Why the UN Still Matters on Climate Change

John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, once quipped: "There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world -- that's the United States -- when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along."

The failure of the UN to reach a comprehensive global agreement on climate change in recent years has turned many Americans into Boltonites. Disenchanted by the inefficiencies of the UN process and all of its apparent failures, they have given up on it, looking elsewhere for solutions and wondering aloud whether we shouldn't just call the whole thing off.

While some of the criticisms that have led to this feeling are right, the conclusion that we don't need the UN is dead wrong.

The UN process has its flaws. At its best, it is inefficient. Its inclusive nature leads to tiresome deliberations aimed to reach a consensus that is not only improbable, but unnecessary, given the fact that 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from only 15-20 countries. At its worst, its resolutions can establish circumstances that actually hinder progress -- the way that the inclusion of hydrofluorocarbons in the Kyoto Protocol has so far prevented their inclusion in other international agreements, like the Montreal Protocol, which could be more effective in eliminating them.

But despite its flaws, we still need the UN to address climate change.

First, there is no solving climate change without international cooperation, and the UN is still the most likely forum for achieving it. The global nature of climate change creates little incentive for countries to try to solve it on their own, which is why cooperation remains essential. And while other forums, like the Major Economies Forum, can play a key role in developing new agreements and driving consensus among key players, it has, and will remain, reluctant to divorce itself from the UN process, partly because of the harmful effect such a move would have on other aspects of foreign policy. As such, the right question today is not if the UN should play a role, but what role it should play -- whether it should continue to be the top-down administrator of old, or evolve into the coordinator of more targeted, bottom-up agreements.

Second, the UN negotiations have not gotten nearly enough credit for catalyzing some of the national climate change policies that have emerged over the past twenty years. In the lead up to (and following) the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2010, 141 countries announced new climate change policies and commitments. Realists argue that these policies would have been adopted anyway, regardless of what was happening at the international level, driven solely by each country's narrow self-interest. But it's hard to look at some of today's most important climate change policies -- from China's goal to reduce its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent to emerging U.S. regulations on coal -- and not think they were at least partly motivated by the international spotlight put on countries' climate change efforts by the UN negotiations.

The danger of the prevailing cynicism around the UN process is that it becomes self-fulfilling, because any future cooperation on climate change will depend first on the good faith of the countries involved. Speaking at a Climate Week NYC event earlier in the week, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres expressed no such pessimism, saying that she has seen a "groundswell [of optimism]" heading into the next round of climate negotiations in Doha later this year, which now has a much more pragmatic set of goals.

"This time, it will be successful," Figueres said. If more adopt her attitude, she may end up being right.