By Neil Bhatiya, Climate and Diplomacy Fellow
With the completion of the Paris Agreement in December of last year, the international community fashioned a universal accord on climate change. As a new E3G Report, United We Stand: Reforming the United Nations to Reduce Climate Risk, makes clear, however, Paris is only one part of the equation. The problem, which this report tries to address, is that the international system’s ability to deal with climate risk – the impacts from climate change that are already occurring – is fragmentary and ad hoc.
Ultimately, in the eyes of report authors Camilla Born and Nick Mabey, the United Nations will have to take the lead in institutionalizing climate risk management in its own operations and making sure those innovations and reforms filter down to individual member-states. Part of this transition process is moving from setting an agenda to instituting the norms, procedures, and bureaucracy needed to make that agenda an on-the-ground reality. In particular, Born and Mabey highlight the need for an independent United Nations authority to lead on identifying climate risks (similar to how the International Atomic Energy Agency is the lead on nuclear arms control), including resource security concerns as well as managing sudden shocks (like the collapse of the West Antarctic ice shelf), and providing political leaderships with the data necessary to make informed policy decisions.
One of the most useful contributions by this report is the chapter on other examples of international risk regimes (arms control, global health, terrorism, to name just a few) from which a climate risk regime could draw useful lessons. For example, on arms control and global health, the international community has independent authorities (the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization, respectively) to provide expertise to member-states and monitor and enforce relevant treaty obligations. Many of these issue have qualities in common with climate change impacts, and the solutions could be translated into a climate change context:
- Humanitarian responses: The international response to humanitarian emergencies, while imperfect, has been aided a great deal by high-level attention paid to it by the United Nations Security Council. In the report’s words, “The political initiation capacity provided by the UN Security Council helps focus the regime for crisis intervention.” No United Nations risk regime response to climate change would be complete without a similar attitude toward climate risks.
- Terrorism: The international response to terrorism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has been buoyed by a push for solutions from the general public, media, and public officials at the local, regional, and national levels. As societies begin to experience more severe climate change risks, the international community will similarly be pushed to develop solutions that are both comprehensive and tailored to local circumstances.
- Finance: The response to the 2007-2008 global financial crisis not only empowered new leadership groups to coordinate policy (the G-20) but showed the dangers of ignoring risks that were deemed low probability. Subsequent efforts by institutions like the Bank of England and Munich Re to analyze how climate change poses a risk to the global financial system is an extension of those lessons, one which could be broadened at the United Nations level.
Such a process, of course, also could underscore the difficulties faced by the international community in facing collective action problems: lack of concentrated political will; a dearth of financing; and a tendency to focus on immediate, headline-grabbing emergencies at the expense of long-term investments in capacity-building.
If political will coalesces toward efforts to build what Born and Mabey envision here, the question of resources will grow more paramount. The report offers a guide to building new institutions and enabling existing ones to adapt to take on more responsibility. How to pay for all of this remains an open question, one in which the states of the international community will have to address. While there may be some grounds for pessimism on that point in the near-term, there are reasons to be optimistic over the long-term. As United We Stand makes clear, other international institutions were created, often through long iterative processes, to deal with new risks. International institutions have proven to be responsive to new threats identified by nation-states and civil society. The Paris Agreement has solidified new funding mechanisms toward the mitigation side. As climate change and security risks grow over time, the impetus for realizing what is contained in this report will only grow.