UN Addresses Climate Change

Delegates discuss different nations’ roles in the fight against climate change

By Tobin Hack

Once an abstract hypothesis, climate change is now visibly present in all corners of the globe, threatening cultural survival and fragile ecosystems.

Yesterday, heads of state and top officials from more than 150 countries gathered at the United Nations in New York City to acknowledge the need for an immediate, drastic, and global response to climate change. The event’s tone was urgent as delegates shared their countries’ experiences with the effects of climate change: forest fires in Greece; dengue fever in Paraguay; flooding in the Philippines; receding Himalayan glaciers in Pakistan; devastating pine beetle infestations in Belize.

“National action alone is insufficient. We need to confront climate change within a global framework, one that guarantees the highest level of international cooperation. This is precisely the kind of global challenge that the United Nations is best suited to address,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

The primary goal of the event, the largest of its kind ever held, was to gather political momentum for a UN climate change meeting to be held in Bali, Indonesia, this December. In Bali, leaders and UN delegates will negotiate a plan of action on climate change after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

But much of the focus of the meeting seemed to be on who is responsible for global warming and who, then, should pay for it.

Delegates focused heavily on the tension surfacing between developing and developed countries, as they work to establish a just division of responsibility in the fight against climate change. Leaders from small island nations and developing nations, including countries as large as China and as small as Uganda, reiterated their need for funding and special aid that will allow them to develop without harming the planet.

Poor nations will have to depend on money from wealthy countries in order to adapt to the consequences of climate change, said Francisco Santos Calderon, vice president of Colombia. Even if Colombia contributes fewer greenhouse gases than other nations, it will always be “highly vulnerable” to the effects of global warming, and “industrialized countries have a greater responsibility in this regard,” he said.

In some countries like Uganda, officials are working to stop deforestation and other actions that contribute to climate change. But such efforts cannot be maintained without billions of dollars in aid, Sam Kutesa of Uganda reminded the assembly. “Will that money come?” he asked.

Felipe Perez Rogue, minister for foreign affairs of Cuba, expressed strong opinions about the great responsibility of developed nations to combat climate change. “We reject the pressures directed to the underdeveloped countries so that these enter into binding commitments to reduce emissions,” said Rogue.

He added that “the largest responsibility lies, without a doubt, with the country that most squanders, the one that most pollutes, the one that has the most money and technologies—which, at the same time refuses to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and has not shown any commitment at all to this meeting convened by the United Nations Secretary General,” referring to the United States. President Bush was not in attendance during the day’s events.

Other delegates were more optimistic about the partnership between developed and developing nations. Lulzim Basha, minister for foreign affairs of Albania, agreed that developing nations shouldn’t have to let  concern for the environment slow economic growth; the two need not be mutually exclusive.

Guest speaker Governor Arnold Schwartzeneger, who was asked to attend because of his environmental record in California, tried to maintain focus on future initiatives, saying that the time for looking back on past negotiations with “blame or suspicion” is over.

“The rich nations and the poor nations have different responsibilities, but one responsibility we all have, and that is action,” he said. “The consequences of global climate change are so pressing, that it doesn’t matter who was responsible of the past. What matters is who is answerable for the future, and that means all of us.”

UN General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim called climate change “unquestionably the biggest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century.” He has chosen “Responding to Climate Change” as the theme for this year’s general debate, which begins today.