Varun Sivaram

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The UN Doesn’t Understand Climate Change

by Michael Levi
September 17, 2010

A set of background papers (PDF) written for a high-level UN off-site in August was posted last week by Fox News (hat tip: Colum Lynch). Among them is one (prepared by the Climate Change Support Team in the Office of the Secretary-General) that explores the challenge facing the UN in addressing climate change.* That document largely speaks in “we” terms – how should “we”, the United Nations, solve the climate problem? Only once, and briefly, does it talk about the other institutions in play:

“After the difficulties of adopting the Copenhagen Accord, many are saying that the multilateral process is unable to resolve these issues, and that one could consider going to smaller groupings, such as the MEF or the G20.”

The paper then promptly returns to a largely useless discussion of the inability of the UN do “synthesis” across climate, water, food, energy, and health, without actually confronting this suggestion.

The big question facing the UN, though, when it comes to climate, is how to divide the task of dealing with climate change with other institutions. It is pretty clear to most observers that the UN can’t come close to handling the task by itself. But where, precisely, is its value-added? In mobilizing high-level gatherings? In coordinating adaptation efforts? In facilitating measurement, reporting, and verification? In hammering out the rules for climate funds?

UN management aren’t asking themselves those questions. That’s because they largely see the dilemma the way the background paper does: either the UN will take care of climate change, or some other institution (like the G20 or MEF) will. From that point of view, if the G20 or MEF is empowered, the UN loses. (I’m not just basing this observation on the paper.) It’s no surprise that the UN thinkers don’t spend much time dwelling on that part of the problem: they can’t contemplate their irrelevance.

Having a serious strategy for the G20 or the MEF, though, isn’t about making the UN irrelevant. It’s about using different institutions to take care of the things that each is best suited to. So long as the UN thinks it’s in a fight for control of the climate agenda, we aren’t going to have a very productive conversation about how to make the multifaceted landscape of climate-related institutions work effectively as a whole. Yet that is precisely the conversation that those who care about dealing with climate change more than they care about institutional prerogatives need to have.

*It’s worth noting that the UN is much more than the SG’s climate support team. There are others in the institution, particularly in its operating parts, who see things differently. But no fundamental change in the institution’s approach will happen without the SG’s leadership.

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  • Posted by Josiah


    I think you’ve touched on another important point. Being a “conservative environmentalist” (self described, copyright pending ;D) I have a bit of a different view on the climate debate than most on the left or the right.

    I think you have perfectly illustrated that here, alongside and entangled with the very real scientific and environmental challenges, is a struggle to “leverage” the crisis for power, control and funding.

    THIS is the aspect of global warming that, in the minds of many conservatives, transforms it into the “Global Warming Agenda.” I don’t know that many of them would articulate it that way, but I think it’s true.

    I don’t know of many conservatives who hate the planet. I do know many who engage in some very severe cognitive dissonance and denial to the point where they refuse to see the truth of global warming because they percieve it as an avenue towards power and control by organizations and individuals who’s politics and agendas they strongly disagree with. (Whew, try saying that without taking a breath!)

    Sorry to take this off on a tangent, but I would love to get your thoughts on that.

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