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Is the UN the Right Place to Talk About Climate?

June 8, 2010 ·

Like Bonn, the UN has its limitations.

UN Climate Change conference, Bonn Germany.BONN, GERMANY – When I told my friends that I was heading to Bonn, Germany for a session of the UN climate talks, they bemoaned the general lack of anything interesting to do here. Why not go to a city with verve, like Berlin — or at least one with some culture, like Munich?

But Bonn has at two compelling things going for it.

1)     There is a killer museum honoring the life and work of Ludwig von Beethoven.

2)     The world's governments are gathered here for two weeks deciding how to carve up the atmosphere — one of the greatest remaining global commons.

The meeting here in Bonn is a follow-up to the better-known climate negotiations that took place in Copenhagen last December, where little consensus was reached within the official UN spaces.

At the same meeting, President Obama pushed through what has become known as the Copenhagen Accord — a statement that largely reflects U.S. positions and interests, which has gained signatures, if not support, from a growing number of countries.

But the accord’s very existence, the secretive manner in which it was drafted and the process for getting governments’ endorsement, have generated fierce debate about the efficacy of the UN as the forum in which to solve the climate crisis.

On one side of the debate are developed countries and NGOs that tow their line (invoking the need to remain politically relevant in battles over domestic climate and other legislation back home). These guys are generally of the belief that it’s impossible to get consensus among 192 countries, and so the UN is at best irrelevant and in the worst case, fumbles any hope of an effective negotiating process (as evidence they recount the image of long lines of freezing delegates locked outside conference halls in Copenhagen).

The proposal by this camp is to pull the key issues — targets, money, legal commitments — out of the UN and into smaller group discussions whose outcomes could be fed into the official negotiations — or not.

On the other side of the spectrum are many of the social movements from the anti-corporate globalization struggle calling for an overhaul of the way we think about climate change and its solutions. This camp sees the UN as a space where political positions are easily swayed by business lobbyists and undemocratic global institutions like the World Bank. They reject the UN as an illegitimate space in which to make decisions on the behalf of those most impacted by climate change — very often the same people who are marginalized by their own governments.

These movements are calling for peoples solutions manifested on the ground in each community, woven together in networks of solidarity and social justice.

But there’s a sweet spot between these two poles. While recognizing the UN’s limitations as a facilitator of negotiations with so much at stake, and that the process which they are attempting to facilitate is between parties that are not truly representative (or necessarily democratic) — the UN is the only forum were all countries that have signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change have equal representation. And as the People’s Conference on Climate Change recently hosted by the Bolivian government in Cochabamba shows, civil society can ally itself with progressive governments to make political and substantive policy interventions in these multilateral processes.

The question that still lingers is whether the chairs of the relevant UN working groups will incorporate people's proposals — in the form of official party submissions — into the global discussion this week in Bonn.