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Climate Change Pushes Global Agenda

Feb 20, 2007 Timothy E. Wirth UN Association - USA

Over the last 12 months, events in the natural world and rising scientific consensus about the nature of the challenge of global climate change have pushed this issue to the top of the international agenda. The so-called and long-overstated "debate" about global warming is over, and a new discussion has begun over how to face the challenge. It is now not only being carried out in field laboratories and the halls of our great universities and scientific institutions, but in think tanks, at high-level international conferences, from the podiums of presidential candidates, and in legislatures around the world.

Since 1988, the UN has been an important and constructive presence in both discussions, not only helping to build the scientific consensus on climate change but also presenting a stage upon which nations, corporations, foundations and individuals with disparate interests and priorities can forge common cause to mitigate and adapt to its associated effects.

The UN's role in building scientific consensus was most recently embodied in a report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a joint venture between two UN agencies, the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Program. All serious policymakers have now gotten the message, sent loud and clear by the IPCC report in early February. The scientific community believes that human activities are altering the atmosphere and that the planet is warming. And, unless we act now, with a sense of urgency, there is a great risk that the Earth's environmental systems will cross a tipping point beyond which costly, disruptive impacts all over the world will be inevitable. The question is no longer if it is happening, but, rather, what do we do about it.

As the global platform for international cooperation, the United Nations has been central to facilitating this discussion. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which entered into force in 1994, has helped member states share information on climate change, launch strategies to address its causes and collectively prepare for its impact. When confronted with a problem where the actions of each nation directly and adversely affect every other nation without prejudice, the clear solution is strong multilateral action. Climate change is such a problem, and the United Nations, as the world's platform for international cooperation, has had a central role in facilitating the global response and will continue to do so.

The calls for a more robust international discussion and for a strengthen role for the United Nations have been growing louder. French President Jacques Chirac, at a recent environmental conference in Paris, called for the creation of a new United Nations environmental body with greater powers and for a "universal declaration of environmental rights and obligations." New UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has already declared climate change to be one of his top priorities and is currently considering how to best bring member states together to formulate the next steps forward and to create a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. The subject will likely be broached again in July at the upcoming G-8 Summit in Germany, whose chancellor, Angela Merkel, has also been a leader in Europe on climate change.

In the meantime, the scientific community will continue to ratchet up the pressure. Climate change is unlikely to leave the public eye any time soon. On February 27, the Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development will present a major new report to the Secretary-General, which will help identify practical and workable paths to a healthier planet. This report, facilitated by the United Nations Foundation and the distinguished scientific society Sigma Xi, was invited to provide recommendations on climate change mitigation and adaptation for the 15th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development. In addition, the IPCC will release its Working Group II report, on the "impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability" related to climate change, in early April, and its Working Group III report, on "mitigation of climate change" in early May.

The "debate" on climate change has shifted, but it is no less urgent. Fortunately, the politics of global warming are changing rapidly and the new discussion on how to best mitigate its effects is beginning to accelerate. This is happening for two reasons: the costs of inaction are now clear and are compelling a sense of urgency among policymakers; and, simultaneously, government, business and other international leaders now realize the tremendous economic opportunities apparent in the global energy transformation that is needed not only to preserve the Earth's environment, but also to assure international security and take on persistent poverty. As these two factors compel policymakers to seriously address global warming, pressure will continue to grow on all nations to build a strong and binding multilateral framework through the UN to coordinate efforts on this global issue. Senator Wirth is president of the United Nations Foundation.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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