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Fatalism is not an option

By Ioan Voicu - posted Thursday, 25 October 2007

For a long period of time, human-induced climate change has been approached in a passive way, as an abstract phenomenon of interest mainly to scientists. It was first considered in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly only 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, the gravity and the urgency of this problem have increased. There is a long list of calamities that can be counted among the devastating consequences of climate change: drought, floods and severe storms, hunger, malnutrition, disease, mass homelessness and migration.

Climate change also has a universal negative impact on development initiatives and efforts. In spite of this, the commitments assumed 15 years ago at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro are not close to having been accomplished. More than 600 environmental agreements have been concluded by various groups of states, but their role in promoting true respect for nature still remains modest. They have failed to lead to a global ecological solidarity and consolidate the nexus between development and environment.


Moreover, recent conferences have revealed significant disagreements about how countries should cooperate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat global warming. Awareness has not galvanised a global response for immediate collective action. Defining an action-oriented global vision continues to be on the waiting list.

At the Vienna Climate Change Talks in August this year, attended by about 1,000 diplomats, scientists, business leaders and environmental activists from 158 countries, the results were disappointing. Diplomacy could not play a catalytic role to a meaningful consensus. Yet, this should be no surprise. Ecological diplomacy is still in its infancy, an evaluation made by eminent diplomats.

Many industrialised countries estimate that mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could affect important sectors of their economies. The Group of 77 (in fact, 130 states) requested that industrialised nations target an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020, at a cost of at least $200 billion a year. Could multilateral diplomacy be instrumental in finding appropriate solutions acceptable to all?

The Group of 77 called for efforts to address climate change in a manner that ensures sustained economic growth of the developing countries, while allowing for the universal elimination of poverty, hunger and diseases. The Group reiterated its appeal to all states that have not yet done so to ratify and implement the UN Climate Change Convention and its Kyoto Protocol, which represent the central multilateral framework for cooperative actions in this sensitive field.

The unprecedented challenge of climate change demands imaginative leadership capable to set new directions.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted in New York on September 24 the largest-ever high-level diplomatic gathering on this issue, with participants from over 150 countries, including some 70 heads of state and government. This one-day event was officially titled ''The Future in our Hands: Addressing the Leadership Challenge of Climate Change.'' It focussed on ongoing efforts to mitigate, and adapt to, the impact of climate change, on costs and financing as well as on how to use technology to combat global warming. This event was expected to go beyond ceremonial diplomacy and be a great landmark facilitating the search for mutually acceptable solutions.


The New York marathon debate was not meant as an occasion for real negotiations, as no final document would be adopted. It was just a consultative gathering with the limited mandate of expressing the political will of world leaders to tackle climate change through concerted action, and to increase and generate additional momentum.
The United States hosted three days later a Washington meeting of 16 countries that together account for some 90 percent of global emissions. During that meeting it was cogently recalled that climate change required an integrated approach encompassing environmental stewardship, economic growth, energy supply and security, and the development of new clean energy technology.

The UN diplomacy cannot produce miracles, but it is expected to become more active and, by consequence, more fruitful in finding adequate solutions. But can it deal successfully with the immediate objective of transforming common concerns into a strong consensus on the way forward?

The European Union (EU) contributed to crystallising a collective answer and offered in advance a positive example by deciding the unilateral 20 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020, and other ambitious measures on energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and biofuels. The EU also warned that the impacts of climate change would quickly become unmanageable without swift and effective international action.

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First published in The Bangkok Post: Perspective on 21 October 2007

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About the Author

Dr Ioan Voicu is a Visiting Professor at Assumption University in Bangkok

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