If setting an example could make states and their leaders do the right thing, then the United Nations might be on the right track. A few years ago, the UN Secretary General ordered that heating be reduced in the winter and the air conditioning thermostat be raised in the summer -- on a recent July day at the UN Cafeteria the temperature was hot enough to brew tea. The UN Environment Program (UNEP) relies upon solar energy to power its HQ in Kenya. In several of its monitoring and peacekeeping operations around the globe the UN has sought to maximize efficiency and minimize its carbon footprint - most armies do not list environmental conservation as a top priority. This week, UNSG Ban Ki-moon joined global citizens in what has perhaps unexpectedly become the largest climate change march ever. But the example and message, at least up until now, appear to be largely illusory when it comes to securing substantive agreement/treaty between states to effectively counter the relentless advance of climate change.
UN Again Warns "Time is Running Out!"
One more time the UN is warning that we are on the verge of catastrophe, but has this become akin to the boy crying wolf? Regardless, the data does indicate a very worrying trend. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) latest annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin stresses that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO), methane and nitrous oxide caused a 34 per cent increase in global warming in the last 10 years. "Far from falling, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increased last year at the fastest rate for nearly 30 years. We must reverse this trend by cutting emissions of CO and other greenhouse gases across the board," says WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud.
Peppered with climate change denial emboldened by the recent recession, remedying the ills threatening our earth has been presented as a choice between jobs and the environment within the borders of most states, from China to the US. Broad skepticism, even cynicism directed at the UN have undermined a multilateral approach to climate change. Since the Kyoto Protocol, The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in 1997, advocates have been seeking to just maintain whatever is left of the presumed agreement even as enhancement may be necessary to counter further damage inflicted by delays and insincere implementation. While emerging economy states have sought greater latitude to play economic catch-up to the industrial powers, more developed states as Canada and Australia have perhaps inflicted some of the greatest injury to a multilateral approach by backtracking in substance and commitment.
Do we need a multilateral approach? To those who understand that we are all global citizens increasingly linked by our successes, failures and shared commitments, the answer is obvious. It goes beyond the air, water and gusts of hot or cold trends that pervade the earth. Several UN member states' very existence is threatened by rising sea levels from smaller island states as the Marshall Islands, Bahamas, and the Maldives to Bangladesh (whose coastline is as vulnerable as that of the Netherlands but without the resources to construct defenses.) These states are in reality on death row at least for now strapped to a reality of pleas for clemency ignored and waiting to be overcome by rising tides. Many of us in the US from New Orleans to the New York/New Jersey coast discovered that we are more vulnerable than we had come to believe.
Hunger & Conflict Migrating to "Our" Porch?
The consequences can be deadly for a much broader segment of the population inflicted by spread of diseases beyond current borders as malaria as well as famines and water shortages. People may flee hunger as much as Ebola and thus facilitate the spread of disease and conflict. Wars between and within states are more likely - perhaps not so coincidentally, Ukraine and the Sudan/South Sudan have emerged as conflict zones at same time when their capacity/potential for food production has been increasingly recognized. Perhaps most threatening to the psyche of Western citizens are the waves of new migrants largely un-managed that climate change and its consequences are likely to stir like a hot southeast gale. The flow will be reversed from underdeveloped territories as dumping grounds for hazardous waste to their unwanted and/or unsustainable populations flowing now in the other direction toward presumably more developed lands.
Recent failures from Syria to Ukraine to tackle political and human rights crisis have undermined the UN's image as well overwhelming priorities and resources. However, much of the success of the UN and even more of the failures of the UN can be tracked back to member states, particularly the P-5 of the UN Security Council. The most visible manifestations of failure, as Bosnia before, the image of failure is dropped upon the UN's doorstep looking like a "selfie" but in reality framed by the big power capitals seeking to avoid responsibility and accountability. Of course, the competition for ever more valuable resources may be fueling conflict including DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) Myanmar, Ogaden, South Sudan, Ukraine as well as Israel/Palestine.
Following the citizens' climate march in cities around the globe, the UN hosted one more summit this week of global leaders as part of the annual gathering at its NYC HQs. The meeting also drew a broad range of industry leaders many who "pledged" efforts to mitigate climate change. However, even if honored, the pledges may still not be enough to meet goals of keeping the rise of global temperatures to levels established in Copenhagen only at the end of the previous decade. Substantive action trails speeches and symbolism. New political set of priorities may be stalled by some business leaders and politicians even as they make "pledges" for public consumption.
Capturing Imaginations & Economic Interests:
Some have argued that climate change is a myth that is both costly and destroys jobs like those of coal miners, whether in West Virginia or Turkey or Brazil or Australia or China. Vested economic interests will not surrender to a more encompassing rationale if their own is threatened. A miner's work may be all that some know, but other options and opportunities may also open for them or at least their children. Global citizenship and national wealth are not only compatible but symbiotic. Creating new ventures and disrupting outmoded businesses has been the creator of the greatest entrepreneurial wealth and new jobs even if taking into consideration the dislocation of existing enterprises and their workforce, from Kenya to China to the US. Silicon Valley has proven that he who sees the future also leads it. Further, rather than encouraging vast migrations from underdeveloped countries, is there not more opportunity in developing those markets and enhancing the capacity of such populations? Cross-border can be an advantage rather than the perceived threat as seen by many. The evolving consciousness of global citizen and social media offer connectivity but what of the content: "Retweeted by the UN Secretary General: Educating the new Citizen Diplomat."
When I started writing this blog I was less optimistic in regards to the global consciousness. The Climate March has swelled activism and expectations, but it must be more than a one-day phenomena. We need to see sustained awareness about economic opportunity as well as threat of climate change.
Loving the earth is not treating it like a one-night stand. Our professed love is not new. Recall that "Earth Day" started and blossomed in the early 70's about the same time we first heard Marvin Gaye's eternal "The Ecology Song - Mercy, Mercy Me."
This post is part of a month-long series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with a variety of events being held in September recognizing the threats posed by climate change. Those events include the UN's Climate Summit 2014 (that was held Sept. 23, 2014, at UN headquarters in New York) and Climate Week NYC (Sept. 22-28, 2014, throughout New York City). To see all the posts in the series, read here.