United Nations Archive 1

UN: Long Road to Copenhagen


By Bill Miller

In the vernacular used during the Kentucky Derby, they are rounding the turn for home and heading for the finish line. As the nations of the world prepare for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, from December 7-18, it may be helpful to look in the rear view mirror to see how various groups, especially the United Nations, have helped the world to arrive at this historic and critical point, and to speculate as to what might happen at the conference.

Let’s speculate as to what may happen: First, the major barriers to an international environmental agreement to encompass the Kyoto Protocol and establish more specific criteria will be the potentially huge cost, both financially and in terms of potential job-loss. A UN study recently estimated that between $500-$600 billion will be needed each year for the next ten years to help develop the infrastructure in developing countries, including China and India, to meet their energy needs from renewable resources, such as solar. Some economists predict it could be a staggering $1 trillion.

An off-setting study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences shows the detrimental costs of using coal and oil peaked at over $120 billion per year in health care costs, primarily due to deaths from air pollution.

Second, the recent Bangkok climate change talks ended on a sour note, with the divide between the rich and poor countries even wider than before. However, just over the past few days, the developing countries have softened their insistence for free access to low-carbon technologies from developed countries.

Both UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Yvo de Boer, the UN’s top climate change official, optimistically predicted that Copenhagen will not create a new international treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol; however, it will produce the political framework for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Third, according to Carol Browner, a key climate and energy official in the Obama Administration, the US will not have a specific climate and energy bill for President Obama to sign before the Copenhagen Conference. Regardless, the US still has a major role to play in committing itself to being a world leader in combating climate change. The hope for this US leadership, not only in the environmental area, was one of the reasons Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fourth, overpopulation is extremely important, yet it has gotten short shrift in the discussions. As the population swells from 6.8 billion to at least 9 billion by 2050, the majority of poor people aspire to improve their standard of living—which will consume more energy and finite natural resources. Each person—even if living in a poor country—expands the carbon footprint. A desired goal, which will NOT happen in Copenhagen, would be for the enlightened world leaders to promote an official “2.1 Children per Family Program” worldwide. Although there is neither political spine nor courage to address this issue, eventually it will happen since the earth cannot support a spiraling population. Efforts to defeat climate change will not succeed without some focus on population expansion.

A few years ago, the climate change debate did not seem to have sufficient traction to become one of the top three international crises, along with the financial collapse and terrorism. There have been a multitude of players who helped encourage the dialogue and catapult climate change to the top of the agenda. Some include former US VP Al Gore with his “Inconvenient Truth” documentary, environmentalists, businesses, faith-based groups, service organizations, such as Rotary International, governmental leaders, environmentally-oriented public administrator academicians and practitioners and many others. Two of the most important players were the UN System and the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who have lubricated the environmental dialogue process and glued it together when it was on the verge of collapse. Just a few of the UN initiatives:

-- In 1988 the United Nations World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Program established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which co-shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. The IPCC was charged to scientifically study climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences. The IPCC, composed of 2,000 eminent scientists from over 130 countries, issued four hard hitting scientific reports that contained a litany of potential doomsday scenarios ranging from violent storms, melting icebergs, rising sea levels, loss of species, massive droughts, desertification, and destruction of rain forests.

-- In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) expanded the sustainable development concept, issued Agenda 21 (an international blueprint to help conserve resources) and adopted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a major international treaty to reduce global warming and confront the challenges of climate change.

-- In 1995, the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report, indicating more global warming, paved the way for the Adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which set binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for industrialized countries by 5% between 2008-2012. The US Government never signed-on to the Kyoto Protocol and, during the Bush Administration, actively worked to undermine it.

-- Another key player was UN Secretary General (SG) Ban Ki-moon. Early on in his tenure, Ban--who has received very little credit for his leadership-- took a hands-on approach in elevating this issue. For starters, he helped guide the IPCC’s fourth report that paved the way for a substantive 2007 climate conference in Bali, Indonesia. He diplomatically confronted and goaded the US and China, the two major polluters, to get involved in finding a solution. Incidentally, Ban had to fly to Bali to help rescue a conference that teetered on the brink of abject failure.

After the successful Bali Conference, the UN brought 100 environmental ministers to Monaco to continue the process and launched the Climate Neutral Network that highlighted the “best practices” in confronting global warming.

Ban Ki-moon was the first UN Secretary General to lead a delegation to Antarctica and Brazil to experience firsthand the melting of the glaciers and the disappearing rain forest, which is often compared to being the “lungs” of the earth.

Most recently, SG Ban went to Norway and the Arctic Circle to witness first hand the devastating effects of global warming and the “collapsing, not slowly melting” of the glaciers. Unfortunately, the main stream media paid little or no attention to the visit by the world’s chief diplomat. Imagine how many media would have been in-tow if Barack Obama had gone to the Arctic? Poor media coverage of Ban’s trip is not only a major problem in enhancing the discussion about climate change, but it is prevalent as to how the media cover, or do not cover, life-and-death issues at the UN.

SG Ban has spearheaded a campaign to encourage governments to “Seal the Deal” in Copenhagen. The campaign promotes environmental and financial assistance to the poorest countries, encourages developed countries to sign-on to ambitious greenhouse reduction targets, works with developing countries to cut emissions, lays out financing and technological support for countries that are most vulnerable due to climate change and establishes an accountable institutional and equitable governance structure to channel resources efficiently to developing countries.

Ban Ki-moon, the only one of eight of the UN Secretaries General, has an advanced degree in public administration, which may provide him a balanced approach to problem-solving. Ban is a low-keyed, behind-the-scenes negotiator who is committed, knowledgeable and tenacious in achieving his goal. Over his nearly three years as SG, climate change has been one of his top priorities. Without his tenacity, it is highly probable that Copenhagen would not be taking place.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “The climate change negotiations are proceeding at a glacial speed. The world’s glaciers are now melting faster than human progress to protect them—and us.” Hopefully, Ban will have uttered a reverse self-fulfilling prophecy for Copenhagen participants. Time is running out.


Bill Miller, former Chair of the UN Association of the USA's Council of Chapter and Division Presidents, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television.”