UNFCCC: right forum, right process, wrong politics

By Pascale Palmer
December 3, 2010

Cancun is a strange place for the Mexican presidency of the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) to hold this round of negotiations..

From what I’ve seen (being shuttled from hotel to conference centres) feels like a long, thin coastal town of sprawling hotels and very little heart – where the sun shines and the sea sparkles, and holiday-makers travel from the US for all-you-can-eat buffets. It makes for a peculiar spectacle in the morning as the hotel foyer fills with suited and booted summit delegates and observers talking policy and political pressure points next to breakfasting families in their swimwear. And it’s not just the temperature that makes it different to Copenhagen and Poznan where the last two years’ COP were held.

The NGO lobbyists here in Cancun are no longer the starry-eyed optimists of the pre-Copenhagen days, or even the ‘Hopenhagen’ crew who believed a decent binding deal was achievable 12 months ago. The same men and women swirling around me from environmental and development organisations all seem older and wiser to the truth that the UNFCCC (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Control) is the right forum with the right process, held back by the wrong politics. As one policy advisor said to me: “If you take the politics and put them in the G8 or the G20, the same thing would happen – you would find it difficult to move forward.” But that reality doesn’t mean that the UNFCCC is the wrong place for these negotiations. We have to remember what world we’re living in.

The UN offers the most democratic sphere we have, in which nations – whether rich or poor – can be part of the debate. The G20 has just 20 members, although some of those speak for groups of nations, and the G8 is even worse with places at the table given to only a handful whose economic might secures them membership. The UN was set up with aspiration in mind; with the vision that the concept of “right” must be agreed upon outwith the cabals of countries with vested interests.

The media have been airing the idea that the UNFCCC is dead, that the process needs to be taken out of the hands of this global institution and into the arena of bilateral negotiations. I believe they should think very, very carefully about what they are proposing.

More than ever it seems that we live in a world where back room deals and political lack of trust are the mainstay of governments – this week’s Wikileaks shows us just how little we’ve moved on from a Cold War mentality. The whole point of the UN as a forum for international agreement was to prevent self-interest being a driving force on issues that must have grander ideals at their core. If we allow the nay-sayers and the blockers and the economic protectionists to filibuster us into believing it is the UN and not them who need to change, then we are letting the self-interest instincts that the UN was set up to over-ride win the day.

In an age when casual, cynical debunking is a legitimate political and media pastime – something which has done an incredible disservice to the climate science fraternity and the ability to make progress for those poorest who face death and extreme poverty due to the lack of rapid action on climate change – the subsuming of the UN to political wranglings heightened by recession and an emerging new world order, smacks of rich countries opening their hearts so widely to economic dominance as to lose the sense of what is right. Whether you think of it as the possibility of noble thought and action, or the religious and poetic idea of a pre-lapsarian vision that we spend our lives striving to regain, the UN is proof that we as human beings know that our potentially damaging natural political instincts need to be checked.

Climate change is the biggest global threat the modern world has ever, ever faced. Taken to its full-blown, unchecked conclusions it will cause phenomenal loss of human, animal and plant life, bring about conflict and mass migration due to resource depletion and leave us with a world that you and I would scarcely recognise.

I, for one, want the solutions to climate change to be negotiated in the open with the rich and poor able to put their cards on the table so that whatever is agreed works for the long-term common good. Those solutions may be hard won and a long time in the making, but better that than short-termism that offers isolated pockets of quick wins that fail to act for the generations of people who come after us.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.