Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
What's More Important Than Our Planet?
By Margreet Wewerinke and Curtis F J Doebbler
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, February 21, 2011
Recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon announced that the UN
would henceforth cease its direct involvement in climate change talks. This
announcement may not surprise those familiar with the Secretary-General’s
consistently ‘hand-off’ approach to any issue that might cause concern for
the governments whose support he believes he needs for re-election later
A more important question, however, is does the
disinterest of the second-most-senior-UN-official, after the President of
the General Assembly, in the process of negotiating international action to
protect the planet’s climate, really make any sense?
observers are asking themselves: Does the UN Secretary-General think the
planet’s future is no longer worth his time? What could be more important?
How can the UN disengage from a process that was created by the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty adopted
under UN auspices and headed by a UN Under-Secretary-General?
Moon has not denied that climate change is a global problem. Indeed, at the
recent World Social Forum in Davos he declared our current global economic
model an environmental “global suicide pact” leading us to disaster.
His presence in Davos, a summit for the world’s richest people who run the
“global suicide pact” economy, also provides some insight into why and how
he thinks the UN should distance itself from climate change negotiations.
He presence at this party to celebrate capitalism is evidence of
how he has committed the UN to a pro-business agenda. The UN has effectively
become a platform for policies and activities that suit the agendas of large
corporations. Ironically, these same corporations are among the actors most
responsible for climate change and the impending global disaster it brings
By announcing he is withdrawing the UN from action to
influence the more inclusive global talks the Secretary-General is sending
the message that he is giving up on solutions that come from those
interested in serving the interests of humanity as a whole. This undoubtedly
provides comfort to corporations worried that concerns for the planet’s
atmosphere might limit their growth. It also satisfies the richest most
power countries in the world, especially the United States, whose
development depends on the growth of corporate interests. Perhaps, however,
the UN should be asking is this best for the planet that we all share.
While expressing concern for corporate interests the Secretary-General
avoided concerning either himself or the UN with the failure of the
international community to act to address the adverse impacts of climate
change. These impacts are expected to lead to the deaths of five million
people, mostly children, by 2020, according to the humanitarian research
organization DARA in a study done in conjunction with the Climate Vulnerable
Forum, a group of vulnerable countries.
The number of deaths is
also projected to rise to one million every year by 2030 and continue to
rise thereafter in business-as-usual scenarios. A this rate, by the end of
this century, more than a hundred million people, mainly those in the poorer
parts of the world—particularly Africa and particularly children—will die
because of the lack of adequate action to address the adverse impacts of
In making his announcement the Secretary-General
did say he would devote more of the UN’s time and resources to the World
Summit on Sustainable Development, upcoming in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. This
forum brings together concerns of the environment, including climate change,
and other issues of development, such as poverty. Indeed, the original ‘Rio
conference’ twenty years ago was where the preeminent treaty on climate
change—the UNFCCC—was born.
The current agenda for the ‘Rio+20’
meeting, however, suggests that it might be used to support a
‘business-as-usual’ scenario. If this is the case, it will add fuel to the
fire rather than addressing the main drivers of climate change that have put
the world on the current path of disaster.
Originally envisioned as
an enhancement to UN’s sustainable development agenda, the summit now
appears dominated by its ambiguous ‘Green Economy’ theme. While such an
agenda may appear to be forward-looking at a distance, on closer inspection,
its represents an understanding of sustainable development that has widely
Its poor reputation has been earned due largely
to the failure of rich developed countries to meet their promises in the
areas of environmental protection and development assistance to poorer
countries. It is likely no coincidence that the same parties’ broken
promises and their failure to make adequate promises, has plagued the
climate change negotiations. In other words, the developing countries that
drive the Green Economy agenda for Rio+20 are the same ones that have
reneged on their responsibilities to date.
The problem runs even
deeper for those seeking ‘climate justice’. These individuals and groups are
seeking reparations from historic polluters for climate damage suffered in
developing countries, as well as science-based action to deal with the
adverse impacts of climate change that are in accordance with the UNFCCC’s
framework of principles. To achieve such action, the level of greenhouse
gases in the atmosphere need to be cut drastically. In other words historic
polluters need to pollute less and by implication consume less.
Green Economy agenda, championed by amongst others UNEP Executive Director
Achim Steiner, rejects the suggestion that solutions to the climate and
financial crises require us to all control our consumption. It does so on
the emotional grounds that such action is either painful, costly or
politically unfeasible…or all three. Instead, it promises a rosy win-win-win
scenario, where by consumption can continue at its present rate bringing
unlimited economic growth and thus development. The Greening factor, it
suggests will make the development sustainable.
The rationale is
that protecting our planet can be financially viable, and that ending
poverty will be a natural by-product of the increased commoditization of
According to Steiner, this requires a “Global Green New
Deal” consisting of “a set of globally coordinated large-scale stimulus
packages and policy measures that have the potential to bring about economic
recovery in the short term while laying the foundation for sustained
economic growth in the medium- and long-term.”
The global measures
should, according to proponents of the Green Economy theory, include
strategies to make low-carbon energy accessible to all, especially to poor
nations. What it does not include is a realistic means of addressing the
obstacles to this alleged ‘free market’ approach.
author of The Green Economy, points out, for example, that intellectual
property rights (IPRs) are significant obstacles to any free market approach
as they make the playing field unequal.
Both Jacobs and Steiner
suggest that world leaders may need to agree on exemptions or waivers for
‘green technologies’ along the lines of the flexibilities in TRIPS
(trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights) agreements that
ensure accessibility of affordable medicines in developing countries. The
problems that have plagued TRIPS, largely due to the unwillingness of
developed countries to really level the playing field, do not bode well for
such a possibility.
At the climate change talks in Cancun, Mexico
last December, discussions about IPRs fruitlessly ended when developed
countries failed to make concessions. This happened despite the fact that
more than a hundred developing countries had made progress on IPRs a
priority. It happened even after a consensus was achieved in the Ad-Hoc
Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action, when the 135-member caucus of
States known as ‘Group of G77 plus China’ had secured language on IPRs in
almost all of the various texts that were used as a basis for negotiations.
Nevertheless, in an extraordinary move on the very last day of the
negotiations, the Mexican President of conference and her advisors meeting
behind closed doors and apparently under pressure from the United States,
changed the text to one with no mention of IPRs.
If an agreement on
IPRs was not possible in the climate change talks, which are less market
driven, it is even more unlikely that an agreement can be reached at the
As this is just one requirement for the
implementation of a ‘Green Economy’ agenda, its political feasibility is
perhaps more distant than that of negotiated, science-based action.
At Cancun, just as troubling was the move away from consensus, to a
non-transparent style of decision making behind closed doors – a style that
will likely also be used to reach agreement in “Rio’, where less procedural
safeguards are in place than is the case in the UNFCCC framework. The
suspicion that this shift created ultimately led to an outcry by both civil
society organisations and States that were excluded from meaningful
participation in the process.
The trend away from transparency in
negotiations about the planet earth was even more visible at the Copenhagen
meeting a year earlier. In Denmark the host nation in a desperate attempt to
salvage an agreement that satisfied their developed country neighbors and
the United States, tried to rush through an agreement negotiated behind
closed doors while almost all of civil society was not even allowed to enter
the conference premises. The so-called Copenhagen Accord was, however,
rejected by the majority of States when put before the plenary gather and
ultimately only ‘taken note of’.
Instead of accepting
responsibility, the developed countries point the finger at the UN,
eventually inducing the UNFCCC Executive-Secretary Mr. Yvo de Boer to
resign. A new Executive-Secretary, Ms Christiana Figueres, from the Latin
American country of Costa Rica, was appointed to this post at the level of
UN Under-Secretary-General by the UN Secretary-General. She was tasked with
fixing the problems.
It now appears that this may have meant
‘fixing’ an outcome that was palatable to the countries that are primarily
concerned with protecting a business agenda.
Certainly, the leaders
of developed countries, particularly American President Barak Obama and his
host Danish Prime Minster Lars Løkke Rasmussen, did not appreciate that the
democratic process at Copenhagen had stood in the away of their intentions.
Nevertheless, it is not surprising that the Copenhagen aftermath
ultimately led Ban Ki Moon to start shunning the climate talks and declare
Rio+20 the single new priority on the UN’s environment agenda.
Copenhagen, Ban Ki Moon stood by the Danish hosts as they tried to push
through the contentious Copenhagen document during an all-night meeting. And
he steadfastly refused to withdraw the secretly negotiated text even after
several countries had indicated their opposition to it.
these countries had opposed the Copenhagen document because it was not
adequate to prevent the most serious adverse impacts of climate change.
Particularly, the so-called pledge-and-review system allowed each country
cuts emissions as it pleased and, as we now know, led to aggravate cuts that
are so low that the resulting warming will have deadly consequences for
millions of the most vulnerable people in the world.
text provided the 193 UN nations that are States Parties to the UNFCCC an
ambiguous and non-binding document that appeared to contradict
legally-binding obligations in the UNFCCC and it Kyoto Protocol, both which
contain legally binding obligations for developed States to cut greenhouse
In Copenhagen, Ban Ki Moon—using a slogan enlisted
by campaigners supporting a stronger legally binding climate treaty—declared
in Copenhagen that “the deal was sealed”.
During the intercessional
climate negotiations in 2010 the disagreement between developed and
developing countries intensified. This undoubtedly made Ban Ki-Moon feel
uncomfortable. For the UN Secretary-General to oppose dealing with climate
change through a binding legal agreement would put him in an impossible
The Secretary-General would be placing himself him at odds
with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of UN Member States, while at
the same time place him in the position of also appearing to oppose the
clear requirements of the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol. The
Secretary-General had to find a way to continue to support the Copenhagen
agreement while divesting himself of the apparent responsibility of doing
By opening address to the Cancun meeting he had apparently made
up his mind. Balancing the competing views of his quandary he said he was
“very concerned that our efforts so far have been insufficient” and that the
UN was “still not up to the challenge.” He then pandered to the masses—the
majority of States and civil society whom he was addressing, by declaring
that “business as usual can no longer be tolerated” and that “Cancun is a
breakthrough” because the “time of waiting when everyone is watching is
The stage was set for an agreement and then an exit. If the
Cancun meeting to adopt a Copenhagen look-a-like agreement, he could then
divest the UN of responsibility for the global climate at least until her
was re-elected for his second term in office.
This might have worked
if it were not for the fact that the UN is inextricably entwined in the
climate change negotiations. Not only does one of his
Under-Secretary-Generals lead the Secretariat, but most States see climate
change as one of the most important global problems. Indeed, they told him
this when he hosted a high level meeting on climate change in New York
during the opening of General Assembly in September 2009.
most States are likely to view the UN’s running away from the problem of
climate change as a cowardly lack of global leadership, unbefitting of the
world’s preeminent forum for diplomacy.
Ironically, the UN
Secretary-General is trying to wrap his enthusiasm for the Rio+20 meeting in
the same packaging that he had used to sell his concern for climate change.
At Davos, as two years early at his own Climate Change summit in New York,
he stressed that the, “once resource that is scarcest of all: Time.”
In light of this truism – especially from the perspective of the
millions of potential climate victims -- it is clearly irresponsible to
allow for further, perhaps even indefinite postponement of the climate
agreements that were scheduled to be reached in Copenhagen.
‘Rio+20 mania’ may create the impression that the only legal instruments to
address climate change have effectively failed. If developing countries buy
into this view, it is likely to give a final go-ahead to only voluntary
action and spell the end of the legally-binding Kyoto Protocol.
By sacrificing the Kyoto Protocol the UN Secretary-General may secure a
second term in office, but at what price to our planet?
 Margreet Wewerinke is a jurists and expert in
climate chnage at International-Lawyers.Org.
Curtis Doebbler is a lawyer who teaches law at Webster University