Overline: Fellowship
Headline: Ensuring the Vulnerable Are Heard in International Climate Decision-Making

Nicola Sharman joined RIFS as a Fellow in April 2024. She comes from the University of Eastern Finland, where she is part of the 2035Legitimacy project. Her work focuses on the democratic legitimacy of international climate change law and the exercise of procedural rights within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change from the point of view of those most affected by climate change. 

Nicola Sharman RIFS Fellow
Nicola Sharman joined the Research Institute for Sustainability - Helmholtz Center Potsdam (RIFS) as a Fellow in April 2024. RIFS/ S. Letz

Your field of research is the democratic legitimacy of international climate change law. Could you explain why this subject is so important? 
Nicola Sharman: States have already agreed at the international level, under the Paris Agreement, that the global response to the climate crisis needs to be swift and ambitious. Climate change is having a serious impact on people's lives around the world, and even more so for people in vulnerable positions. But the more ambitious climate policy is, the faster transitions are imposed on society, then the more challenging it can also be to make sure that those policies are fair, acceptable and have buy-in from stakeholders. This is why, from the perspective of democratic societies, decision-making on climate change, up to the highest international levels, needs to have democratic input and legitimacy. People expect to have a say in decision-making that is so consequential to their lives. But around the world, we can see clear examples of groups turning to protest and the courts, who feel that their interests are not being considered, and who are suspicious of the powers that may be at play behind the scenes. If people do not have trust in the international institutions that are responsible for setting global commitments on climate action, the danger is that global climate action as a whole will be undermined.

What will be your focus during your fellowship?

N. S.: I approach this topic from a legal point of view, and so I am interested in whether the participation of civil society at the international levels of climate change decision-making is treated as a human right. And I am particularly interested in those most highly affected groups who face particular barriers to participation. One of the questions I am asking is what particular governments and states are doing to fulfill this right to participation and ensure that civil society voices are being heard and represented in a fair and meaningful way in the UNFCCC. There are certain states that have a particular legal duty to do this under the Aarhus Convention. I want to examine whether states that are party to the Convention are meeting that obligation in practice.

Do you also hope to identify remedies?
N. S.: To begin with I will probably be more focused on identifying gaps and comparing what is expected versus what states are doing in practice. And then, once I've identified the blind spots, that's the point where I might be able to start coming up with recommendations about what states and the institutions of the UNFCCC can do better to promote democratic values in decision-making.

You used to work as a lawyer. How did you come to this topic? 
N. S.: I worked for a while in commercial firms but wanted to find a way to put my legal skills to use in an area that I cared about more strongly. I eventually left that career path and went back to university to get a master's degree in global environmental law. Shortly afterwards, I joined the 2035Legitimacy project, which is a consortium of researchers looking at the legitimacy of climate policymaking in Finland. It has been a great opportunity for me to collaborate on issues of public participation and human rights that I’d become interested in during my studies. 
A key moment for me was when I went to COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. That was at the point when I'd just joined the project, but I was still figuring out what specifically I wanted to focus my research on. Glasgow was quite an overwhelming experience, with so many people at the conference. And there were a lot of concerns about observer participation that year, particularly because the conference the year before had been cancelled because of COVID, and many restrictions were still in place. I experienced all the issues that are involved on the ground of being an observer in these conferences, how difficult it is to navigate or feel that you have the ability to make any impact. Meanwhile, I was aware of how privileged I was to have access to the conference space, and how shielded it felt from the civil society demonstrations and actions taking place outside.

What new insights do you hope to generate through your research at RIFS?

N. S.: It's sometimes hard to say until you've done the research. For now, it's very exploratory, and I'm still very open minded about where it's going to lead. I want to have some positive recommendations to make about how UNFCCC processes can be made better, especially from the point of view of the most vulnerable and most affected segments of society. How can their voices be amplified in these spaces?

What can be done when states are not democratic? 
N. S.: Legitimacy might be measured differently by different people, different actors and different societies in different circumstances. I'm coming at it from the viewpoint of states where democracy as a political ideal is valued highly. Some of the key players in addressing the climate crisis are democratic jurisdictions, for example the EU and the US, so democratic legitimacy from the point of view of these players is important. For countries with weaker democratic cultures, the legitimacy of the UNFCCC might be assessed differently. Regardless of this, the effectiveness of the global climate response relies on international decision-making being deemed legitimate by all states, so even these less democratic countries may have an indirect interest in the UNFCCC being viewed as democratically legitimate by others.