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Global Climate Change Policy

Climate protester
Young activists gather outside the United Nations during a protest against climate change

“Climate change does not respect border; it does not respect who you are—rich and poor, small and big. Therefore, this is what we call global challenges, which require global solidarity.” 

—UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, December 6, 2011 

2.1 The Issue

Developed or industrialized countries have been releasing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere for more than a century by burning fossil fuels for power, heat, transport, and industrial activity. In recent decades, rapid economic growth in major developing countries such as Brazil, China, and India has led to significant increases in their greenhouse gas emissions as well. Greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat close to the earth, causing the planet to warm. Some of these gases occur naturally, which is why the earth is warm enough to sustain life as we know it. But increasing the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere via man-made emissions is causing more heat to be trapped, raising average global temperatures—a phenomenon known as global warming—which leads to changes in the planet’s climate.

Although some people claim that the observed rise in the earth’s average temperature is primarily a natural phenomenon, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other organizations have concluded that much of the warming observed in recent decades is a consequence of human activity. Thousands of scientists from around the world assist the IPCC, which was created by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988, to assess thousands of scientific papers published each year and provide comprehensive scientific information about climate change, including its impacts and future risks.

Climate change poses risks not only to the environment but also to the security and livelihood of people around the world. These effects include rising sea levels, more extreme weather patterns, and significant damage to the earth’s ecosystems. If current trends continue, growing plentiful and affordable food for a rising global population could become more difficult, low-lying areas—including many of the world’s major cities—could be forced to build expensive flood defenses, and more extreme weather could threaten the safety of millions of people.

Rising greenhouse gas emissions could be addressed through policy at both domestic and international levels, but emissions from any country affect the overall level of warming. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide will not be easy. Modern economies depend on fossil fuels. Output from alternative energy sources such as solar and wind energy is growing but not enough to fully replace fossil fuels yet, and currently available measures to increase energy efficiency are costly and time-consuming. Climate change, moreover, is a difficult issue for policymakers. The questions of whether, how, and how fast emissions should be cut, who should bear the costs of doing so, and how those harmed by both climate change and climate change mitigation should be compensated have no simple answers.

Decision Point

UN Security Council Meeting

A major climate summit is approaching. At the UN climate summit in Paris in 2015, world leaders pledged to reduce or limit their countries’ emissions and to monitor progress toward these goals. However, in October 2018, a landmark report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that governments will need to make “urgent and unprecedented” changes beyond their commitments under the Paris Agreement to avoid serious and potentially irreversible environmental consequences. Despite this new information, states have taken relatively few additional steps toward meeting the ambitious targets outlined by the IPCC, and in some cases have even retreated from their climate commitments. Most notably, in 2017, U.S. President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States—a longtime leader in international climate cooperation—from the Paris Agreement, arguing that it imposed “draconian financial and economic burdens” on the country.

As a part of the upcoming summit, the UN Security Council is convening to discuss, and take possible action on, the issue of climate change. Historically, the UN Security Council has not taken serious action on climate change, leaving climate action under the auspices of states and other UN bodies. In recent years, however, the council has begun to discuss the effects of climate change on global security. In light of the growing threat that climate change poses, members will need to decide whether addressing climate change is within the Security Council’s purview and what actions are available that could address climate change generally or limit its effects on global peace and security.

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