”

While NGOs do not have a seat at the negotiating table, various organisations play an active role behind the scenes, lobbying and advising governments. Many poorer countries rely heavily on the expertise and manpower of these groups to guide them through the talks.

Venezuela’s decision to focus on civil society prior to the UN’s 2014 climate talk was first announced last November in Warsaw. Since then, the country has faced violent clashes between government and opposition student protesters, which have resulted in 42 fatalities since February.

On 4 June, the US state department issued a travel warning, saying that demonstrations and counter-demonstrations are expected to continue and “may pose a security risk”.

Guy Edwards, a research fellow on Latin American climate policy at Brown University, told RTCC that Venezuela’s attitude towards its domestic civil society, as well as its positioning within the UN climate talks and its large oil reserves, could cast a shadow over the meeting.

“Raising the volume of civil society at the negotiations is an important goal, but whether Venezuela is a credible and appropriate host is questionable,” he said.

But Salerno said that “peace was back” in Venezuela, and that the recent conflict would was not likely to undermine the upcoming gathering, repeating President Maduro’s suggestion that the current protesters were more like “terrorists” than protesters.

“I think the way we handled that extreme situation shows the world that are committed to peace and to wellbeing of everybody,” she said. “We are engaging constructively and trying to build peace above everything.”

Unwrapping the jargon

The focus on social issues and civil society means that, while ministers are not being expressly forbidden from the meeting, Salerno warned that they should not expect any special treatment if they decide to attend.

“We are not encouraging ministers to come to July because that is not supposed to be a minister ‘I’m king of the world’ kind of thing,” she said. “If ministers want to come, they will be there as one more person in the room.”

She added that the government had hired two anthropologists to translate the UN’s notoriously complex jargon into everyday language that will allow the general public to engage more effectively with the process.

As an untested approach, focusing on the social aspects of climate change is a risk, said Salerno, but she hopes that its messages could be taken forward not only at the Lima Conference, but also a climate summit to be hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September.

“The process is already so boring, so what can we do that will be worse?” she said.

‘Valuable’

The meeting will take place on Margarita Island from 15-18 July, and will be followed by a further  ministerial meeting on 4-7 November, where ministers will be presented with a document summarising the ideas of civil society.

The July meeting was welcomed by civil society groups present at Saturday’s briefing. Wael Hmaiden, president of campaigning group CAN International, said: “We welcome the social pre-COP and we definitely want it to be a success.”

He added: “For us to see it as a success, it is to have it replicated beyond this year as well, and that means the ministers have to see it as valuable.

“If it was a nightmare for them, they’re definitely going to go back and say, ‘never bring me to something like this again,’ and definitely [COP21 host] France will not do it.”

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