Political Forums of the “Highest Level”

You may have heard about a new roadmap to prevent climate catastrophe that was launched at the United Nations yesterday. After the launch, Jeffrey Sachs, one of the people behind the report, came into the “High Level Segment of the High Level Political Forum ” (yes, that really is the name) meeting that I am currently at to present the report. And he got the attention of the audience, because he showed personal photographs taken all over the world. His pictures and stories described a world in crisis, from air pollution in Beijing to water scarcity in Turkey. They did make the case for urgent action.

It’s a shame therefore, that the report — though right about the urgency to act — is endorsing some technologies that are not sustainable, fast to deploy, or safe. It’s simply not possible to produce the amount of bioenergy the report calls for in a sustainable way, for example. And nuclear power is so expensive, slow and dangerous, that it is simply a distraction in the climate fight. We can do better. The technologies are there to deliver a true Energy Revolution based on energy efficiency and renewables. We therefore recommend that you look at our roadmap to a safe energy future before you rush to endorse Sachs’s.

That said, Sachs’s call for action was overdue. So far, the “High Level Political Forum” had lacked any urgency. This Forum was created at the Rio+20 Summit two years ago. It is supposed to give greater weight to developments that do not cost the earth or our future. And it is supposed to check on whether governments are actually implementing the (however inadequate) commitments made in Rio. This includes new Sustainable Development Goals, which governments are set to agree by September 2015. So far, though, we see no sign of the “High Level Political Forum” having the gravitas and importance to really hold governments accountable to sustainable development. On the contrary, we hear of wrangling behind the scenes in which some governments try to weaken the “High Level Political Forum” further…

Climate Protest at COP 17. 12/03/2011 © Shayne Robinson / Greenpeace

It would be easy to despair at such news. But meetings at the UN are never just about what is formally being negotiated. As the media coverage of Sachs’s roadmap shows, the UN is also a platform. It is ground zero and the place for necessary global discussions – including climate change. It’s simply a fact, for example, that the media pays more attention to climate issues during the yearly global climate negotiations than during any other time of the year.

And out of many hours of misery in airless, windowless rooms at UN meeting, sometimes real progress springs up. Over our 40-plus year history, for example, Greenpeace has been instrumental in creating many global environmental rules. Dumping radioactive wastes at sea used to be perfectly legal until public pressure and a resulting coalition of governments wanting to act banned the practice. Over time, we have contributed to the toxic waste trade being sanctioned, the transboundary movements of genetically engineered (GE) organisms being regulated and many cancer causing chemicals having been eliminated. I would therefore recommend that any NGOs working on global issues but not yet accredited with the United Nations, to please join us now (here is how you can get access to the UN).

It’s true that environmental bodies generally lack the teeth that organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) have. Whereas the WTO can impose punitive trade sanctions on countries not following their rules, environmental bodies are often lacking meaningful enforcement mechanisms. But there is no doubt that, without the global rules we do have, the plunder of our planet would be even faster and more extensive.

Especially because global rules become the “minimum standard” on which you can build. For example, the toxic waste trade rules – known as the Basel Convention – helped us, when we – successfully – campaigned against electronic waste. We needed to tighten up national legislations to succeed and the national discussions could start at a higher level, because there was already an agreed global benchmark.

Global political meetings currently are often as frustrating as they have been here at the “High Level Political Forum” because of the ownership of all too many governments by polluters. To change that, we need to build pressure at the local, national and global level to tilt the balance in the directions of rules that protect people and planet. “Power never concedes nothing without a demand,” said slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglas who already knew the score in the 19th century. If we do not demand action from our governments – whether on protecting our precious High Seas or on climate change – we, too, are to blame if they do not act.

So as I go back now to the windowless conference rooms at UN Headquarters to do my part in pressuring our governments, please help me by joining our movement.

Daniel Mittler is the Political Director of Greenpeace International.

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