As the United Nations meets for the umpteenth time this week -- this time in Cancun, Mexico -- in its ongoing effort to confront climate change, there is a growing chorus from both sides of the global warming debate that the world body's efforts have failed and that it is time to look for other ways to address the issue.
Some critics say the U.N. will never achieve a resolution and the time has come to let a smaller group, like the G-8 or the G-20 or regional commissions, set the world's agenda for climate control.
Since the establishment of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 and the signing of the Rio Treaty on Climate Change in 1992, the U.N. has established itself as the arbiter of the state of the Earth's climate and the place from which solutions are expected to emerge. The IPCC was set up to provide authoritative updates to the world on what reliable science was discovering about climate change and to advise governments on how to deal with its findings.
Its efforts were intended to bear fruit last year in Copenhagen, Denmark, where world leaders expected to triumphantly sign a world accord on climate change that would commit all nations to carbon emissions reductions. But fissures between the developing world and the major powers, as well as disagreements between China and the rest of the world over limits on greenhouse gas emissions, caused the conference to collapse.
Today there is little hope that the two-week meeting in the Mexican coastal resort will produce any significant breakthroughs.
“The problem we are in with the U.N. is that we are going nowhere,” says Judith Curry, chairwoman of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. “We need a game change.”
Because the U.N. focuses almost exclusively on limiting greenhouse gases, Curry says, a number of environmental problems that pose an even greater immediate threat than long-term climate change are being ignored.
“The IPCC reports a 'laundry list' of problems but doesn’t prioritize them,” she says. “But there are two types of environmental problems. There are the ‘slow creep’ issues and the immediate dangers.”
One of the most compelling dangers, Curry says, is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which could raise sea levels 19 feet if it slips into the ocean. She calls that a looming catastrophe that could happen in the next few generations but has been overshadowed by the U.N.
The U.N. has failed, she said, because by seeking a global solution, it has depended on agreement among nations with conflicting needs. And that guarantees that the effort won't work.
“The underdeveloped nations see climate change accords as a chance to grab resources from the West," Curry said, referring to demands by poorer nations for billions of dollars to implement emissions controls and other measures.
"Then there are states like Russia, China and Canada that look to be big winners in climate change. The process is going nowhere.”
She recommended that the first steps should be taken by the developed G-8 or G-20 nations, and then the process could work outward once they reach a consensus.
William O’Keefe, CEO of the George C. Marshall Institute, agrees. “We need to start anew and change the focus to regional organizations that can do what makes sense to them under the framework of Rio,” he said. Rio was the 1992 Earth Summit that laid the groundwork for controlling greenhouse gases.
He said the gap between the developed economies and the rest of the world cannot be addressed in one treaty. “Whatever you think about climate change, the only real answer is the development of new technologies and, once those technologies are created, they have to be transferred to the developing world to help their economies grow,” he said.
O'Keefe says that since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which mandated carbon emissions reductions for 37 industrialized countries, the U.N.'s efforts have not produced any meaningful advances in climate control.
“Nothing has been done since Kyoto,” he said. He said it may take five years, but the U.N. effort will have to transition into something new, a view that is gaining a foothold among business groups that once thought cap and trade and other mandatory measures were certain to happen.
“Even environmental groups are starting to rethink the U.N. process,” he said.
For Patrick Michaels, senior environmental fellow at the Cato Institute and a former member of the IPCC, the U.N. effort has failed for one reason: “It can’t command anyone to reduce carbon emissions,” he says. “They are ineffectual.”
Michaels says most of the developed world has refused to pay the economic price of carbon reduction, and the only real hope is in investment in new technologies and allowing capitalism to answer the problem.
“No political body can impose the expenses required to reduce emissions,” he said. “All the UN has done with all the conferences, usually in sunny resorts, is leave a large carbon footprint. It is time for a change.”