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A global summit on climate change

By William Antholis - posted Thursday, 12 April 2007

Climate change has burst back on the national and global political scene in 2007. The new Democratic Congress put the issue front and centre, passing green energy legislation as part of its 100-hour legislative initiative, and setting up a special committee on climate.

CEOs from ten major companies descended on Washington to talk about what kind of climate legislation is appropriate - an important change from debates about whether to regulate the climate. Then President Bush did what he had refused to do in his previous five State of the Union addresses: he acknowledged that "climate change" was a major challenge.

On the global stage, the new UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, is considering a special summit to address climate. He did this in the days running up to an expected UN scientific panel report saying that the evidence is now nearly certain that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming.


Perhaps the most surprising - and welcome - of these developments is the idea of a heads of state meeting, considered by the secretary-general. A summit that features the most significant global players - an E8, if you will - is exactly what the global environment needs to break through the political fog and bureaucratic clutter, and to give the issue the top-level treatment it deserves.

From a scientific standpoint, urgent action is needed. The report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms with near certainty what scientists have long feared: if unchecked, human activity could further raise average global temperatures from 1.4-5.5C in this century. (By comparison, the difference in average temperature between now and the last ice age is only 5C.)

Middle-range scenarios predict serious droughts and floods, more intense hurricanes, mounting pressure on fresh water supplies, increased spread of diseases, and rising sea levels that could uproot tens of millions of people worldwide.

And that's only the more moderate predictions. Under more catastrophic scenarios, melting Greenland ice could trigger a collapse of the ocean current system that warms Northern Europe and eastern North America. The possible consequences include Siberian temperatures descending upon Europe, mega-droughts from Northern Europe to Southern China, serious food and water shortages, widespread disorder and conflict, and a major blow to the earth's human-carrying capacity.

Ban Ki-moon's call for an emergency session has merit from a political and institutional standpoint, as well.

It is clear that the UN-sponsored Kyoto Protocol is not going to get the job done. First, President George W. Bush pulled the US - the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter - out of Kyoto. Beyond that, the current agreement lacks any real commitments - or even the possibility of real commitments - from developing countries, which are both highly vulnerable to environmental risks and also play an increasing role in generating them.


Developing nations are right to argue that industrial countries need to act first, given the fact that the latter are responsible for most of the emissions and climate change that has happened to date. But countries like China, India and Brazil - not to mention middle income countries like Mexico and the secretary-general's own South Korea - will need to be part of any effective solution. The Kyoto agreement not only exempts them, it actually makes it procedurally difficult for them to take on binding targets.

Outside the UN, the G8 nations also have tried - and failed - to address the issue from time to time. Climate has always competed for leader attention - and lost to - the latest financial crisis, terrorist bombing, or nuclear test. Besides, the G8 membership is wrong for this purpose - climate cannot be solved without the participation of key developing countries.

So the secretary-general is considering a terrific idea. One major question still surrounds the idea: will President Bush go beyond his rhetoric and embrace meaningful action? This could be a high-stakes gamble for the secretary-general. If President Bush fails to show up, Ban Ki-moon might be seen as not having delivered on a global call to action. If the president does agree to join, focus would shift to the summit itself. Will Mr. Ban be able to convince the United States to come back to the negotiating table? Will he be able to convince developing countries to step up to their growing responsibility?

Whatever the case, climate change is an enormous challenge demanding dramatic action. The UN secretary-general should be commended for thinking big. And the international community - and the United States - should support him by helping him follow through.

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First published by The Brookings Institution on February 2, 2007.

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About the Author

William J. Antholis is the Director of Strategic Planning at The Brookings Institution

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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