Experts question role of American-style democracy, UN in fighting climate change

08:17, March 26, 2010      

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The challenges posed by climate change has exposed fundamental questions about American-style democracy and the role of the United Nations, a group of influential scientists and experts from around the world debated on Thursday.

"The difficulty of getting a law passed on climate change and clean energy issues in the U.S. is partly due to broken democracy, " said Qi Ye, professor of environmental policy and management and the director of the Climate Policy Institute at Tsinghua University, a prestigious university of China.

Speaking from Beijing via video-link to a large audience at Columbia University's State of the Planet 2010 conference, Qi questioned whether the American democratic system, with its complicated procedures of checks and balances, is suited to adopting quick and effective climate policies.

"This one is certainly not working very well," he said.

After the U.S. Congress slogged through the debate on health care reform, the Senate is now gearing up for another round in the battle to set federal limits on CO2 emissions, a process that has already been characterized as agonizing.

But Johan Rockstrom, the executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and Stockholm Resilience Center, called the ongoing debate in the U.S. among policy makers, scientists and the public, a "privilege."

"Anytime humanity reaches the brink of a crisis, democratic space shrinks," he said. "We still have window of opportunity, but what if we push this too far?"

Still caught in debates about the science behind climate change and the role government should play, Americans appear to be behind the curve on an issue they are expected to take the lead on -- and all the while the clock is ticking.

"The world, for better and often worse, still looks to America on a lot of leadership issues, whether we're up to it or not," said Mark Cane, professor of Earth and Climate Sciences at Columbia University. "I can't see the rest of the world going terribly far down the road until the U.S. takes action."

Thursday's State of the Planet 2010 conference, hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, was a low-carbon exercise, bringing together leaders and experts via video-link from Beijing, New Delhi, Monaco, Mexico City, Nairobi, London, and of course New York.

The seamless transitions from one capital to the next, prompted one woman from New York's audience to joke, somewhat seriously, that the next United Nations General Assembly summit should also modernize and connect the world's leaders using technology. The crowd chuckled.

And what of the United Nations?

After the UN-backed conference in Copenhagen produced a watered- down political agreement, many have begun to question the world body's place in such a complicated endeavor.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that the Copenhagen climate conference "received mixed reviews."

"Yes, we still have a long way to go to reach the comprehensive, ambitious climate change agreement that we all know we need," he told the audience. "Nonetheless, Copenhagen marked a significant step forward in a number of areas."

But clearly, the United Nations is not the only venue for the international community to tackle climate change, Zha Daojiong, professor of International Political Economy at Peking University, also a Chinese well-known university, said from Beijing.

Instead, he said, perhaps other platforms such as the Group of 20 (G20) or a style of negotiations based on those in the World Trade Organization might prove more effective in securing a legally binding treaty on emission reductions and financing for developing countries.

"The UN is important but it is not only the game in town," Nitin Desai, the former United Nations undersecretary-general for the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said from New Delhi, India. "A great deal of action will come from bilateral deals."

However, he added, the United Nations still has a central role to play because it is the only place international stakeholders can get "a truly comprehensive agreement."

"Please do not underestimate the extent to which an open international system has helped to bring us to the point where we are seriously contemplating action," he said. "This would not have happened had we not had a system open to public scrutiny, open to the media, and accountable."

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