Restoring the UN: Take 2

With the UN’s promise unfulfilled and environmental issues at the top of the international agenda,a critical opportunity is approaching.

Nineteen years ago this summer, I headed off for vacation with my first major World Watch feature article tucked in my bag. The headline for the article, “Restoring the UN,” optimistically proclaimed that “after four decades of ideological turmoil, the UN is proving that international cooperation works.” Nearly two decades later, I am once again vacation-bound, with a short essay to write before departure about how well the arguments set forth in my first major piece have withstood the test of time.

“When delegates from around the world convened in San Francisco in 1945 to charter the United Nations,” I wrote in 1988, “two global wars had recently claimed millions of lives and strewn destruction throughout Europe and Asia. Devising a saner system to resolve conflicts was the top international priority.” I went on to say that “while this goal remains vital, major new threats that demand attention have since emerged.... Extensive fossil fuel use, for example, has resulted in the devastation of forests by acid rain and threatens to cause atmospheric warming by the middle of the next century. Chloroflourocarbons released into the atmosphere by industrial products and processes are destroying the earth’s ozone layer, imperiling agriculture and human health.”

I got one thing wrong: the effects of global warming are being felt earlier than anticipated, with potentially devastating consequences for human and ecological welfare. On the other hand, I got the overall story right: environmental issues in general, and climate change in particular, have risen higher on the UN’s agenda than anyone could have imagined at the time. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is calling climate change “one of the most complex,multifaceted, and serious threats the world faces.” In a bid to jumpstart international negotiations on a successor agreement to the beleaguered Kyoto Protocol, Ban hosted a high-level meeting on climate change in September that he told the Japanese daily the Asahi Shimbun was “one of the most important…initiatives in the history of the United Nations.” Some 75 heads of state or government attended...

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