What is the U.N. Climate Summit?
In 2014, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened the first such summit to push nations toward consensus on the future Paris agreement, which was concluded in December 2015. The summit has never been part of the official negotiation process.
Since then, it has become yet another ritual in climate change politics. Other summits serve a similar hortatory function: leading by example and pressuring others to do more. The Climate Group, a U.K.-based nongovernmental organization that works with governments and the private sector, has run Climate Week NYC since 2009, showcasing national, city, state and provincial governments’ action on climate, as well as private-sector initiatives. It runs in parallel with the U.N. General Assembly in September. In 2018, California Gov. Jerry Brown convened the Global Climate Action Summit to gather NGOs, businesses, cities, states and regional groups to discuss their climate commitments. These summits all share similar goals — to bring together governments, civil society and the private sector to publicize how they are addressing climate change.
How can the U.N. Climate Summit help address climate change?
The summit is a way for the United Nations to do what it does best: model good behavior, exert moral pressure, and try to steer a large and unwieldy ship toward greater cooperation. Its discussions this year are organized along nine thematic tracks, including energy transitions, youth mobilization and nature-based solutions. The meeting is a sort of carbon-based beauty pageant, showcasing successful and ambitious programs to address climate change. Its goal is to disseminate lessons learned, and spur others to action.
In a bold move, Secretary-General António Guterres has announced that some nations supporting the expansion of coal plants will not be permitted to speak at the summit. These include large economies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea. Other climate laggards, such as the United States and now Brazil, will be similarly denied a platform. By denying some nations the opportunity to participate, the summit will have a stronger normative dimension, sending the message that governments are either part of the problem or part of the solution.
The gathering probably will have other indirect effects as well. These types of meetings serve as what political scientist Sidney Tarrow calls a “coral reef” for activists, offering networking and lobbying opportunities. By mobilizing civil society, U.N. meetings also enable nations to signal their publics’ preferences on the issues being discussed. Further, national NGOs can pressure U.N. agencies to try to sway laggard nations — what political scientists Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink call a “boomerang effect” that connects civil society advocates across nations, using the United Nations as the intermediary. Finally, summits like this one can help boost the world body’s relevance and legitimacy, by serving as a convener for such a diverse group of governments, NGOs and others.
The summit shows the limits of multilateralism
Some will criticize the summit as all talk and no action. They’re partly correct — but that is by design.
Since its inception, the summit has been convened by the secretary general, with no legal mandate from member states. According to the first secretary general, Trygve Lie of Norway, the post is “the most impossible job in the world.” He (and it has always been a man) must walk a very precarious balance between serving member states and acting as moral entrepreneur, using his bully pulpit to push for new norms and priorities.
Of course, legal mandates matter little in comparison to what scientists have identified as the enormity of the climate crisis. Beyond the U.N. Climate Summit, the real question is how quickly the world can decarbonize. A landmark report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, with additional massive reductions in other greenhouse gases, if the world is to have a real shot at limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which will mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change.
The summit isn’t the only game in town
Beyond the U.N. summit, a lot of climate politicking will be underway this week in New York. Climate Week continues, organizing its events under the summit’s thematic categories. On Friday, Climate Strike NYC gathered youths to march through Lower Manhattan. The city’s public school system gave all 1.1 million students the green light to skip classes to attend. The worldwide Climate Strike is the brainchild of youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, who began striking every Friday outside the Swedish Parliament last year, demanding action on the climate crisis — and has ignited a global youth movement.
Also look for Extinction Rebellion, another direct action group that has sprouted chapters worldwide to demand change. The Sunrise Movement is working with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and others to push a Green New Deal through Congress and into action in the United States. The Democratic Party dedicated a full seven hours to debating climate policy on Sept. 4.
Although Guterres will keep trying to coax governments and others into action on climate change, the real momentum is now elsewhere. The Paris agreement is falling short of its promises. CO2 emissions are on the rise. Expect to see more people in the streets and more forceful voices calling for more than summits.
Jessica F. Green (@greenprofgreen) is an associate professor in political science at the University of Toronto.