Kennedy Graham

Global climate policy – ‘Acknowledging’ & ‘Declaring’ – what’s the difference?

by Kennedy Graham

Acknowledging and declaring are different things.  And that is the underlying explanation for our problematic climate future.

The question is, does a crisis exist?  A crisis is defined as

“a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined; turning point’ or

“a condition of instability or danger, as in social, economic, political, or international affairs, leading to a decisive change.”

Does the work of the international community reflect a recognition of a global crisis?

The UN’s IPCC sets out the facts, along with empirically-based projections.  It avoids getting unbecomingly emotive.

-          The 1st Assessment Report, back in 1990, stated that business-as-usual would result in 3ºC rise and 0.65 m. sea-level rise by 2100.  “Rapid changes in climate”, it said, “will change the composition of ecosystems, some species will benefit while others will be unable to migrate or adapt fast enough and may become extinct.”

-          The 5th Assessment Report of 2013 says virtually the same, and its confidence level has risen from 90% to 95%.

But it is the governments that count, at least for this kind of political determination. What do they say?

The first UN General Assembly resolution (43/53) back in 1988 got it presciently right.  Member states were:

“concerned that certain human activities could change global climate patterns, threatening present and future generations with potentially severe economic and social consequences”.

They noted with concern that:

“the emerging evidence indicates that continued growth in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases could produce global warming with an eventual rise in sea levels, the effects of which could be disastrous for mankind if timely steps are not taken at all levels.”

The 1992 Framework Convention governs global climate policy. It acknowledges that “change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind.”  The parties are concerned that this could

“result on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind.”

They express their determination:

“to protect the climate system for present and future generations”.

And so they identify as the objective the stabilisation of atmospheric GHGs at a level and within a time-frame that would avoid dangerous climate change.

The current governing guidance, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action of 2012 (DPA) is clear.  It recognises that:

“climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires to be urgently addressed by all Parties”.

The DPA then notes with grave concern

“the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties. mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels,

And it recognises that “fulfilling the ultimate objective of the Convention will require strengthening the multilateral, rules-based regime under the Convention.”

The above statements by the UN clearly meet the definition of a crisis.  So, in short, the contracting parties to the UNFCCC acknowledge there is a crisis over climate.  But despite these cries of alarm, the UNFCCC process is simply machinery for multilateral negotiations. There is no scope for a formal declaration of a global state of emergency.  In the UNFCCC, contracting parties are describing the crisis, but not declaring a crisis.

Can the international community declare a crisis, or an emergency – the way the government of a member state can declare national emergency? Would it make a difference?

The General Assembly can decide to meet in Emergency Session; it has done so a number of times in the past.

The Security Council can declare a situation to constitute a threat to international peace and security.  It has done this numerous times – on inter-state aggression (the traditional basis for binding powers under the Charter in 1945), on civil wars, on coup d’états, on global terrorism, on WMD proliferation. It could do so on climate change.  As the years go by and extreme experience kicks in, it is inevitable that it will do so.

In 2010 the Council advanced the following statement:

“The Security Council expresses its concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security.

“The Security Council expresses its concern that possible security implications of loss of territory of some States caused by sea-level rise may arise, in particular in small low-lying island States.

“The Security Council notes that in matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security under its consideration, conflict analysis and contextual information on, inter alia, possible security implications of climate change are important, when such issues are drivers of conflict, represent a challenge to the implementation of Council mandates or endanger the process of consolidation of peace.  In this regard, the Council requests the Secretary-General to ensure that his reporting to the Council contains such contextual information.”

Would it help if the Assembly or the Council so acted, perhaps in tandem, and made a formal declaration that the expected climate change between now and 2050 constitutes a global crisis?

Why would, how could, it not?  At least then, humanity – -the global community – will have taken the first step towards acting together, and with purpose, on a coordinated path to climate redemption.