UN Pushback on Climate Change

Earlier this week, Britan convened a UN Security Council meeting on the issue of global warming, both to galvanize opinion and to discuss the threat it represented to the stability of member nations. The session instead exposed rifts between the first and third world, with developing countries led by China very much opposed to interference. Ironically, the second Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Chang report found that developing counries will for the most part face significant human and environmental costs, while many advanced countries will suffer less and some will actually benefit.

The opponents also questioned the Security Council’s jurisdiction over global warming matters, but some participants argued that the conflict in Darfur was due to climate change, since prolonged drought had led different ethnic groups to compete for grazing land.

It turns out the poor outcome of the meeting wasn’t simply a reflection of the position of the participants. Apparently Britan’s credibility has plummeted. Britain once played an important role in helping reconcile differences between the US and other countries. Britain is seen as America’s water boy.

First, a brief recap of how the meeting went, from the Financial Times, “Rift at UN over climate change debate:”

China and an alliance of developing countries yesterday launched a concerted attack against the right of the United Nations Security Council to debate climate change. The move came at a landmark meeting at which the UK had sought to cast global warming as a threat to international peace.

“Developing countries believe that neither has the Security Council the professional competence . . . nor is it the right decision-making place for extensive participation leading up to widely acceptable proposals,” said Liu Zhenmin, Beijing’sdeputy ambassador to the UN.

“In our view, discussions at this meeting constitute nothing but an exception, with neither outcome documents or follow-up actions.”

The Chinese outburst followed letters sent by Pakistan and Cuba, on behalf of the Group of 77 developing nations and the non-aligned movement.

The meeting, which had hoped to highlight a growing sense of concern over the potential for climate change to cause political instability, instead served to highlight the deep level of disagreement among nations on how to tackle the mounting environmental threat….

The push-back is part of a wider concern in the developing world about the growing powers of the Security Council, which many countries see as unrepresentative and in thrall to the skewed agenda of the richest nations….”

A Guardian website comment by Ian Williams, “Global warming meets diplomatic chill,” provides more insight into the politics:

Tony Blair’s reputation is all eaten up because he has cried wolf too often – while petting the biggest wolf around. Even when he tries to do the right thing, no one believes him.

This week at the Security Council the British convened a meeting on global warming. Blair is not always wrong, and it is no surprise that when he is right, it is on one of the few issues over which he disagrees with Bush. He has been consistently sounding the warning about global warming even when W found it inconvenient.

Sadly, however, the developing countries saw the Security Council debate as a power play, as an attempt by Britain as an American surrogate to introduce Neocon ideas of energy security and democratisation. It was sad to see how Britain’s diplomatic stock has fallen in the world. The reception for the Global Warming debate showed the chilling effect of Blair’s policies.

When Labour was elected, and Robin Cook was foreign secretary and Claire Short was development secretary, Britain could count on a hearing from the non-aligned, as well as the Arab and the Muslim countries. With a few ups and downs, Britain supported multilateral, United Nations initiatives and there was visible difference between Washington and London on key issues, even though the British had a widely-accepted role of trying to bridge the gap between Capitol Hill and the real world.

Indeed, even under Tory administrations, except over South Africa, Britain’s policies have often paralleled Washington – but there was some distance.

Since the invasion of Iraq and, perhaps almost as importantly, Blair’s acquiescence to the US and Israel stalling a ceasefire in Lebanon, there is little left of those warm feelings. This is sad, not least since climate change hits the poorest countries hardest.

The experts convened around the Security Council described in frightening detail the already almost certain consequences of climate change: dioxide drought in the global south and dioxide drowning in both developing and industrialized worlds. It was, in its way, even more chilling than descriptions of a nuclear winter, not least since we have lost many battles with the global environment, so at least some of the consequences are now inevitable. Several of them saw the conflict in Darfur as a reflection of climate change – the desertification of the region.

Margaret Becket, the former environment secretary and a true global warming believer, referred to “The consequences of flooding, disease and famine and from that migration on an unprecedented scale. The consequences of drought and crop-failure and from that intensified competition for food, water and energy. The consequences of economic disruption on the scale …not seen since the end of world war two”.

Which was all true, and even more so since, overwhelmingly, the causes for this are previous and present activities by the industrialized countries while the worst hit victims will be in the developing world.

However, somewhat churlishly, the non-aligned and developing country blocs argued that the issue was best dealt with in the Economic and Social Committee and the General Assembly, neither of which could be called “action-oriented” (in UN jargon), and thus missed a chance to extract some promises from the polluters.

They wanted to know what the purpose was of having a debate in the Security Council. And they do have a point. It’s not as if the council were going to order blue-helmeted peacekeepers into Detroit to stop the production of SUVs. Perhaps inadvertently, the American ambassador’s reference to his country’s “long history of extending help so that people could live in democratic societies with robust economies and strong and stable Governments”, may not have had the resonance in the UN that it would at a White House press conference….

The Security Council debate may have been a nice idea, but it shows how the last few years of Blair’s slavish adherence to the Bush line has poisoned even his best-intentioned diplomatic efforts. We can only hope – without too much evidence – that Gordon Brown is different and he can rescue the country from his predecessor’s diplomatic blight.

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