What do climate change and non-proliferation have in common? Not much, Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Mathews
said yesterday at a remarkably frank and insightful discussion
at the Wilson Center. Yet climate change and non-proliferation are often lumped together as the “ultimate global issues” and approached similarly, she said:
“With non-proliferation, the world is vulnerable to the smallest, poorest, most miserable country on the planet—North Korea.… Climate change is totally different. There are really only seven political actors that matter, and only two that really matter.”
Those two, of course, are the United States and China, whose combined carbon emissions add up to 39 percent of the world’s total. Given this fact, Mathews believes the solution to climate change is anything but global. It is incumbent upon the biggest emitters to take the first steps. With them in the lead, the world will follow suit, she thinks. But without them, no real change can occur.
In contrast, United Nations Foundation Senior Fellow Mohamed El-Ashry argued for a more diplomatic track, in which the United Nations would harness its convening power to bring the necessary parties to the table. The skeptic in me wonders whether the UN has this much power. El-Ashry himself, when asked whether UNEP would have more authority if it were upgraded to the status of an agency, said, “You wake up one morning and think of your cat as a tiger, but it is still a cat.”
The UN is a bit of a cat itself right now. Does it have the credibility, legitimacy, or sway to bring all the necessary actors to the table? I’m not so sure. And the former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, certainly didn’t help. The man did once say that the United Nations does not exist, and that “there is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States.”
Whether the solution should be global or local, yesterday’s debate was utterly refreshing. Representatives from the U.S. Department of State, EPA, and other organizations were on hand to debate the relative merits of multilateral and bilateral agreements, unilateral action, and global commitment. While little may have been resolved, this was the sort of open and honest dialogue about climate change that we hope to see more of. Take the time to watch the webcast.