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The U.N. Climate Process: Dead or Alive?

Did Obama kill the UNFCCC with the Copenhagen Accord? Is that a good thing? Flopenhagen...worse than elaborate sham...a suicide...

Did Obama kill the UNFCCC with the Copenhagen Accord? Is that a good thing?

Flopenhagen...worse than elaborate sham...a suicide pact...a failure...

A meaningful important first step...better than nothing...a breakthrough...

Reactions from Copenhagen have, to say the least, been all over the map. The only real agreement seems to be that the United Nations climate change process is woefully dysfunctional. So is it time to leave the UNFCCC behind? Or can some procedural tweaks resuscitate the body?

Even the staunchest U.N. defenders recognize that change is needed. It's long been an open secret that the body's demand for consensus blocks any real progress, reducing solutions to the lowest common denominator. Think about it: anything regarding greenhouse gasses that Saudi Arabia, Tuvalu, the United States, and China all agree on is going to be worth little more than the paper it's written on. The need for consensus allows any one nation-whether the largest carbon polluter, the tiniest population, any OPEC member, or anyone with a political axe to grind-to essentially shut down the process. It's why barely any progress had been made in the two years since Bali, and it's why the Copenhagen talks teetered on the brink of collapse for the better part of two weeks before heads of state parachuted in to clean up the mess.

But the UNFCCC doesn't have to be this way. In fact, one of the many head-scratching perplexities of the United Nations is that the rules regarding consensus have never formally been adopted. Everyone has just accepted that that's how it'll work. Some sort of majority or super majority or hyper majority (or super hyper majority) vote could be used. And by all accounts, the secretariat is finally taking seriously this consensus problem.

But would a change like this even matter? There are plenty of folks who are more than happy to see the relevance of the UNFCCC fade. We don't need 193 nations to solve climate change, they argue, we just need the world's worst polluters. As Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations writes, "The G20 states (the nineteen largest economies in the world along with the European Union) account for about eighty-five percent of global emissions, and the United States, Europe, and China alone account for almost half. The one hundred smallest emitters, meanwhile, contribute less than three percent of the problem. Take all but the biggest guys out of the room, and you'll have a far more streamlined and effective negotiation."

Joe Romm is more direct in a response to Bill McKibben's complaints about Obama's impact in Copehagen:
  • He blew up the United Nations….
  • \n
  • He formed a league of super-polluters, and would-be super-polluters….
  • \n


McKibben's concern, though, is shared by scores of activists and civil society advocates who worry that the United Nations is the only diplomatic body that ensures transparency (good luck gaining access to a G20 or Major Economies Forum meeting) and gives equal standing to those most vulnerable nations. They might not be a big part of the climate problem (or solution), but the very fate of those tiny island nations and increasingly parched African countries depends on the international effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The problem with this "league of super-polluters" approach, according to McKibben, is that it's "a coalition of foxes who will together govern the henhouse."

Transparency is obviously important. No less is representation for the world's most vulnerable people. Bad things happen when leaders retreat behind closed doors, we're always told. And what hope is there for the people of tiny Tuvalu if they have no seat at the grown-ups' table? Then again, what hope do they have if everyone's invited to the banquet hall and nothing ever gets done? Ultimately, it's not the process that matters--it's the results. Civil society and climate justice activists are just going to have to double down on their already herculean efforts to give voice to the voiceless and ensure fair, strong, and just action. We need leaders of the "super-polluters" and "would-be super-polluters" to solve climate change. It's up to the rest of us to make sure the solutions are good enough and that climate justice is served.

Illustration by Will Etling.

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