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Copenhagen: ‘tis the season for UN reform

By Thom Woodroofe - posted Tuesday, 22 December 2009

With the Copenhagen climate negotiations a largely disappointing exercise, the United Nations has yet again become a “punching bag” for the world to take out its frustration.

When the UN Charter was signed in 1945 the world was undeniably a different place.

Today, however, the world’s most effective multilateral gathering is not the UN General Assembly. It is the Olympic Games. No other forum brings together every state in the world to play fairly according to a set of recognised rules and expectations.


Maybe we should have held a Climate Olympics?

If that were the case, Norway would have won gold with its target to reduce carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 based on 1990 levels. Switzerland would have follow closely with silver and Japan with bronze. Most countries would have finished far, far behind. Some did not even arrive at the starting blocks.

All this doesn’t mean the UN is dead in the water just yet though.

If anything Copenhagen will at least shine a light on the need for the UN to seriously begin down the path of reform and, more importantly, determine its purpose in the world today. There should not be a greater catalyst than the effective failure of the world to act on what Prime Minister Rudd has termed “the greatest moral challenge of our generation”.

In reality, the UN cannot shoulder the entire burden of a collective reluctance to act on climate change. After all, the organisation is actually a gathering of sovereign states with their own interests and agendas. As we have seen with responses to climate change, individual states have hijacked the agenda over collective efforts.

In the United States for instance, Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations has spoken of a polarising debate on whether action here will drive other countries to the bargaining table and not on the substance of the question.


Back in Australia, the situation is not that different.

The Liberal Party has recently installed a leader who has called the science of climate change “absolute crap”, but who has said he would act if the United States does. In the process the Liberals have dumped a moderate leader in Malcolm Turnbull, committed to action and who squeezed $7 billion in additional compensation out of the government’s emissions trading scheme.

There is an ongoing international starting contest going on here that will continue beyond Copenhagen. Australia will wait for the United States, who will wait for developed countries like China and India, who will wait for the United States.

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About the Author

Thom Woodroofe, 21, is a foreign affairs analyst combining journalism, research, teaching and community work to advance an understanding of Australia's place in the world.

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