The Discipline of the Badge: Research and Protest at the UN Climate Negotiations

From the Series: Negotiating the Crisis: Critical Perspectives on Climate Governance

Photo by Robert vanWaarden.

Given the severity of the climate crisis and increasingly urgent warnings from the scientific community that we are running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, attending the negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) can be frustrating. My conversations with other attendees at the UNFCCC’s 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) in Bonn, COP24 in Katowice and COP25 in Madrid suggest that participants of all sorts, (party negotiators, scientific advisors, activists, UN staff, vendors, media, and researchers) care deeply about the climate crisis and hope their participation will make a difference in some small way. So, when negotiations over a single word drag on for hours, when vulnerable states have to repeat their claims for justice day after day to seemingly deaf ears, or when the powerful righteously defend the status quo in the name of practicality—the temptation to act out can be overwhelming (at least for this observer).

But the UNFCCC has protocols to be followed: rules about where one can go, who can speak and when. There are also behavioral norms associated with consensus and diplomacy that have helped the institution to function and to make some progress—as frustratingly slow as it may be. But I’ve often wondered what keeps those most passionate about climate justice quiet in rooms full of hundreds of people and cameras when stalwarts stymie the process or when powerful nations cloak their oppression of less powerful countries with language about living up to the “Paris spirit of compromise.”

The anthropological canon has revealed a wide array of mechanisms to ensure compliance with shared ideas of appropriate behavior—from sheer force and the unspoken risks of economic ostracism or ridicule, to formal laws and self-governance through personal acceptance of a privileged definition of morality. At the conference of parties for the UNFCCC, one of the most powerful devices for social control is the badge.

More than 38,000 people attended COP26 last year in Glasgow. With that many people, the UN Secretariat and host country Presidency have quite a difficult task—to ensure that the meetings are both productive for the negotiators and accessible to civil society, the private sector, and the media. To make that task more manageable, organizers employ an incredible number of security guards and utilize a system of colored badges to structure access, essentially creating a hierarchy of participants with differential access and influence on the process. Representatives of parties to the convention wear enviable pink badges that grant access to nearly any space. Observers, including university researchers like me as well as representatives from youth organizations, Indigenous alliances, and environmental non-governmental organizations wear yellow. The yellow badge grants access to some negotiation spaces—but it also restricts what one can do, when they can speak, and where they can go.

There are other colored badges for media and special guests, but regardless of the color of one’s badge, it is the threat of having it taken away—of being “de-badged”—that disciplines even the most passionate, frustrated, or enraged attendees.

To illustrate the discipline of the badge, I include here two brief vignettes from my fieldnotes. Both were recorded at COP25 in Madrid, only hours apart and just two days before the scheduled conclusion of the negotiations. When I wrote these notes, several key tracks of the negotiations were stuck, most notably Article 6, the Paris Agreement mechanism for international cooperation on climate mitigation (trade and non-trade based mechanisms). At this point in the negotiations, there was a considerable buzz in the media and in the hallways about the potential for a meeting that had failed to live up to its promise as the “Ambition COP.”

December 11: I arrived late to the ambition plenary after my interview. I missed Greta’s remarks but got there in time to watch a large group of youth organized by Fridays for the Future occupy the stage. Probably 40–50 young people sat down, sang, and chanted for climate justice before a room of recording cell phones (including my own). Security allowed the occupation for a few minutes before moving in to clear the room for the next “high level” plenary on Global Climate Action, which would feature UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres. The protestors chanted “El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!" (The people united will never be defeated) as the security detail approached the stage. As I watched, I contemplated leaving. I thought about how much work it had been to put together UMaine’s application for observer status: hours of meetings, paperwork, tracking down articles and bylaws. I struggled to decide if I should go, but was saved by a loud PA system which interrupted the chants, “The last call, last call… You have one minute or we de-badge you!” Initially, the announcement had been hard to hear over the chanting, but voices quickly faded and stopped entirely by the time security had uttered the word “de-badge.” [1]I turned and headed for the door.

While the UNFCCC continues to admit more observers each year, the process to secure a badge remains arduous. All observer organizations agree to a code of conduct which warns, “Non-governmental organizations are responsible for the conduct of each of their representatives. Any behavior not consistent with these guidelines may have an impact, including de-badging and revoking access, on the participation of the organization and/or of the individual.” The UNFCCC has a precedent for de-badging unauthorized demonstrations and activists who harass other participants— defined by the UNFCCC as actions “perceived to cause offense or humiliation to another person.”

December 11: About an hour after the stage occupation, I queued in front of the observer’s entrance for the plenary hall. There was speculation in the Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations (RINGO) meeting that morning that observation would be limited for the high-level plenary on Global Climate Action. I was in the first row behind the barrier waiting to go in when the hall suddenly became extremely crowded. I was initially pleased with myself for getting there early, but quickly realized that people were not getting in line. There was a demonstration coalescing just behind me. The sound of rattles rose above the crowd along with signs demanding climate justice, an end to fossil fuel extraction in Indigenous communities, and the elimination of carbon trading. Chants of “stand up, pay up” rose. It is in these moments that I struggle most with the line between research and activism. Should I join the chanting or get out my phone to capture the moment? I hit record while sheepishly chanting along—my own little compromise—but was soon pushed, rather forcefully, away from the protesters and into the barrier, as security in grey suits and earpieces funneled into the area. This time there was no PA announcement to disperse the crowd. Instead, the protesters were moved slowly, but forcefully, out of a large delivery bay on the other side of the hall by a line of security with interlocked arms.[2]

When I returned to my hotel room later that night, I learned that more than 300 people had been pushed outside the venue and “de-badged.” In response, a coalition of civil society organizations released a statement which included the following, “Instead of kicking out these polluters, the UNFCCC 25th Conferences of the Parties (COP25) kicked out the people. Instead of listening to our voices, they attempted to silence us.”

While the demonstrators’ credentials were eventually returned after significant protest, the event solidified a feeling among members of civil society, Indigenous groups and youth that the structures of the COP perpetuate colonial arrangements, granting access and voice to powerful interests who defend the status quo and excluding those who seek more transformative change.

The power of the badge is real, but the question is, will it be enough as the climate crisis continues to unfold? I read a tweet that night after so many were de-badged in Madrid. It struck me so deeply it prompted me to think more reflexively about my role as a climate researcher as well as the power of the badge over my own actions. It was the inspiration for this essay. It simply read,

“There was a moment when police pushed Indigenous leaders and others out a side garage door and starting shutting the door. They pushed me and asked if I was in or out. I thought of my children and stepped across the line.”[3]

[1] Interested readers can see my video of the stage occupation here:

[2] Interested readers can view my video in this Tweet, recently posted: For more information and context, please see this Democracy Now! broadcast released the following day: