The “Big Weather Meeting”

On Sunday a few of us traveled inland from Cancun to the Mayan heritage site of Chichen Itza (depicted in this blog’s banner photo, also here). Our tour group included many travelers who were unaware of COP16 and were surprised by the number of Mexican soldados setting up checkpoints along the Zona Hotelera. Was it something to do with the drug problem Mexico has been facing for some time? Some heightened terrorism threat level in this popular resort city? No, our tour guide explained proudly–the extra security was because todo el mundo was arriving in Cancun for the “Big Weather Meeting” including all the “presidentes from North America.”

Analysis of the interplay between local knowledge systems and climate change science is fascinating but not my purpose here.  The tour guide’s humble interpretation rang in my ears not because of the multi-layered differences I expect exist between his “weather” and my “climate.” Instead, it was our tour guide’s sense of pride at his nation playing host to the discussion, and his confident assertion that all the North American presidentes would be in attendance because of the importance of this gathering.

Today, as we awaited our NGO badges alongside fellow observers speaking dozens of languages and representing hundreds of organizations from every corner of the globe, I found myself caught up a bit in our tour guide’s pride and enthusiasm. (This, despite the fact that the UNFCCC’s legitimacy is in full jeopardy and Felipe Calderon of Mexico will likely be the only presidente in attendance this year.)

I was proud and enthusiastic to be at COP16 because I, like so many of the world’s citizens, deeply admire the UN, and expect it to remain a central player in combatting climate change over the coming decades. The UN has an inspiring history of serving the world’s poorest and stepping in to meet crises face on:

Making peace – Since 1945, the United Nations has been credited with negotiating many peaceful settlements that have ended regional conflicts. Recent cases include an end to the Iran-Iraq war, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and an end to the civil war in El Salvador.

Promoting democracy – The United Nations has enabled people in many countries to participate in free and fair elections, including those held in Cambodia, Namibia, El Salvador, Eritrea, Mozambique, Nicaragua, South Africa, Kosovo and East Timor.

Promoting development – The UN system has devoted more attention and resources to the promotion of the development of human skills and potentials than any other external assistance effort. The system’s annual disbursements, including loans and grants, amount to more than $10 billion.

Promoting human rights – Since adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the United Nations has helped enact dozens of comprehensive agreements on political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. By investigating individual complaints of human rights abuses, the UN Human Rights Commission has focused world attention on cases of torture, disappearance, and arbitrary detention and has generated international pressure to be brought on governments to improve their human rights records.

Providing safe drinking water – UN agencies have worked to make safe drinking water available to 1.3 billion people in rural areas during the last decade.

Eradicating smallpox – A 13-year effort by the World Health Organization resulted in the complete eradication of smallpox from the planet in 1980. The eradication has saved an estimated $1 billion a year in vaccination and monitoring, almost three times the cost of eliminating the scourge itself. WHO also helped wipe out polio from the Western hemisphere, with global eradication expected by the year 2000.

In pursuing all of these achievements, the UN has always relied upon an ethic of inclusion and democratic organization, involving those affected by problems in designing the best solutions.

The world has evolved in countless ways since the UN’s inception, and the challenge of global climate change is one of unprecedented scope. However, what most amazes me about the United Nations—whatever its faults—is the ability to bring the world’s people together across divides of language, culture, and wealth to motivate action on issues of urgent concern.

Yes, the organization’s power and its legitimacy comes from the voluntary involvement of nations as contributors, signatories, and peacekeepers, and yes, this voluntary nature of the commitments make the UN very different from any other form of governance. (Perhaps the farthest thing from corporate governance that any Tuck MBA will ever see…)

And we in the United States know better than most just how voluntary the United Nations frameworks are, between the Kyoto Protocol and the War in Iraq

But we at Tuck and the broader US business community have a strong set of tools and competencies to offer, and we should think broadly about how we might be of service to the UN. Our understanding of private sector strategies and requirements is entirely unrivaled within the UN, and our knowledge of effective private sector leadership is also far outside its usual domain.

If we share our understandings to strengthen the UN framework, not only would it help the UN; it would also help the US. Today, the US’s economic power is lagging and the legitimacy of our version of free market capitalism has been brought into question by the financial crisis. If the United States brings a good faith effort to these discussions and to the formation of the next global mechanism for emissions control, we may be able to rebuild some of the international political capital that has been weakened in recent years.

We certainly will encounter skeptics. We are Americans, and we are MBAs. You don’t need to look far to find reasons to distrust both types of people (see Iraq War, Kyoto Protocol, and financial crisis).  There are also fundamental ideological differences that separate us from many of our international counterparts.

However, if we continue to bring our ideas into the UN community in a spirit of openness, with a sense for the potential of the UN community at its best rather than its worst, we may be able to turn these points of difference into powerful points of leverage instead.

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About karstenbarde
Tuck MBA, co-chair of 2011 Business & Society Conference, officer of Dartmouth Energy Collaborative, and blogger for COP16 delegation.

One Response to The “Big Weather Meeting”

  1. Lindsay Wilner says:

    I think you have addressed a very important point in this post – we need more people with strong business skills to help manage and lead within bureaucratic institutions like the UN. Unfortunately, it is often the people with business skills that get frustrated about the pace and roadblocks that are all too common within these large bureaucratic institutions. I’m not sure what the solution is, but perhaps there is a way to break up institutions like the UNFCCC into smaller, more manageable parts so that things can move along in a more expedient way.

    On a similar note, I am very excited to see a movement in the conference towards more immediate actions. These are not ground breaking actions, but things that will start to push the agenda forward and allow the world to take steps to actually mitigate greenhouse gases. Juliet Eilperin’s article in the Washington Post this morning discusses how parties at the conference are moving towards cutting non-carbon dioxide emissions, such as HFCs. These emissions have a shorter duration in the atmosphere, but are predicted to represent 20% of the warming gases in the atmosphere by 2050. Smaller steps such as these will not only create momentum in the climate mitigation agenda, but will also allow governments and businesses to have a real, attainable mitigation target. Let’s hope for more of these discussions at the COP 16 conference.

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