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September 24, 2007

The UN Conference on Global Warming: Pre-Thoughts

I'm in New York for a week of multilateralism and do-goodery. Multilateralism in the form of a UN meeting on climate change today, and do-goodery as demonstrated by the Clinton Global Initiative. Night One was a dinner with some UN Climate Change folks who wanted to Meet The Bloggers.

Sadly, meeting the bloggers involved a lot of asking what a blog is and isn't, and whether we check facts, and how we differ from an op-ed page, and a lot of other conversational avenues that I thought were exhausted in early-2005. Dinner sort of hummed along in this agreeable-but-dull fashion till one of the UN types shattered the comity by angrily saying that none of us had asked passionate questions about climate change yet, and didn't we understand this would kill us all and it mattered!? And we did! What we hadn't been convinced of was that anything going on here mattered.

Here's the problem: When it comes to pressuring major nations to undertake policy initiatives they're not favorably disposed towards, the UN is rather toothless. It can quietly persuade or publicly shame. Up till now, it has sought quiet persuasion, with little to no effect on the behavior of America, China, or India. It has not sent Secretary Moon to forthrightly blast our apparent indifference, and the consequences our shortsighted sluggishness will have on the rest of the world. This is not something the UN feels able to do.

There is value, of course, in the UN's role as a neutral platform for the hashing out of international affairs, but the value in amassing that credibility is also that it can occasionally be used. It is often used, of course, against smaller, weaker nations. It is not used against the institution's more powerful patrons, like the US. And without a radical change on that front, there is little the UN can do on climate change, save signal its willingness to serve as a procedural host when the day comes that the relevant countries decide to take action.

In that respect, laying groundwork with other nations may indeed serve as a useful accelerant on the day when President Clinton/Obama/Edwards/Dodd/Richardson takes office and decides to reverse American policy on climate change. As an official sitting near Matt explained, smaller countries don't have the technical capacity to move rapidly forward with action plans and carbon analyses. Getting that work underway during this lull is actually quite useful. But it relies entirely on an internal transformation in American politics -- it doesn't really hold hope for hastening such an evolution.

But the UN is not alone in this slightly bizarre unwillingness to exert real leverage. Western Europe says it believes the science on global warming. The science on global warming suggests that the effects of global warming will be nothing less than catastrophic for Western Europe. Given that, it's genuinely surprising to me that countries like France, the UK, Germany, and so forth haven't banded together to exert real pressure on America, China, and India.

You'd think this would be an area in which the EU both could, but more importantly should, act with a singularity of purpose and flex its aggregate might. If it doesn't, the consequences will be devastating. And yet there's no real evidence that the EU is ready to rely on anything save rhetoric -- no sanctions, no threats of sanctions, no preferred trading deal to countries willing to moderate carbon output....nothing. Meanwhile, Sarkozy's threatening to bomb Iran if it goes nuclear, despite the fact that a nuclear Iran is, whatever else you think about it, of relatively little danger to France, while warming poses a tremendous threat. The whole thing is weird, and demonstrates a rather worrying distance between the emphasis various countries and institutions say they're putting on climate change, and how much political capital they're really willing to risk to arrest the planet's carbon output.

Brian has further thoughts here. And I'll be blogging all through the meetings today.

September 24, 2007 in Energy | Permalink


Er, this post was confusing.

Posted by: Chris | Sep 24, 2007 1:17:11 AM

Just what a writer likes to hear!

Which part's giving you trouble?

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 24, 2007 1:24:40 AM

Well, the UN's value at this moment is to keep the torch burning, which helps those on the inside of the US and EU to keep pushing public opinion on climate change.

On the EU:

It has engaged in "soft" initiatives with China and India over carbon issues, but the kind of actions you suggest are problematic because:

1) The EU doesn't have consensus on radical action against other countries over climate change. Sarkozy should remind you that the EU is not a unitary state and unless there is firm consensus on something, you'll actually find a multiplicity of views.

2) The measures you propose mostly violate WTO and a bunch of other treaties. I'd agree that the EU should consider it, but given that it would guarantee a trade war with Bush's America, it might be apparent why people treat the idea with some caution.

Posted by: Meh | Sep 24, 2007 7:28:05 AM

yes this was a hard to read blog and i'm really serious about climate change and i want to know what's what.

Posted by: Edward | Sep 24, 2007 4:49:13 PM

I didn't find the post in the least confusing, and I too am frustrated with the powers that be who could be exerting pressure and aren't. The optimist in me thinks that the UN and the EU are biding their time until W is out of office so they can work productively with his successor. They are as capable of identifying lip service as the rest of us and, I'm sure, just as capable of predicting when that's all they're going to get -- read "the reaction they'll receive from the Bush White House." Were I in their shoes, I might safeguard my political capital for a time when I could actually use it to some good also.

Posted by: jennifer hagstrom | Sep 26, 2007 9:37:40 AM

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