United Nations Archive 1

UN Spearheads Climate Change Debate


By Bill Miller

By  A year or two ago few of the climate change observers would have predicted that the debate would have gained the incredible traction and visibility it has recently. Although many groups were involved, much of the credit for showcasing this critical issue goes to various UN entities, UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon and former Vice President Al Gore.

Gore, who attained international rock star status, effectively used the documentary, An Inconvenient Truth to explain in understandable terms very complex, scientific climatic changes and how they may negatively impact the earth.

Undoubtedly, Al Gore was instrumental in identifying the climate change problem, developing a systematic way to explain it, and focusing the public’s attention on what most scientific studies suggest will be a crisis that could adversely affect most forms of life on the planet.

Another key player in the debate was a group that co-shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore: the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Unfortunately, some xenophobic American media outlets had a difficult time reporting that both the IPCC and Al Gore won the prize. A large number of newscasters either reported late in the story -- or not at all -- about the UN sharing the coveted award. They gave the erroneous impression that Al Gore was the only recipient.

The IPCC, established in 1988 and consisting of over 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, to mention a few.

The last report by the IPCC was a “synthesis” report that combined lessons learned from the first three: scientific arguments, how the world can adapt to global warming, and ideas to reduce greenhouse gases.

Another key player, who received little credit for his role in the debate, was UN Secretary General (SG) Ban Ki-moon. Early on in his tenure the Secretary General 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, and he diplomatically confronted and goaded the US and China, the two major polluters, to get involved in finding a solution.

Ban Ki-moon was also 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.

Perhaps in an effort to raise consciousness and develop coalitions, one of Ban Ki-Moon’s most notable, yet quiet, accomplishments was addressing the National Association of Evangelicals, where he was apparently very well-received. Although evangelicals have not traditionally been close allies of the UN and its programs, polls show that many of the leaders and rank-and-file members are starting to view the UN more favorably, especially on issues like Darfur, humanitarian assistance and global warming.

Some of Ban Ki-Moon’s friends and foes alike have wondered whether he may be too docile when dealing with the US and may be viewed as a toady for President Bush. Apparently, if the climate change issue is an accurate barometer, Ban will pick his battles carefully. He will maintain his diplomatic façade, work behind the scenes, and then implement his strategy.

Ban drove the point home at a 2007 climate conference at the UN when he commented that the “cost of inaction will far outweigh the cost of early action.” President Bush and Secretary of State Condi Rice have strenuously argued that a technological energy revolution and voluntary goals were needed so as not to stifle economic growth. Apparently, Ban Ki-Moon did not get the memo about kowtowing to the US. Arguably, the Bush Administration was probably not very pleased with the SG’s enthusiasm and independence in promoting the climate change debate.

What role can the UN play in further discussions about global warming? There are several critical areas where the UN can continue to lead. For example:

-- SG Ban Ki-Moon recently reported that the climate change issue would top the UN agenda in 2008, along with peacekeeping, pre-emptive diplomacy, Millennium Development Goals, and internal reforms. He also indicated that the UN is the logical venue to promote a discussion and resolution of the climate change since the UN has all 192 countries of the world as members. Global warming problems will not be resolved by a handful of countries, but will require massive international cooperation.

-- As the Arctic ice melted, Russia recently planted a flag at the North Pole, thus claiming a swath of territory for its own. It is anticipated that the US, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark will contest control over what may be a very lucrative area consisting of oil and other natural resources.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Treaty, to which the US is not a signatory, and a UN hosted organization, called the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, will play a crucial role in determining which country has a legal claim to the land that is being exposed. Ironically, there is strong support from the Bush Administration, private sector, military, and nongovernmental organizations for the US to join the UNCLOS. By shunning the UNCLOS, a small number of US Senators has blocked the treaty and weakened the US’s bargaining position.

-- The UN Environment Program (UNEP), under the able leadership of a new and dynamic director Achim Steiner of Germany, will be more proactive in providing new scientific information regarding climate change. Recently, UNEP did a study that highlighted how governments are ignoring the seriousness of global warming. The study indicated that human consumption had outstripped available resources and “every human now requires a third more land to provide his or her needs than the planet can supply.”

-- In early February, the UN sponsored a meeting with two dozen organizations that highlighted the importance of governments and scientists worldwide to upgrade their climate prediction capabilities, which will save lives and help protect economies. The UN World Meteorological Organization will be a major player in monitoring climate shifts.

Some scientists believe that the earth has already hit the “tipping point” where it cannot reverse the negative effects of climate change. Although a recent poll showed that 62% of Americans considered global warming a serious danger, incredulously, given all of the dire reports and predictions, only a slim majority considered global warming to be a “very serious problem.”

One ray of hope is that the four leading Democratic and Republican presidential contenders have the climate change crisis on their radar screen, much more so than President Bush. In the latest State of the Union speech, the president offered a tepid endorsement of extricating the US from fossil fuels and a disingenuous proposal to develop an international agreement to deal with climate change. The Bush Administration has stonewalled, even to the point of re-writing official scientific reports, any meaningful discussion of and implementation of aggressive measures to reduce the carbon footprint and other environmental irritants.

Another encouraging sign is that over 740 US cities have indicated they would work to achieve the Kyoto Protocol goals, which the US Administration has both ignored and undermined.

The handful of skeptics that doubt that global warming is happening will argue that this is a natural cycle that occurs every so many centuries. In the past, that may have been the case when the earth had a couple of million people who were emitting small amounts of pollution. Today’s reality is that there are 6.6 billion humans, predicted to be 9 billion by 2050, spewing out an overwhelming myriad of wastes and contaminants that pollute the air, water and land, not to mention the human body. Increasing the population will only exacerbate this problem.

-- Since most of the environmental degradation is aggravated by humans, it would be logical, but perhaps not politically popular, for the next US president to develop a “profile in courage moment,” confront head-on the hard reality that there are too many people on Terra Firma, and diplomatically recommend that a goal of 2.1 children per family should be a stated goal in the US and worldwide. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA), a major UN agency in family planning (not abortion promotion), is working tirelessly to help educate women and men so that they can have control over when and how many children they wish to have.

At the recent economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that there is a looming water crisis in the world that may pre-empt the climate change problems. Nations and peoples will go to war and commit unspeakable atrocities to secure sufficient water supplies that are basic to their survival. Today, a large part of the problem in Darfur is attributed to a lack of water and desertification of the region.

British author G.K. Chesterton once suggested, “It isn’t they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.” For the past several years, there has been overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is a reality. Although some people have refused to see the problem, hopefully, they and the financial barons at the Davos conference will realize that the Secretary General is on target and they need to move quickly to deal with this imminent tragedy today—not tomorrow when it may be too late.


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.”