Walking around the city of white tents and conference rooms at COP, the divide between “insiders” and “outsiders” is stark. This is especially so with COP 23’s separate zones for the negotiations and side events (aka the country delegations and the NGOs). Generally speaking, insiders look to influence the negotiations directly through personal contacts with negotiators. They share their expertise in private meetings, speak alongside ministers in public panels, and even have a hand in drafting the text discussed at the negotiating table. Outsiders, on the other hand, take an indirect approach. They march in the streets of Bonn, organize walk-outs and sit-ins, and display banners in the hallways of COP. In many ways, insiders and outsiders seem to live in different worlds.
While the actions of insiders and outsiders are distinct, it can be difficult to determine whether an actor is an “insider” or an “outsider.” For example, Greenpeace has people on both sides of the fence (literally – security is pretty tight at COP). Activists with Greenpeace take direct action and put on high-profile awareness campaigns – they even sailed a boat up the Rhine to Bonn. But Greenpeace also deploys lawyers who become deeply involved in the nitty-gritty of the negotiations, providing their experience and expertise to country delegates.
Even when the difference between insider and outsider organizations is clear, the distance between these organizations is smaller than it first seems. According to Carroll Muffett, the President and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, “civil society organizations are most effective when they don’t stay in their own lanes.” Instead of keeping to their own repertoire of strategies, insiders and outsiders often collaborate to expand their range of action. Insider coalitions like the Climate Action Network may coordinate the positions it takes in the negotiating rooms with the members of the outsider organizations of the Climate Justice Now group. Muffett even recalled instances in which certain country officials would quietly mention that it would help accelerate negotiations if a protest action were to occur.
Far from rending civil society apart, the different approaches of insiders and outsiders create strength through diversity. This strength will be tested by the United States’ decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. In this context, understanding the interdependence of insiders and outsiders, and the wider range of options it affords, is crucial for pushing both the United States and the countries that plan to remain in the UNFCCC toward ambitious and ambitious climate action.