Hot Air in the U.N. Security Council
"Weather of Mass Destruction" and other terrors.


Brett D. Schaefer

Despite all indications to the contrary, the issue of global warming has not received enough attention in the United Nations — at least according to the United Kingdom, which used its term as president of the Security Council to conduct a discussion on global warming on April 17. For those unfamiliar with the U.N. system, the Security Council is charged with maintaining international peace and security and taking action to address immediate or imminent threats.

Considering its responsibilities, it is hardly surprising that the Council had not previously considered the issue of global warming. A review of current scientific evidence reveals many uncertainties about the extent to which climate change is caused by human activity, the extent and consequences of global warming, and how to best allocate resources to address the issue. As knowledge increases, we have seen U.N. estimates for temperature and sea-level increases decline. However, even under worst-case scenarios for global warming predicted by the U.N., it will be decades before global warming results in significant warming, noteworthy sea-level increases, or other consequences that could contribute to conflict or instability. These projected harms are not pressing threats requiring immediate attention by the Security Council.

Indeed, China, Indonesia, Qatar, Russia, South Africa, and other nations objected to the climate change discussion on the grounds that the Security Council was not the place to debate or take action on climate change. China’s deputy ambassador objected that that “the Security Council [lacks] professional competence in handling climate change . . .” The Group of 77 (a group of over 130 developing nations that often vote as a bloc in the United Nations) similarly criticized the session. The Russian ambassador declared that “there are relevant forums and formats for the consideration of the climate-change problems in all aspects, including the assessment of new challenges and threat emerging in this sphere. As far as the UN Security Council is concerned, it should engage in the consideration of issues directly within its mandate.”

It is always a surreal experience for a free-market conservative to quote and agree with statements by the Russian and Chinese ambassadors — much less the G-77 — but in this case they provided a welcome reality check. No doubt the motive of some of these countries was to preserve the authority of the U.N. General Assembly (where developing countries wield more power) from perceived encroachment by the Security Council (where the permanent members largely control the agenda). But the questionable nature of their motives does not undermine the validity of their point.

Numerous U.N. bodies are dedicating massive resources to global warming and its impact on, well, everything. There are numerous agreements and treaties focusing on addressing climate change, such as the Kyoto Protocol, Agenda 21, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. There are standing bodies studying climate change like the Commission on Sustainable Development and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In short, the last challenge facing the issue of climate change is insufficient attention from the United Nations.

The Security Council lacks the expertise of all of these bodies and has little to offer to the international discussion. In addition, between these high-level forums and incessant media coverage, it is impossible to justify placing the issue of global warming on the agenda of the Security Council as necessary to increase international awareness of global warming.

Yet it proved too much to expect restraint from the U.K. on climate change. British policy on climate change ascribes to the E.U. position of accepting and pursuing policies based on worst-case scenarios of global warming. Sir David King, the chief scientific adviser, argues that without immediate action to address global warming, millions of people around the world will fall victim to extensive flooding, drought, hunger, and debilitating diseases such as malaria — . Indeed, King believes that “climate change is the most severe problem we are facing today.” Substantive political debate on global warming in the U.K. is minimal, and Prime Minister Tony Blair, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, and Conservative Party Leader David Cameron are competing to out-do one another with their green credentials and proposals to tax, cap, or otherwise regulate greenhouse gases.