Climate Summit leads packed UN agenda

ZERO CARBON TRIP: Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, sails into New York Harbour on 28 August. She will attend the UN Climate Action Summit, and sail on to Chile for another climate conference. Photo: UN PHOTO/MARK GARTEN

The United Nations will host six high-level plenary meetings during the start of the 74th session of the General Assembly in late September, including the Climate Action Summit, in a bid to kickstart ailing multilateral diplomacy.

The meetings are being viewed mainly as an attempt to revive multilateral diplomacy at a time when a rash of hard-right nationalist leaders, including US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, are either rooting for authoritarianism, abandoning international treaties or undermining multilateralism — not necessarily in that order.

Regrettably, they are joined by a fistful of other leaders, both from the North and the South, including from Russia, Italy, Burma, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Poland and Turkey.

The UN is expecting over 180 world leaders, including foreign ministers and high-ranking government officials, to participate in the six-day mega event.

Greta Thunberg, the dynamic young Swedish activist, will also be at the UN climate meeting, scheduled for 23 September, to dramatise the need for common action and to symbolise the essential role that the UN can play.

The Climate Action Summit is intended to put world leaders on the hot seat so they reveal concrete, realistic plans to fulfill the pledges countries made in the Paris Agreement in 2016. Via the agreement, countries should reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.

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The multilateral bodies and global treaties that have taken a beating include the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Human Rights Council, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Paris Climate Change agreement.

As one delegate puts it: “It is either a resurrection of multilateralism or a prelude to an obituary for international order.”

Scheduled to take place 23-27 September, the meetings will cover a wide range of political and socio-economic issues on the UN agenda, including climate change, universal health care, sustainable development goals (SDGs), financing for development, elimination of nuclear weapons and the survival of small island developing states facing extinction from rising sea levels.

Speaking to reporters last month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that multilateralism is under attack from many different directions precisely “when we need it most”.

“In different areas and for different reasons, the trust of people in their political establishments, the trust of states among each other, the trust of many people in international organisations has been eroded and … multilateralism has been under fire,” he complained.

On the upcoming six summits, Guterres warned, “the people of the world do not want half measures or empty promises. They are demanding transformative change that is fair and sustainable.”

But will the talk-fest produce concrete results or end up being another political exercise in futility?

In an interview Jayantha Dhanapala, a former Sri Lankan Ambassador and UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, said: “As we survey the graveyard of multilateral security, environmental and economic agreements underpinning the mutually beneficial liberal order, fires burn 20% of the lungs of the world in the Amazon and even the Arctic has its tundra burning.”

“And the numbers of refugees fleeing violence and persecution are the highest in recorded history.”

With the unrivalled superpower under the quixotic leadership of Donald Trump, even developing countries like the Philippines, Brazil and others have abandoned global norms, Dhanapala says.

“A rule-based international order is collapsing before our eyes and Britain is on the brink of a messy Brexit while trade wars ruin Sino-US trade and drive the world towards a ruinous recession and the end of sustainable development.”

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Martin S. Edwards, Associate Professor and Chair, School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, says: “I think you’re right that the depth and breadth of the work that the UN is launching is more than just symbolic.”

With Bolsonaro set to address the General Assembly right before Trump (on 24 September), their comments will mirror each other, and will be in stark contrast to many of the other delegates, he added.

But the important thing, he pointed out, is that there’s needed substance here. “The US might well sit out the Climate Action Summit, and that’s fine. The work of the UN and the member countries will go on without it”.

As for the SDGs, he said, this is a signature UN initiative that needs more attention and focus. “The world is not on track to reach many of these goals, and without greater commitment by member governments, they are not likely to be met by 2030. With the US disengaged from many of these discussions, it falls to the Secretary-General to recommit leaders to these goals,” Edwards noted.

James Paul, a former executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, says, “This is a time of great international uncertainty and instability. What does this mean for the UN as a cluster of high-profile meetings approaches? And what can we expect from these events?”

“My sense is this: nationalistic enthusiasm is now waning at the popular level and posturing leaders are under increasing pressure from below to deliver more than rhetoric,” said Paul, author of the recently-released book, Of Foxes and Chickens: Oligarchy and Global Power in the UN Security Council.   (IPS)

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story. 

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