The UN Should Seek Lessons from its Past at COP20

As country delegates apply themselves to the herculean task of negotiating a draft climate agreement beginning today at COP20 in Lima, it is worth reflecting on the origins of the United Nations and to consider what purpose this multilateral institution was intended to serve by its founders. I would argue that only by putting the United Nations in its proper historical context, can we fully realize its potential to lead humanity to a more peaceful and prosperous condition. 

The Declaration by United Nations was initially a pledge of support by 26 nations to the Atlantic Charter, committing them to continue fighting the Axis powers on January 1st, 1942. The institution that later emerged was primarily the initiative of the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who believed that only through cooperation between nation states, could humanity avoid another global catastrophe on the scale of the Second World War. 

So why is this relevant to the current COP20 in Lima? Consider the issues that delegates have been discussing in today’s plenary session. Many developing countries are calling for the developed states to capitalize the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to the tune of 100 billion US dollars per year, starting in 2020. Thus far, developed states have contributed 9.7 billion US dollars to cover the five year interim period (between 2015-2020), before the new climate deal will come into effect. As many delegates aligned with the G77 bloc have noted, it is still unclear how this money will be raised. Climate finance, they argue, is the fundamental building block of any climate deal in 2015, since vulnerable people in developing countries, including smallholder farmers, are already experiencing climate change and urgently need support to help them adapt. The delegate from Nauru, speaking on behalf of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) poignantly asserted that to many, adaptation is a matter of survival. 

Secondly, most developing countries and the European Union are arguing for universal and legally-binding mitigation targets. However, in the last several months the United States and some others have proposed an alternative modality that would allow countries to determine the scale and pace of their own emission reduction targets, even if this fails to stay within the 2 degrees celsius warming threshold that climate scientists say is the minimum to avoid disastrous climate change in the future. 

These are two areas that could potentially derail negotiations if sufficient progress is not made before the Paris COP next year; which is why we should feel compelled to look back to the architects of the multilateral regime and seek inspiration from their positive example. How unattainable must the cause of peace have seemed in 1942? Yet Roosevelt, Churchill and their allies were able to mobilize a diverse coalition to end the war, and went on to establish an effective democratic forum that has been of inestimable value to maintaining peace and security, and many other issues of global significance since then. 

As climate change now threatens the entire human family, we must seek conciliation among diverse groups, as arduous as that task may seem. This is also a decisive moment for the future of the multilateral regime, and the signals that delegates send here can create positive incentives that lead to even greater momentum as we enter the final stretch of negotiations.