Why we (still) need the UN to deliver on climate change

As the United Nations turns 70 this week, we are now over 20 years into its efforts to address the problem of climate change. Needless to say, the problem has not yet been solved. As super-storms slam Mexico and the Philippines this week, and with the pivotal climate talks in Paris now just five weeks away, the question arises again: can the U.N. deliver?

With so little progress since the 2009 Copenhagen meeting, many national governments’ foreign relations ministries, corporations, activists, think tanks, and even some environmental NGOs seem to have lost interest in the process. Many radical climate justice activists have grown weary of what they the call the U.N.’s “Conference of Polluters” (a play on the term “Conference of Parties”). They have called on movements at various junctures to “Seattle the COP”—in other words, to shut down the U.N. negotiations, as activists did to the World Trade Organization negotiations in Seattle in 1999. Their argument is that the process is too corrupt and that fossil fuel companies are calling the shots, with professional NGOs providing legitimacy. They instead point to growing social movements and their successes in stopping fossil fuel projects around the world as the primary means for addressing climate change.

Indeed, while the U.N. negotiations have largely stalled in making progress, individuals, institutions, and governments around the world have been involved in contributing to a solution to climate change. Grassroots activists have played a major role in various countries in stopping fossil fuel projects. For example, in the United States, grassroots activist networks have had a role in shutting down 150 coal plants since 2010. Cities and municipalities have also made serious efforts and pledges to address climate impacts and reduce their emissions; subnational states and regions have developed carbon-cutting schemes; supranational regions like the European Union have instituted carbon trading systems; and a series of multilateral organizations have taken up the issue.

Corporations and industry organizations have also made pledges and developed climate programs, hundreds of universities across the world have pledged to “go carbon neutral” and to divest from fossil fuels, and individuals have created some of their own small networks for mutual action in reducing emissions.

At the beginning of the 2000s, a wave of activism swept across universities, churches, and cities in the United States, demanding their institutions make binding pledges to reduce their carbon emissions, sometimes to zero. Cities across America and the world have made their own pledges of efforts, including deep reductions or even reaching carbon neutrality by future dates. ICLEI, an international network of cities seeking to boost their sustainability efforts, had its membership soar from a dozen U.S. cities and towns in the late 1990s to over 1,000 globally today. After the failure of the UNFCCC in Copenhagen to seal an adequate deal, the cities created the Global Cities Covenant on Climate (dubbed the Mexico City Pact), which “aims to scale up cities’ role and efforts in combating climate change globally.”

In short, the effort to govern humanity’s impact on the climate has become extremely diverse, widespread, and multilevel. Meanwhile, national governments and their interactions in the U.N. can seem cumbersome, obstructionist, and obsolete. In fact, the U.N. process is nowhere near delivering an agreement that will keep us to even reasonably safe levels of climate change. Is it time to give up on expecting national governments to work together at the U.N. and move on to relying solely on local, national, and regional level solutions?

Action at the city and institutional level are important, but there are limits to voluntary commitments and pledges. There is often neither a base level of commitment that is required to be listed as a signatory, nor a clear mechanism in the event cities fail to file a plan in time to meet the group’s deadline, nor any clear repercussions if a locality fails to meet its commitments down the road. The same can be said of the university consortium’s members’ commitments. As for grassroots resistance to fossil fuel plants, even with major victories and scaled up mobilization, too many polluting projects are moving forward globally as planned. 

We believe that no other level of solution is able to do what global interstate negotiations can, which is to assemble in a mutually agreed-upon process the legal representatives of the people of the world to agree on binding commitments to address a problem facing all of humanity. To be clear, the U.N. process has yet to live up to its potential on the issue of climate change, and there are serious obstacles to enabling it to do so. It is a process that has been highly unequal in terms of whose voices matter most and far too friendly to fossil fuel interests. The catalyst of change will also not emerge in the U.N. process, but rather must come from below. However, the UNFCCC is the only institutional body currently capable of coordinating a representative, adequate, and equitable global climate agreement.

The initiatives discussed here are not alone likely to yield the scale of emissions reductions needed to maintain a stable global climate system. They also do not provide a venue for the most vulnerable actors in the world to voice their concerns and to make demands for funding in order to adapt to impacts from climatic changes already underway. We have limited time to act, and starting from scratch with a new global institution seems unlikely to avoid many of the UNFCCC’s toughest issues.

We want to be clear: more localized actions on climate change, particularly those that are networked transnationally, are extremely important and play an essential role in pushing states to adopt ambitious policies and practices of their own, which opens new possibilities for international coordination. The science of climate change demands that the construction of new fossil fuel projects are stopped, that existing ones are rapidly phased out, and that the vast subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry are discontinued. In fact, we do not see any hope of realizing an adequate international deal without far more aggressive and ambitious organizing at the local and national levels, pushing governments to act.

However, we believe that the level of ambition that is needed to avert disaster can be achieved only if we simultaneously pursue an international process with robust forms of accountability and action at all lower levels. In Paris this December, we need the U.N. to deliver.

Read more by Roberts and Ciplet in the new book “

Power in a Warming WorldThe New Global Politics of Climate Change and the Remaking of Environmental Inequality

,” published by MIT Press.