Don't Bet On The UN To Fix Climate Change – It's Failed For 30 Years

Don't Bet On The UN To Fix Climate Change – It's Failed For 30 Years Is the UN’s climate process fit for purpose? Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

We’re constantly encouraged to think of the next big climate summit, conference or protest as the most important one, the one that is about to make the all-important breakthrough. The UN’s Climate Action Summit on September 23 in New York is no different. The UN’s Secretary General António Guterres is calling on world leaders to come with concrete and realistic plans to bring their national net carbon emissions down to zero by 2050.

But amid the hype, it’s worth putting this UN summit in context against the history of 30 years of such international meetings. Is it a vain hope for 197 countries to agree on any meaningful climate action at all, especially when it involves so much money and power?

Scientists knew from the late 1950s that carbon dioxide was building up and that this could be a problem. By the late 1970s, they knew it would be – it was just a question of when. By 1985, at a workshop of scientists in Villach, Austria, the answer became “sooner than we thought”.

Scientists and activists mobilised and in 1988 the stars aligned. An American drought, a NASA scientist called James Hansen willing to stick his neck out and an international conference in Toronto meant politicians had to respond.

On the 1988 American presidential campaign trail, George Bush Senior promised to convene a global conference on the environment at the White House to “talk about global warming”. But when it finally happened it wasn’t truly global.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was born the same year, endorsed by the UN general assembly, and produced its first report in 1990. By then, there had been fine declarations of motherhood-and-apple-pie in various European cities, such as the Hague and Bergen. However, negotiations towards an international treaty to do something about climate change itself did not begin until February 1991. The world’s media largely ignored them, as the 1991 Gulf War was underway.

UNFCCC birth pangs

Very little progress was made – a sign of things to come – and with a hard deadline of May 1992 approaching, a month before the world’s nations were to gather in Rio de Janeiro for an “Earth Summit”, powerful countries were at loggerheads.

The birth pangs of this search for an international UN treaty on climate change still shape what is and isn’t possible today.

The sticking point was – and still is – what the US government, and the business lobbies behind it, would find acceptable. The French government was keen that any treaty include actual commitments to reduce CO2 emissions, with targets and timetables for the rich nations. The Bush government warned that if these were included in the text they would not attend the Rio summit, leaving any treaty languishing. The French blinked, the UK acted as a middleman, and a deal was done.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) became law in March 1994, two years after the Rio summit.

The French, and others, had hoped that once the UNFCCC was signed and ratified, they could quickly address the question of rich country commitments to reduce CO2 emmissions. But this didn’t happen.

When the Kyoto Protocol, which extended the UNFCCC, was agreed in 1997, despite the fact that carbon trading and other economic instruments within it were designed to keep the Americans happy, no serious commitment to reductions was made. The Americans then pulled out of the implementation process of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, when George W Bush became president.

The process staggered on and there was another helping of motherhood-and-apple-pie at Copenhagen in 2009. Finally, in 2015 a non-binding Paris Agreement was cobbled together, based on a previously discarded “pledge and review” mechanism, which has created an endless round of promises that haven’t been met.

The scientist who had warned that climate change was upon us in 1988 – James Hansen – called the Paris Agreement a fraud, and since 2015, many nations are failing to meet their Paris commitments. Even if they did, global average temperature rise this century would be far in excess of the two degrees above pre-industrial levels that the deal is supposed to ensure.

The US pulled out of the Paris agreement in June 2017. A clear pattern has emerged.

The role of the UN

Some would argue that trying to get 197 countries to agree on anything is a fool’s errand. For 20 years, critics such as the international relations expert David Victor have questioned whether the UN is the appropriate venue for climate negotiations. Victor argues that such a forum is inevitably going to lead to gridlock. He’s not alone in this – as early as 1983 some policy analysts in the US were saying that such a global problem could not be solved because of the complexity of its politics.

The counter argument is that if a deal is agreed outside of the UN process, between the world’s major emitters – the EU, US and China – then it will be perceived as illegitimate, and will likely involve an even greater reliance on speculative technologies than the current Paris Agreement.

Ultimately, it becomes a matter of trust: do those already suffering the impacts of climate change trust those who have caused it to sort it out.

In my experience of talking to people who work in and around the UNFCCC’s bodies, many speak knowledgeably without hesitation, deviation or repetition about the alphabet soup of climate change acronyms, but are completely oblivious of much of this awkward history. Yet what happened – straightforward veto power by the US of anything that would look like real action – remains with us today, and it doesn’t help to pretend otherwise.

Whether the world can a transition to sustainability – the stated aims of both the UNFCCC and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – remains to be seen. But the stakes could not be higher. If political, economic, technological and cultural solutions aren’t now found, the outlook for humanity – and the other species we share this planet with – is exceptionally bleak. 

About The Author

Marc Hudson, Researcher, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

by Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer
9780143130444In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here—some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. Available On Amazon

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy

by Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis, Jeffrey Rissman
1610919564With the effects of climate change already upon us, the need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions is nothing less than urgent. It’s a daunting challenge, but the technologies and strategies to meet it exist today. A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well. Available On Amazon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

by Naomi Klein
1451697392In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

LATEST VIDEOS

The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
by Super User
The climate crisis is forcing thousands around the world to flee as their homes become increasingly uninhabitable.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
by Toby Tyrrell
It took evolution 3 or 4 billion years to produce Homo sapiens. If the climate had completely failed just once in that…
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
by Brice Rea
The end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, was characterised by a final cold phase called the Younger Dryas.…
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
by Frank Wesselingh and Matteo Lattuada
Imagine you are on the coast, looking out to sea. In front of you lies 100 metres of barren sand that looks like a…
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
by Richard Ernst
We can learn a lot about climate change from Venus, our sister planet. Venus currently has a surface temperature of…
Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
The Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
by John Cook
This video is a crash course in climate misinformation, summarizing the key arguments used to cast doubt on the reality…
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
by Julie Brigham-Grette and Steve Petsch
Every year, sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrinks to a low point in mid-September. This year it measures just 1.44…

LATEST ARTICLES

green energy2 3
Four Green Hydrogen Opportunities for the Midwest
by Christian Tae
To avert a climate crisis, the Midwest, like the rest of the country, will need to fully decarbonize its economy by…
ug83qrfw
Major Barrier to Demand Response Needs to End
by John Moore, On Earth
If federal regulators do the right thing, electricity customers across the Midwest may soon be able to earn money while…
trees to plant for climate2
Plant These Trees To Improve City Life
by Mike Williams-Rice
A new study establishes live oaks and American sycamores as champions among 17 “super trees” that will help make cities…
north sea sea bed
Why We Must Understand Seabed Geology To Harness The Winds
by Natasha Barlow, Associate Professor of Quaternary Environmental Change, University of Leeds
For any country blessed with easy access to the shallow and windy North Sea, offshore wind will be key to meeting net…
3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
by Bart Johnson, Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon
A wildfire burning in hot, dry mountain forest swept through the Gold Rush town of Greenville, California, on Aug. 4,…
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
by Alvin Lin
At the Leader’s Climate Summit in April, Xi Jinping pledged that China will “strictly control coal-fired power…
Blue water surrounded by dead white grass
Map tracks 30 years of extreme snowmelt across US
by Mikayla Mace-Arizona
A new map of extreme snowmelt events over the last 30 years clarifies the processes that drive rapid melting.
A plane drops red fire retardant on to a forest fire as firefighters parked along a road look up into the orange sky
Model predicts 10-year burst of wildfire, then gradual decline
by Hannah Hickey-U. Washington
A look at the long-term future of wildfires predicts an initial roughly decade-long burst of wildfire activity,…

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.