Friday, February 26, 2010

Is the UN climate chief abandoning a sinking ship?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

The controversial former UN ambassador John Bolton famously said "If the U.N. secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Now Yvo de Boer, the UN's executive secretary of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, is resigning, saying in a statement that “I have always maintained that while governments provide the necessary policy framework, the real solutions must come from business."

An interesting comment from a lifelong bureaucrat.

The Copenhagen round in December has been described as everything from a "debacle" (UK Guardian) to "chaotic" (NY Times). But is this a failure of the UN, or of Mr. DeBoer's management of the talks? The world's major emitter nations came to the table prepared to commit to substantial reductions, there was near unanimous acknowledgment that we need to set a 450 ppm target to avoid massive global ecological disaster and social injustice, and hundreds of NGOs had engaged in protracted public awareness/education campaigns to create populist enthusiasm for climate action. Businesses have also been preparing to prove de Boer right - by working hard on solutions to address the almost certain need to conform to a new world order with low carbon economic policies.

As de Boer himself said, "We were about an inch away from a formal was basically in our grasp, but it didn't happen. So that was a pity."

Just two months later, we have major firms (including BP and Caterpillar) bailing out of the US Climate Action Partnership, a stalled climate bill, sinking public belief in climate change, and the US chamber of commerce again attacking the EPA. A pity indeed.

What was needed in Copenhagen was strong and competent leadership, and a pragmatic and realistic acknowledgment that a half dozen super powers were really the ones in a position to get a deal done...or to block it. Bolton understood this, as does President Obama, who flew in on the last day and brokered a last minute accord among the largest emitters.

I for one believe the the UN can play an important role in facilitating coordinated global policy on this borderless issue. The Montreal Protocol, which halted ozone depletion, is a shining example of what is possible. And the UN- created CDM mechanism is a potentially powerful tool to fight climate change while improving livelihoods through financing projects such as cookstoves, forestry, and innovative energy retrofits.

We have another chance at the next meetings in Cancun later this year, although the momentum and build up to Copenhagen will not be replicated. My advice for the next UN climate chief? Most of the work for Copenhagen should have been done on a bilateral or multilateral basis before the meeting opened, whether that is politically popular or not -- the twelve day mosh pit approach does not work. And it is time to dismiss Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, the UN's climate science arm. Under Pachauri's leadership, the IPCC's credibility, and therefore the credibility of the science underlying climate change has become tarnished.

Tough decisions? Perhaps. But the issue is too important not to take decisive action. As the saying goes; "When the going gets tough, the tough get going"...while the not so tough simply go. So Mr. de Boer, thank you for your service. But no one said your job would be easy. On an issue this big, we need someone at the helm who can make this work, or at least is willing to go down with the ship.

Photo adapted from / CC BY-SA 2.0 and / CC BY-SA 2.0 under a CC license. All rights reserved.

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