Naturally, Ole Seidenberg takes the train to the UN Climate Conference. In Copenhagen the 26-year-old plans to dog the German negotiator’s heels – just as he did at the preparatory sessions in Bangkok and Barcelona. “Negotiator trackers” like Seidenberg also “tail” Indian or Spanish negotiators and then post blog reports on “how we are being represented here”. Or they text fellow activists, says Seidenberg, “for example, when the EU delegation hits the brakes. And then within minutes there’s a flash mob in front of the chancellery.”

Seidenberg is the prototype of the media-savvy environmentalist mobiliser – and but a switchpoint in the tight network of global civil society. People and NGOs of all stripes are sending out a signal all over the world: Time to get serious! It’s now or never! But as harmonious as the global front of the world’s concerned citizens might seem, behind the scenes they are at loggerheads. In apparent contradiction to the urgent call for successful negotiations, criticism of the UN climate deal is mounting. The question is: should we reform or replace the system? More immediately, should we join up or break up the negotiations? The big NGOs, to be sure, are spearheading the campaign to persuade heads of state to toughen up the existing climate regime. On the other hand, however, new civil society networks, for the most part in developing countries, believe the only way to achieve climate justice is to upend the prevailing growth model: “System change instead of climate change!”

At the UN conference in Bali two years ago, Asian farmers, unionists and indigenous peoples demonstrated for the first time not only against governments, but also against Western environmentalists. They aimed their battle-cries at the market instruments of the climate deal: viz. the envisaged Emissions Trading System and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Both allow big CO2 polluters to buy emission credits elsewhere – which profits certificate traders and banks more than it does the cause of climate protection. This is why Climate Justice Action (CJA) is bent on storming the climate conference on 16 December, the day environment ministers and heads of government arrive.

Ex-militants turned diplomats

The idea also seems outlandish because civil society clearly has a say in the process. Nearly a thousand NGOs were accredited to attend the last climate summit. At their forefront is the Climate Action Network (CAN), an umbrella organisation with 450-odd members, including global players like Oxfam, Greenpeace and the WWF. And more than one hundred of their experts are on the panels and task forces at the conference.

They can avail themselves of the information they get there to make suggestions on the inside or hold ambitious press conferences on the outside. CAN members present “Fossil of the Day” awards, for instance, to the most egregiously backwards and recalcitrant states. What’s more, they can draw on their own expertise to avert many a misstep and keep the talks on course. After all, the oft-derided “hair-splitting” over the wording of the climate deal is not necessarily a waste of time. “Sustainable management of forests” or “sustainable forest management”: now who would ever have suspected that between these seemingly synonymous terms lies a gaping chasm between conservation and ruthless exploitation? Many negotiators, especially from the south, seek out NGO representatives for expert advice. Sometimes they even exhort them in whispers, “You’ve got to put more pressure on us!” Indeed, governments and conservationists have got to know each other well over the past 15 years. Perhaps a little too well, seeing as some of the Robin Hoods of climate protection have long since become diplomats themselves.