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What Climate Activists Can Learn from the Fight Against Big Tobacco

Today hundreds of thousands of people around the world — from Burundi to Berlin to Brooklyn — will take to the streets in what organizers are calling the biggest climate march in history. This outpouring of action in the lead-up to this year’s global climate summit in Lima, Peru, is a reflection of the growing frustration with lack of progress in the fight against global warming, from stalemate on emission reductions to an impasse on commitments of support for affected communities.

Progress has been stalled in part because the biggest polluters in the world — those oil and gas companies responsible for the lion’s share of emissions, for example — have been given a seat at the negotiating table, treated as partners and stakeholders at the annual global meetings called the Conference of Parties, or COP. Over the years, these COPs have featured industry-sponsored pavilions, dinners and breakaway meetings. And companies have been granted official observer status through their industry trade associations, which are considered nongovernmental organizations under current climate meeting rules. Some have even attended as official members of country delegations. (For instance, a representative from Shell joined the Nigerian delegation to COP16 in 2010 and Brazil’s to COP14 in 2008.)

As climate activists call for governments to take real action on climate, the decades-long fight against Big Tobacco — specifically, how public health advocates successfully kept companies away from the negotiating table — holds powerful lessons for the role industries should have in these key talks.

Keeping Big Tobacco at bay

It’s almost impossible to fathom it now, but the first state ban on smoking in hospitals passed only in 1989. By then, decades of research had long proved the connection between nicotine and addiction and shown that smoking causes harm to nearly every organ in the body. The science finally managed to break through industry-funded misinformation campaigns, and in 1998 the United States reached a master settlement with the tobacco industry, which included annual payouts to 46 states of $10 billion for education and public health programs and strict regulations on marketing and advertising cigarettes. Several years later, after still more campaigning, the World Health Assembly unanimously adopted the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Since then, more than 179 countries have ratified it, including Iran and China, although notably not the United States.

Civil society organizations such as Corporate Accountability International (CAI), for which I am an adviser, understood that in order for the convention to have teeth, Big Tobacco could not be allowed to interfere. To that end, CAI and other civil society groups and governments — especially those of Panama, Thailand and South Africa — fought for and secured the inclusion of 30 words that were the jumping-off point for an extensive set of guidelines (PDF) that spurred serious government action. They state, in Article 5.3, “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, parties shall act to protect these polices from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.” These guidelines were adopted unanimously at the 2008 COP (PDF) in Durban, South Africa.

Building on these guidelines (PDF), many governments around the world have gone further to keep the tobacco industry away from policymaking. Colombia passed laws barring tobacco industry representatives from policy negotiations. Australia strengthened transparency laws regarding government interactions with the industry. And in 2009, Norway was the first nation to divest government pension funds from tobacco stock in response to the World Health Organization guidelines that specified governments “should divest all holdings in tobacco companies in order to keep public health interests apart from economic influence.”

Big Tobacco is not granted official observer status at tobacco treaty meetings. In fact, tobacco companies and their trade groups are not allowed to attend or observe the meetings at all. This is made clear in the WHO’s memo (PDF) on attendance policies, which reads, “Persons affiliated or having any relations with the tobacco industry or entities working to further its interests would not be permitted to attend any session or meeting of the COP and its subsidiary bodies.” When industry representatives have attempted to use public badges to gain entry, they have been removed by the Secretariat. The WHO is working on screening public badges to prevent such breaches in the future.

This stark line between negotiators, governments and industry helped create a tobacco treaty with real impact. One of the most widely embraced treaties in U.N. history, it covers almost 90 percent of the world’s population and is projected to save as many as 200 million lives by 2050 — and many millions more thereafter.

As people take to the streets to demand substantial action on climate change, it’s time to take this lesson from the fight against Big Tobacco. Bold action on climate policy is possible only if a stark line is drawn between climate negotiators and the industries driving the crisis: no revolving doors between regulatory positions and corporations, no so-called partnerships with industry that constitute a conflict of interest, no seat at the table in writing the rules of regulation and transparency in all industry engagements with public officials.

Untangle industry involvement

Instead, the fossil fuel industry is deeply involved in and actively influencing climate negotiations. For example, the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (whose members include BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, among other major oil and gas companies) has hosted official side events to the COPs, produced their own reports on strategies for adapting to climate change and advised governments on climate policy. Meanwhile, its members are working in direct opposition to reducing global emissions by expanding oil exploration: BP and Shell, for example, are moving into offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Its members have been at the forefront of undermining climate science, with ExxonMobil alone funneling at least $22 million toward climate denial efforts from 1998 to 2011, according to a Greenpeace investigation (PDF).

Last year’s COP19 in Poland saw the participation of the World Coal Association (whose members include General Electric, Rio Tinto and Glencore), including partnering with the Polish Ministry of Economy on an international coal summit to convince U.N. negotiators to embrace coal as a solution to climate change. Out of this partnership came the Warsaw Communiqué, which promotes so-called clean coal, a process that critics point out is no less polluting than standard coal production and is just “a blunt attempt to keep the coal industry in business while governments and taxpayers continue to foot the bill for the damage it causes.”

At 2011’s COP17 in Durban, South Africa, the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, made up of fossil fuel and power companies such as Shell, GDF Suez and Siemens, lobbied for and won carbon capture credits for new coal plants, even though carbon offsets for dirty coal are known to be ineffective at reducing emissions.

Untangling industry’s involvement in global climate negotiations will require taking on some of the biggest trade groups in the world. Members of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, for example, have combined annual revenue of more than $7 trillion and include Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Shell, Duke Energy and BP. While the council presents its 200 corporate members “as part of the solution to climate change,” it has consistently lobbied against legally binding standards at every major United Nations environmental summit since the council was founded in 1992. And the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which has been granted privileged access at the United Nations, has “consistently blocked attempts at regulating emissions,” according to the Corporate Europe Observatory (PDF). Unsurprisingly, the ICC’s members consist of the world’s biggest polluters, including Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil and Duke Energy.

The European Parliament, at least, has recognized the need to rein in such industry influence. In a resolution presented on the eve of the 2013 climate talks, it called for vigilance “concerning efforts by economic actors that emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases or benefit from burning fossil fuels to undermine or subvert climate protection efforts.”

After last year’s climate talks, 78 organizations from around the world penned an open letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, calling on them to “to protect climate policymaking from the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry.” Ban has announced he will be joining climate marchers in the street. Here’s hoping he also listens to the call to action. As sea levels rise and millions are displaced, as species disappear and extreme weather sweeps the globe, it’s ever more clear we need an Article 5.3 for climate talks — and we need it now.

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