15 February 2007

How prepared is the U.N. system to deal with increasingly pressing issues of Environment? Besides given generalities of principle, where precisely do its related (and fragmented) programs stand on specific questions raised not only in seminars but through mainstream media?

From climate change to global warming, Environment has become more political than ever before. It is being raised as a question of life and death on our Planet Earth. It is no longer limited to the Swedish or Canadian enthusiast, Green Party members, Save the Tree Flower People, or Beetle fans singing: "We all live in a Yellow Submarine." A report to a recent meeting in Paris received worldwide attention. All television stations and news agencies, from BBC to NBC to Reuters Agence France Presse gave it the headlines it deserved.

A 20-page summary indicated that the trend of global warming was "unequivocal" and possibly irreversible by now; that human activities were 90% its likely cause; that rise of temperature is leading to melting of ice areas like Greenland and Antarctica causing a rise in sea level, likely to threaten island countries and coastal areas. A protocol reached in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, aiming to reduce harmful emissions is not yet approved by certain key countries, like U.S., China and India. The outcome of such environmental decay is that typhoons and hurricanes are likely to become more devastating and rainstorms more intense; hot and cold extremes -- heat waves and snowfall -- will become more frequent; and ice melting will raise sea levels to threaten populations in nearby lands. Some U.N. member states, like Kiribati, may just disappear under water!

Where is the U.N. System for all this?

Word is that Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is contemplating making global change a focus issue of the next General Assembly debate. An excellent choice -- provided it is very well prepared. That does not simply mean meticulous speaking arrangements by a well-prepared list of heads of state nor briefing time for media representatives. First and foremost, it means putting the U.N. Environmental house in order. Bluntly speaking, it means reforming and consolidating all those fragmented operations which mushroomed since the Seventies to the Nineties all over the world with separate, often competing, leaderships, agendas and interests.

To begin with, the "centrepiece," UNEP is either helpless, useless or both. It went from a pioneer in environmental work under Maurice Strong (whether you like him or not) and Moshafa Tolba to a mere scant story as the post of Director was just awarded to a German who -- together with his outgoing compatriot -- helped award the then-U.N. Secretary General a $500,000 Environment prize by the United Arab Emirates. No impressive work or anything of real impact has been heard of it. It was a question of political expediency. The Germans wanted the post for some of their outgoing ministers, so Mr. Toepfer got it. Then the Germans wanted the same job for Akim Steiner and Steiner got it. Our former Secretary General never met a government he did not appease. UNEP's neighbour, HABITAT is even in worse shape. It seems more like a secluded resort -- don't call us, we'll call you! Now that a distinguished Tanzanian woman has been appointed Deputy Secretary General, perhaps that other distinguished Tanzanian lady in Habitat (very pleasant by the way) could be allowed to lend her shoulders to the wheels of government in Dar-es-Salaam.

Then you have Climate Change Secretariat (or something similar) somewhere in Europe. The last we traced it was in Bonn occupying some emptied Federal government building in a Garden compound by the Rhone river. Some pompous fellow with a very difficult name was designated to run a secretive small group -- so secretive nobody really knew what they were doing. Eventually they borrowed a U.N. Press Officer to help in one or two "flash in the pan" conferences. Additionally, there are Environment-related sections in other U.N. operations, like the Secretariat's Department of Economic and Social Affairs, U.N. Development Programme, UNICEF and others.

It may be worth the while of Secretary General Ban to commission a working team to look into reviving the spirit and impact of the U.N. Environmental mechanism, streamlining it and building it to meet the pressing requirements ahead. He happens to have nearby someone like Ms. Alicia Barcena, Under-Secretary General for Management, who happens to be very familiar with both advocacy and substance of the issues at hand. He may also wish to involve his new Deputy, whose professional and personal background would be a valuable asset in evaluating the facts and negotiating a new framework.

It will be a political advantage for the new Secretary General to take up the crucial world problem like climate change and global warming, particularly if he prepares for it with key heads of state, including the U.S. and China. To do so Mr. Ban may need to ensure that his own U.N. house is in order.