Tag Archives: climate change

Hedging Our Bets:  Tepid Responses to Existential Challenges, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Apr


With so much evidence of depleting natural resources, toxic waste, climate change, irreparable harm to our food chain and rapidly increasing instances of natural disasters, why do we keep perpetuating the problem? Why do we continue marching at the same alarming beat?  Yehuda Berg

The average person is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain. Colin Wilson

Economic disasters or foolish wars are hardly guaranteed to bring about large-scale individual self-examination or renew the appeal of truly participatory democracy. Pankaj Mishra

It’s Easter Sunday and outside in UN Plaza it is likely to reach 85 degrees F today.   This July-like warmth, following a spell of January weather in March and a dramatic cool-down predicted for later this week, is what the climate change models I’ve seen routinely predict:  a lack of predictability and on a growing scale.  At a metaphorical level, we no longer know from one day to the next whether to put on sun-screen or grab the scarf.

But we can draw at least one predictable linkage between the Christian resurrection narrative and our rising global seas:  we tend not to take either seriously enough.

I’ve long maintained that participation in the Easter ritual should result in a greater tangible impact, certainly for Christians whose very faith is premised on a sacred hope.   This hope of resurrection, what Fox News apparently referred to today as “the greatest truth,” should mean more, change more, be more visible in our behavior and discourse, punctuate more of how we prioritize our time and action.  People shouldn’t have to guess if attentiveness, compassion, kindness and respect lie behind our Easter rhetoric and seasonal fashion statements; they shouldn’t have to wonder if our Easter devotion is anything more than simply “hedging a bet” on the possibility that at least some aspects of the resurrection narrative just might be turn out to be true.

And what about climate, another bet resolutely “hedged” by some governments and many global citizens but affirmed by a growing consensus of scientists, religious leaders and government officials?  At a policy level, the jury is still out.  As much as climate change is discussed at the UN and within many of its member states, it too easily gets crowded out of consciousness by more “hard” security concerns, including military confrontations and terrorist acts.

For example: While the failed Security Council resolution this week in response to chemical weapons use in Syria produced its share of sparks and grabbed several of the global headlines, plenty of news space was also reserved for the “mother of all bombs” used in Afghanistan, and even more for the escalating, potential “cloak and dagger” hostilities taking shape in the Korean peninsula.   In this last instance, the unpredictable story line is enhanced due to the erratic personalities in the US and North Korea (DPRK) leadership as well as some in the policy community who seem more concerned about how we’re going to respond to the humanitarian needs stemming from a potential conflict than our responsibility to prevent the conflict’s occurrence in the first place.

As hard as it is to sit in the Security Council and cover statements by members unified in theory over the DPRK’s nuclear ascendency but largely stifled in practice, it must be so much harder to sit in front of television screens and watch a major potential crisis unfold about which one can do virtually nothing.   This in some ways is the great paradox of our time:  more information pertinent to specific global emergencies – mostly security related — in response to which we remain essentially powerless.

But there are clear pathways to meaningful participation on climate health as there are pathways to a more thorough reflection on our responsibilities to the promise of Easter.  At individual and community levels, we do have power to take stock of ourselves, to examine lifestyles and personal choices, to demand less and give more, to renounce old patterns of consumption and march to a simpler beat, to find communities of concern and allow ourselves to “go on record” with our own, to live Easter values such that they become identifiable habits no longer constrained by the rhythms of a spring ritual.

At a policy level we can also do more and better.  At the UN, the Mission of Ukraine was quite visible this week, hosting both a Security Council “Arria Formula” discussion on the multiple interactions of climate and conflict, and another event linking environmental and human health with a focus on oceans.  Both were insightful, though our primary interest was in the discussion examining the multiple ways in which climate change and conflict interact, a growing concern within diverse sectors of the policy community, including notably by Refugees International.  As we now widely recognize, climate change can drive mass human mobility, but also exacerbate tensions over increasingly scarce water and other resources.   We also recognize that climate-inspired incidents such as massive, over-water storms are increasing in number and ferocity, threatening any and all efforts to rebuild state institutions or stabilize populations in vulnerable states already ravaged by poverty, corruption and conflict.

But when it came time this week for the full Security Council to discuss the downsizing of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), such climate insights were surprisingly scarce.  The new mission (MINUJUSTH) will focus on important outcomes for a country that has been battered by earthquakes, invading forces and patterns of state corruption for so many years:  policing and security sector reform, rule-of-law institution building, and human rights monitoring and reporting.  But as Senegal was almost alone in pointing out, all of this good work presumes stable ground and clear skies – prospects for new earthquakes and ominous storm clouds can foretell massive setbacks for people who have already and often endured the worst.  And there is every science-supported reason to assume new and more dangerous levels of climate assault – for Haiti and for many other island nations.

So on this overly-heated Easter Sunday, we note with urgency the need for reflection in the policy community as well, within but also much beyond the Security Council. We must insist that climate impacts permeate our conflict prevention and resolution strategies.  We must make climate resilience a higher priority within our peacebuilding and migration-related policy planning and implementation.  And we must make full use of all capacities to address our current, urgent climate challenges, identifying and breaking bread with as many stakeholders as possible who demonstrate the will and skills to help heal a natural world under considerable siege.

For many and various reasons, climate health is a bet we cannot afford to hedge.  If we do, and if we lose, there may well be no resurrection narrative sufficient to rescue us from the condemnation and scorn of succeeding generations.


Between a Rock and a Hard Place:  UN Legal Obligations and their Operational Inconsistencies, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Oct


There are many weeks when global affairs seem to be operating on parallel (and largely un-complementary) tracks.   For instance, the Security Council this week took up the horrific matter of hospital bombings in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.   Despite the existence of settled “hard” humanitarian law and relevant Security Council resolutions, hospitals continue to be targets of heavy bombing, medical supplies are in ever-shorter supply, and medical staff from Médecins Sans Frontières and other organizations now speak openly of dying at their posts, resigned to the reality that “hard” law in the international arena is insufficient to motivate the “hard” choices that are now needed to stop the bombing and open reliable pathways to healing and relief.

In South Africa this week, states and experts met under the aegis of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  Endorsed by virtually all UN member states, this meeting of CITES was devoted to discussions on “how best to integrate law enforcement, development, environmental and social approaches to combating illegal wildlife trade,” trafficking that rivals narcotics, weapons and persons as major sources of illicit revenue.  There are aspects of this general pursuit that make us uneasy – specifically the overused notion that we are “saving” species that our lifestyle choices and pervasive economic inequalities have endangered in the first place.  Still, CITES underscoring of the criminal aspects of wildlife trafficking –reinforced by the presence in South Africa of officials from INTERPOL and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime – may lead to some (but perhaps only temporary) relief for highly stressed species teetering on the brink of extinction.

In the climate arena, India has declared its imminent intent to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement, bringing another major carbon producer into the fold, and thereby bringing us that much closer to entry-into-force.  But prior to entry of this “harder” obligation, Costa Rica joined Iceland in demonstrating the technical capability and political will to power their countries with 100% renewable energy.  Small states, yes, and boasting an abundance of geo-thermal and other energy advantages to tap; but states also demonstrating that it is possible to take “softer” obligations and turn them into hopeful options for a planet melting faster than our “hard” agreements have to date contemplated.

But here there are also “parallel track” events that came to our attention this week and that make us wonder if the “memos” on climate that send out from the UN are finding their way to the appropriate state and corporate desks:  including the pursuit of licenses to mine the floors of oceans already shedding biodiversity and harboring vast islands of plastic ; the rapid destruction of habitat and mass poaching of wildlife in African states; mining interests from El Salvador to the Philippines that needlessly threaten precious local water supplies and undermine local economies;  a decision by state ministers to spend vast sums on the UK’s Hinkley Point Nuclear Power plant rather than increase investment in renewable energy options;  the exposing of California’s mass refining of oil purchased from sources in the Amazon.   And these are only a sample of this week’s (for us) “head-scratching” acts of climate defiance.

We wonder:  What are we not seeing?   Is such behavior a deliberate flaunting of existing regulations?  Is it a matter of making all the profit available before more “serious” regulations take effect?   Is it just a matter of economic addictions that lie beyond the reach of governments and their treaties?

Our colleagues at Global Policy Forum (GPF) have recently published a study in which they call for a “hard law” treaty to enforce human rights obligations on transnational corporations.  Such a treaty would replace the voluntary UN Guiding Principles adopted in 2011, principles that have proven a bit too easy to redefine and circumnavigate.  At the same time, and despite the many recognized limitations in our collective application of so-called “hard law” obligations, objections to a ‘treaty process” have been considerable, especially noteworthy from the US and European Union.

The authors of this report appear to have more faith than we do in the innate compliance effectiveness of “hard” treaty law.  Nevertheless, they are right to note that many corporations are now seeking guidance on human rights obligations — and not because they aim to avoid them.  But most want to comply on a level playing field, and “hard law” obligations — especially if that law provides for investigative and oversight mechanisms –are the “levelers” that many corporate entities are thankfully now desiring.

Moreover, a treaty of the sort envisioned by GPF could have benefits to states struggling to reign in the behavior of corporate entities dismissive of “host” domestic law and largely lacking oversight from the countries where they are legally registered.  It is easier to hold entities accountable, or to seek assistance on enforcing compliance, when the obligations in question are both clear and (to the extent possible) uniformly binding.  In a state such as El Salvador, purely “voluntary” obligations are rarely subject to binding international legal review.  Moreover, the state itself might well lack the power or will to enforce domestic laws governing corporate conduct.  Reinforcement in the form of “hard” international law might spell the difference between corporate attentiveness to local rights interests and the total disregard of such interests.

But the success of “hard law” requires more than specified, non-voluntary obligations.  Success requires enforcement and, more than that, the will to enforce.  More often than not, it is “will” that is lacking.   Even in the Security Council, ostensibly the seat of the UN’s most robust binding obligations, enforcement is at a premium.  Indeed many Council meetings are punctuated by states imploring – sometimes bitterly – for the Council to honor its own binding resolutions – “honor” in the sense of ensuring its own internal compliance but also “honor” in the sense of enforcing previously negotiated obligations.

As we have seen in many areas of international law, treaties can have considerable value in affirming core international norms and raising levels of compliance, especially treaties which are accompanied by compliance-enriching mechanisms in the form of treaty bodies.   But in a world characterized by diverse existential threats and numerous instances of willful discounting of such threats, we must be careful not to put all our eggs in the treaty basket.  There is other key work to accomplish– as relevant to “soft” law as “hard” – including continued vigilance regarding the impacts of reckless corporate choices (and government enabling of those choices) on options for rights-based, peaceful, inclusive, sustainable living.

We at the UN rightly talk a lot about the need for more “prevention,” especially in the areas of armed conflict and severe human rights crimes.   But “prevention” related to our diverse international obligations – as in what “prevents” us from achieving full respect for human rights and other life- affirming goals — is prevention that we must do more to counteract.  Given the crises that dominate our media and clog our in-boxes, our collective responsibilities seem clear – more vigilance, more thoughtfulness, more collaborative activity, more active and persuasive engagement with diverse corporate and state authorities. For civil society, these responsibilities persevere regardless of how “hard” or “soft” the regulations might be that we now find at our disposal.

Birthday Bashing:  The UN Seeks a New Resolve to Focus on What Matters, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Oct

On the 70th anniversary of the UN Charter, I’m on a flight path that will eventually take me to Mexico City for the launch of a volume with scholars from Instituto Mora and other institutions examining the impact of armed violence on the priorities and practices of the recently-minted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) , with a particular focus on the violence currently plaguing Central America.

While some governments refuse to acknowledge that there is any relevant relationship at all, it is clear to my office and other authors of this volume that armed violence in its various manifestations has implications for development that are alternately frightening and frustrating.  The presence of so many weapons in criminal hands (or in the hands of a ruthless security sector) creates conditions that suppress education, commerce, political participation and other essential human activities.

At this point in the life of the UN, there is general recognition of these linkages. The issue of course is how to ensure that our responses are genuinely consequential for communities.  Part of our work in Mexico City will be to discern strategic options for security sector engagement necessary to successful development and full political participation. But we seek engagement without “securitizing” development, that is, seeing security as an end in itself that can justify a range of discriminatory policies and human rights violations in the name of combating trafficking in weapons, narcotics and persons, or even combating insurgencies.  We seek alternative to a security system that, in the name of protecting communities, too often robs them of hope and contributes to gravely diminished prospects for diverse social and political involvement.

We will report on the outcomes from Mexico City in future posts.  What is clear now is that on this day when there is so much reflection on what the UN has and has not accomplished over 70 years, the recently endorsed SDGs represent a potentially monumental achievement, one that provides hope for diverse constituencies but also blends all three pillars of the UN system – development, human rights and peace and security – in productive and helpful ways that might well have encountered sustained political resistance just a few short years ago.

This more mature understanding of the policy web that can sustain peaceful societies is welcome news to Global Action, but also creates new challenges for our mostly young and part-time colleagues.   The philosophy of our work at the UN has some familiar benchmarks – providing hospitality for individuals and groups around the world seeking access to the UN system; paying close attention to what diplomats are doing and thinking; making issue connections between conference rooms, agencies and key organs such as the Security Council; and identifying the issues and relationships that can help define a life’s work for a new generation of schaolars and policy advocates.

And perhaps the most important of all, we encourage careful triage on the activities of the entire system at UN Headquarters to make sure, as best we are able, that we are covering, learning from and communicating what we have deemed to be the most consequential discussions taking place in the conference rooms that house our primary work.

This is no mean feat in a system that is bursting with activities of all kinds from contentious Security Council meetings to heavily branded side events.  More states are taking initiative to host events.  There is a deepening recognition that norms are not sufficient – that the SDGs for instance require reliable, flexible data and dependable sources of funding if they are to fulfill anything close to their potential.   There is much to do and much to think about – ideal for a small office such as ours consisting mostly of extraordinary younger people and dedicated more to discernment than to advocacy.

And there have indeed been some extraordinary events this month:  joint meetings of the General Assembly First and Fourth Committees on Outer Space Security, as well as between the Second Committee and the Economic and Social Council on ways to strengthen African development financing.    A Security Council debate on the Middle East found Council members (and DSG Eliasson) united in their growing frustration at the unresponsiveness of the relevant states parties to Council mandates.   Open discussions about the need to seriously vet women candidates for the next UN Secretary General within a process that is more than a backroom deal involving the P-5.   Sixth Committee efforts to strengthen codes of conduct for UN personnel such that we can begin to eliminate chasms of trust which some of those personnel created.  Second Committee discussions on climate health that point towards a hopeful blend of thoughtful policy and existential urgency.

Two of the other genuinely important events from our vantage point happened virtually simultaneously – the annual report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jordan’s Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and a report from the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, Juan Mendez, on some of the recent opportunities and challenges of his generally familiar mandate.

The High Commissioners statement was a bit of a tour de force inasmuch as it represented the flowering of a human rights consciousness beyond “first generation” rights concerns, including applications to fields such as business practices, counter-terrorism measures, UN peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, and the right to privacy.  He reminded us all that human rights norms and treaties are not ends in themselves, but are part of a larger effort to “reach and improve people’s lives.”

For Mendez, his focus was on important issues raised by recent events, the practice of torture in the context of migration and of armed violence.  But even more, with support of Demark and other states, he concentrated his attention on refuting claims by some states that their dual obligations to prevent torture and work towards its general abolition have no jurisdiction beyond national borders.  Mendez makes clear that there are no territorial limitations on most provisions of the Convention against Torture and that states have practical, positive obligations to respect the rights of persons everywhere – not just within their own borders — “to be free from torture and ill-treatment.”

We have written previously on why the abolition of torture –much  like the elimination of armed violence itself — is a precondition for both development and participation.   Torture represents a high stakes imposition of security sector abusiveness that is designed to humiliate both the tortured and the communities surrounding them, sending a chilling message to anyone whose political or social aspirations conflict with the dominant state narrative.

Mendez knows how states cleverly seek to justify practices such as torture on grounds that it helps prevent larger violence. But he is also clear: there is no credible manner consistent with UN treaty obligations in which we can justify the abuse of rights to preserve rights.   We must find ways to address trafficking of weapons and persons without authoring abuses of our own.  We must find ways to counter terrorism that does not create new civilian casualties and provides motivations for dangerous migrations and new terror recruits.

In our search for sound policy, we must be guided by the principle, as the author Wendell Berry used to declare, not to live “beyond the effects of our own bad work.”   In the present context, Berry might well urge us not to make policies for others that we would not accept for ourselves, nor to promote policies which are long on promise and short on substance.   And certainly not to serve up policies when we have not fully considered their unintended consequences to rights and prosperity, the very consequences likely to wreck havoc in communities we had already convinced ourselves we were there to “help.”

Indeed, this is the primary virtue of a human rights based approach to security and development:  the aspiration to fairness and respect, to the elimination of exclusion and discrimination, and to a system with (hopefully) adequate resources and robustness to hold states (and ourselves) directly accountable for our conduct, if not always to guarantee compliance.  This is important work and we need for it to continue throughout the UN system.

Of course, not everything that happens within the UN is consequential or sometimes even helpful, as critics of the UN on its 70th birthday have been quick to note. There are still too many repetitive statements by governments, too many policy gimmicks, too much thoughtless branding of policies without attention to potential consequences, too much recourse to politicized policies when honestly brokered policies are well within our grasp.

These are components of “bad work” whose impacts are generally felt, not by those of us in the UN bubble, by others far from UN headquarters.  But as we have already noted there is much of positive importance taking place here as well, much we are beginning to figure out, to blend together, to embrace beyond the restrictions of national interest.  There are voices here (and others brought here) that point us to a future that has great potential albeit wrapped within peril.

Put more bluntly, the 70th birthday of the UN reflects an uneven prognosis.  We have made healing progress together on so many issues and at so many levels and yet the genuinely existential crises – nuclear weapons, climate change, mass atrocity violence, terrorism—sit with us like so many inter-connected, terminal illnesses.

Given this troubling prognosis, we simply must do better about abandoning practices and policies that lack sufficient consequence.  The UN’s 8th decade must be the one wherein together we cast aside vestiges of failed structures and narrow interests and address the scourges that truly jeopardize our common future.

UN General Assembly President John Ashe on Climate Change: The Need for Swift and Collective Action

25 Jan

The sitting president of the 68th United Nations General Assembly John Ashe, a trained bio-engineer from the Caribbean islands Antigua and Barbuda, has for a long time dedicated his energy and expertise to the causes of climate change and sustainability.

According to a biographical note published by the UN Department of Information:

Ashe successfully led negotiations that resulted in Chapter X of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, and co-chaired the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012. In 2004, he presided over the thirteenth session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, the body responsible for reviewing programmes on the implementation of Agenda 21, the blueprint for rethinking economic growth, advancing social equity and ensuring environmental protection. He was the first Chairman of the Executive Board of the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Ashe also chaired the Convention’s Subsidiary Body on Implementation and, most recently, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol.

According to Ashe: “I still have a passion for these topics. I am no longer involved in the day to day negotiations as far as climate change goes, but I still do follow the issues. The most recent event where I was involved in my capacity as President of the General Assembly was the climate conference in Warsaw.”

He set the stage for sustainability post 2015 by making this issue the last General Assembly’s main theme. Early on he warned that climate change can have severe, disruptive consequences for economies across the globe, a topic that will be discussed at this week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

In an interview with news channel Al Jazeera, Ashe pointed out:

“In the Caribbean, one of the biggest dangers — and it’s frequently overlooked — is the effect of a hurricane on the economy. One hurricane can set back a country’s economy by decades. And if a scientist predicts that these are going to be more frequent, you can imagine the alarm bells that are ringing down there in terms of climate change.”

When you move on from the GA president’s office, how do you hope to stay involved with the urgent matters of sustainability and climate change you have dedicated so much time and expertise to?

I don’t know what happens on September 16, 2014, but the interest in the issues will certainly not die away; I will still find some way to stay engaged.

A recently leaked draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published last week by the New York Times, described the following, “Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, experts found.” How would you comment on this statement? What should be the immediate consequences?

These findings are not new. Just today Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gave a briefing to member states on his priorities for 2014 and he reminded member states that he intends to convene the climate change summit here at UN headquarters in September of this year. (A summit that will prepare member states for the climate change convention in Paris in 2015.) In my summing-up of the meeting, I reminded member states that the goal we all hope to achieve is a legally binding agreement, attained by all parties to the climate change convention in 2015, at the conference in Paris. But it should not be an agreement for the sake of having one. It should be ambitious in content with defined targets and timelines for every single party, irrespective of whether it is classified as an industrial country or a developing country.

An NBC report from yesterday notes that the number of Americans who don’t believe in climate change is rising. How do you explain that trend?

They say leadership starts at the top. Recent developments here in the US would lead one to the sad conclusion that the interest within the current US administration seems to be waning. It was never going to be easy, but I think with the other concerns that have risen, particularly on the political front, it doesn’t leave one with much hope that we will suddenly see an upwelling of interest in the climate change issue here in the US. One would hope that this would not be the case, but if one looks at the climate change induced events that have taken place outside of the US, I think it would be a sad commentary if citizens of this country did not at least take note.

Once a clear environmental leader but now consumed by the looming economic crisis, the European Union is likely to set a more cautious tone for the global debate on climate with new green energy guides released this week. What would you wish from Europe in terms of climate change, reduction goals in carbon emissions, and expansion targets for renewable energies?

I am not aware of this particular development, but if that is the cause of action taken by the EU than I think the message sent would be negative. We who have followed this debate for quite some time got quite used to the EU being in the forefront. I simply hope that that would continue to be the case, especially because the seminal conference will take place in Paris in 2015.

Recently I heard the German scientist Ulrich von Weizsaecker speaking at the Open Working Group on SDG’s about the possible need to provide a psychological crutch for the global North regarding the implementation of reduced consumption and carbon emission, if the South would signal the willingness to cooperate. Is there a bit of a global North-South, South-North blame game going on? And if yes, how could that be avoided, going forward?

There have always been differences in approach regarding the climate change question between the North and South and that probably will be so for quite some time. There is a feeling that the industrialized countries were supposed to take the lead and they have not yet done so. I am sure those would argue differently. And until that happens, developing countries, where the emphasis has always been on the eradication of poverty, should not be asked to assume additional burdens. We have a global problem that requires a global solution, and for that to happen each and every country has to assume some sort of responsibility. I think time is certainly running out and until the proverbial all hands are on deck we will be forever looking back and say twenty years from now, we should have acted faster. And certainly we should have done so, collectively.

How effective in your opinion has the 68th GA session been in order to present and push the agenda for sustainability efficiently within the UN system and publicly?

The theme of the 68th session is the post 2015 development agenda. We are looking at the broader development question and development agenda and climate change could be a key part of it. We should keep in mind that climate change, as far as negotiations go, are handled outside of the GA as per the wish of its member states. But at some point in time, it will all go together, hopefully in 2015.

Lia Petridis Maiello, GAPW Media Consultant

The original interview was published with The Huffington Post.