Jale Tosun and Emiliano Levario Saad, Heidelberg University
The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres identified climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution as “three interlinked environmental crises”, which need to be addressed simultaneously. The political leaders of the world acknowledged this interlinkage at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15), which took place in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022.
Academics and researchers were faster than politicians in realizing the interlinkages between environmental protection, including preserving biodiversity, and climate action. They have reflected on this in different literatures, including studies of environmental/climate policy integration.
The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 gave pertinent research activities a boost and produced numerous conceptual notes which elaborate on how climate action can have either a positive or a negative impact on measures adopted to protect the environment. Research has examined how climate or environmental policies should be designed to avoid negative interactions (when the achievement of an environmental goals could threaten climate goals), or even achieve positive interactions (when measures for achieving environmental goals reinforce climate goals). An example of a potential negative interaction between climate and environmental action is the installation of offshore windfarms which can have serious implications for marine life. An example of a positive interaction is the protection of forests, which offer a habitat to species as well as serve as natural carbon sinks.
What we did…
Given the extensive academic debate we became curious about how practitioners perceive of the “three interlinked environmental crises” and attempt to tackle them. For a start, we decided to investigate to what extent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) combine these issues in their organizational agendas in our recent paper. Since environmental crises tend to have the most drastic consequences in countries with larger shares of vulnerable populations, we chose to look at NGOs based in Canada and the United States, and to compare their issue agendas to those based in countries in Central and South America. In this regard, we were particularly interested in learning how NGOs that originally worked on environmental protection position themselves on climate change. We relied on membership in the International Union for Conversation of Nature (IUCN) to identify NGOs working on environmental issues. We ended up with a sample of 293 IUCN-affiliated NGOs based in 22 countries in North, Central, and South America.
For producing the data for our analysis, we studied the websites of the NGOs, which turned out to be a very instructive exercise. We anticipated that the websites of NGOs based in North American would be more informative because they are more affluent and therefore able to dedicate more resources to how they present themselves and their work. Instead, we could observe that the websites of the NGOs based in Central and South America were as rich as those of their North American counterparts, which we found striking. It showed us that there is little difference across the Americas in how professional IUCN-affiliated NGOs are.
What we found…
We inspected the websites to extract information on whether these NGOs with a traditional focus on environmental issues referred to climate change as one of the issues on which they work. When they referred to climate change we assessed whether it represented an element of the respective organization’s mission/vision, a dedicated program line, or a temporary project. We found that more than three quarters of the NGOs tackle climate change, albeit to differing degrees. Among these, around 40 percent stated on their websites that they have dedicated programs in place, followed by 22 percent who indicated temporary work on this issue. 15 percent of the organizations referred to climate change in their mission or vision statements.
Which NGOs tackle climate change issues? Our findings revealed that NGOs who are generalist organizations are more likely to address climate change than specialist ones. However, with regard to the specialists we found that there is variation among them. Research on the United States identified wildlife NGOs as those who rather prefer not tackling this issue. And indeed, compared to this group, specialist NGOs working on sustainable development, nature protection, and forestry are more likely to work on climate change – this finding holds true for wildlife NGOs regardless of the country in which they are based.
The high share of NGOs acknowledging the need for climate action indicates that NGOs were at least as fast as researchers in understanding and reacting to the interlinkages between environmental crises. However, the interviews we conducted revealed that realizing the interlinkages does not automatically entail that an NGO will modify its issue portfolio. NGO leadership makes an informed decision about whether to tackle climate change or not. In some instances, this can result in keeping climate change deliberately out of an NGO’s issue portfolio, for example, in order to reduce the burden upon their capacities.
We find that the way environmental NGOs position themselves on climate change can guide both researchers and policymakers. As concerns policymakers, NGOs have gathered experience in tackling environmental degradation and climate change in tandem. Thus, it can be worth learning from their experience when designing policies which aim to achieve these goals. Researchers can benefit from studying NGOs to better understand under what exact conditions environmental and climate action can be mutually reinforcing. What is more, NGOs have knowledge on the implementation of measures that aim at tackling both climate change and environmental degradation, which has received very little attention in research so far. Research like ours on NGOs can help re-direct future research activities.
Click here to read the full open access paper: Tosun, J., & Levario Saad, E. (2023). Adapted to Climate Change? Issue Portfolios of Environmental Nongovernmental Organizations in the Americas. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1177/08997640221146962