Looking Forward: Sustaining the Earth and Humanity - Implications for the New UN Secretary-General | Wilson Center

Looking Forward: Sustaining the Earth and Humanity - Implications for the New UN Secretary-General

Skepticism of climate change and its threats to the earth and humanity is quickly and increasingly losing ground as the international community prepares to undertake the massive task of implementing an international environmental regime. Realizing this goal of stabilizing the environment requires new frameworks for global actions. On March 26, 2007 the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars partnered with the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) to tackle this issue in a panel discussion entitled Looking Forward: Sustaining the Earth and Humanity—Implications for the New UN Secretary General. The event, which marked the second in a three-meeting series on UN reform, examined the role of the UN and its member states in leading the environmental sustainability movement. Panelists, Mohamed El-Ashry and Jessica Tuchman Matthews, identified the gaps in the current multilateral initiatives, explored opportunities for significant change and offered their recommendations for the new UN Secretary General.

Robert Berg introduced the topic of environmental sustainability. He explained that a new consensus on the scope and magnitude of the climate change problem is developing, yet it remains unclear what needs to be done. He noted that a lack of alternatives to the current patterns of administering and governing resources as well as scarce political direction pose significant challenges to effective action. Recognizing that the new Secretary General has not yet settled upon a particular course of action, Berg identified this period of time as a "teachable moment."

Mohamed El-Ashry outlined the recent course of multilateral initiatives on environmental sustainability and challenges to implementation, and provided an insider's view into the leadership role of the UN. He explained that for centuries, the dominant attitude towards the natural world was that it existed for the benefit of mankind. Only recently has the international community recognized that humans ultimately inflict damage upon themselves by neglecting and degrading the environment. This significant shift in perception led to the UN conference on the environment in Stockholm in 1972, and since then, the proliferation of environmental laws and regulations, the creation of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the establishment of national environmental ministries and agencies in almost every country. Since 1992, four international summits, three international conventions, four ministerial conferences and two protocols have been devoted to the environment. On the face of it, he added, these are remarkable achievements, yet little progress has been made in improving the environment and the sustainability of resources. Human actions continue to give way to a multitude of problems including the degradation of soil, disappearance of marine resources, global climate change, loss of habitats and destruction of the ozone layer. In addition, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. However, the stagnated progress is clearly not for lack of international attention. Rather, as evidence becomes more convincing, the political will for action becomes weaker or non-existent.

El-Ashry highlighted the fact that by the year 2100, temperatures are likely to rise by 3 degrees, a drastic change in a short period of time. The solution, according to El-Ashry, is increased political will and greater collaboration between developed and developing countries. He added that much depends on the leadership of the US, individually responsible for a quarter of the world's emissions. Referring to the question of UN leadership on the issue of environmental sustainability, he agreed that the UN is well positioned to take on a leadership role on account of its unrivaled expertise and legitimacy, as well as a long history with this topic. In addition, environmental sustainability is a global security issue, and thus requires the leadership of a multilateral organization. Recognizing the inherent weaknesses and fragmentation of the UN system, El-Ashry emphasized the need to better equip the UN to take on this role. He supported the proposal presented by the High-Level Panel to revitalize ECOSOC by establishing within it a Global Leaders forum, the composition of which would be more representative than the G8 and could account for the geopolitics that ultimately slow progress. In closing, El-Ashry highlighted key considerations for the new environmental agenda including increasing political will, raising issues of equity and taking a long-term view of the solution.

Jessica Tuchman Matthews argued for a shift in focus in the current approach to environmental sustainability that departs from the multilateral, global solutions presented by El-Ashry towards a more concentrated agenda focused on the policies of the most important environmental actors. She described this shift in thinking as a very controversial approach to environmental policy. Matthews explained that the issue of climate change is fundamentally different from other global issues (i.e. non-proliferation), and thus in the long term, large-scale, multilateral solutions are critical, however, the immediate root of the solutions is not global. Matthews asserted that currently, only seven political actors matter, the EU, Brazil, China, Japan, India, Russia and the US, and within those seven, the US and China, together contributing thirty-nine percent of the world's emissions, are locked within a mutual suicide pact which has precluded all significant action from moving forward. Neither country, according to Matthews, is willing to make the first move; yet global progress depends on their individual and bilateral actions.

In addition, Matthews lamented the under-examination and underdevelopment of specific solutions and actions for environmental stabilization due to an overemphasis on battling naysayers and generating political will. The asymmetry of priorities, added Matthews, explains why the Kyoto agreement was overly ambitious and overly complicated institutionally. She cautioned against revitalizing or re-strengthening ECOSOC, recommending instead the creation of a new forum designed for small groups of the key actors. Matthews asserted that the most effective and critical forum is bilateral, adding that it is vitally important to find a formula under which the US begins mandatory emissions reductions in such a way that China is obliged to follow. She concluded that while environmental sustainability is a global issue in its impact, these considerations must be sidetracked so that the largest and most immediate challenges can be effectively tackled through targeted, country-specific strategies.

During a lively question and answer period, audience members commented on the legacy of the Kyoto Agreement, noting that it started small but is gaining increasing support. The lessons drawn from this unprecedented treaty have informed the future design of global environmental sustainability initiatives and practices. Elaborating on these issues, members of the audience commented on the future leadership role of the UN, noting that the UN has important work to do in several areas including technical assistance, public education and fostering long-term agricultural research to facilitate inevitable changes in growing conditions. Noting that the UN Environmental Program is not sufficiently staffed or funded to make the necessary impact, it was agreed that success will depend on the commitment of all branches of the UN. However, financing the necessary changes around the globe will be a huge task; a carbon tax was suggested as a way to both limit emissions and finance the needed changes.

When addressing the role of the US, it was agreed that effective domestic policies are necessary before the US can negotiate effectively with China or other major actors. Equally, an agreement with China was seen as essential to engaging other players including the EU, Japan, Brazil and Russia. Such international agreements would need to be flexible enough to evolve in the face of a changing socio-political landscape while requiring strict enforcement.


  • Mohamed El-Ashry

    Senior Fellow, United Nations Foundation; Former CEO and Chairman, Global Environment Facility
  • Jessica Tuchman Mathews

    President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Founding Vice President and Former Director of Research, World Resources Institute
  • Robert Berg

    Trustee, World Academy of Art and Science; Director, Graduate Fellows Program, United Nations Association of the National Capital Area