How I Got Lost at the United Nations

In twenty-one years of work on sustainability, I have never before attended a UN meeting. Even when the big sustainability conferences happened (Rio ’92, Johannesburg ’02), I stayed home, content to keep working on projects that were more specific, less global. In fact, even though I lived in New York for years, on two occasions, I have never before set foot in the United Nations Secretariat building. So it is no wonder that I wandered around the Secretariat offices for half an hour looking for a specific conference hall. I’ll explain the meeting I was here to attend in a minute. First, here is how I got lost, and found again, on my way to a briefing for ministers and delegates on current climate science.

UN Headquarters in NY (from Wikipedia)

UN Headquarters in NY (from Wikipedia)

The UN is — obviously — very diverse. People of every sort, languages of every inflection swirl around you here. But in all that diversity, it was rather difficult to find someone who could tell me where I was supposed to go. “Go to the sixth floor ECOSOC conference room,” I had been told, only to find out that there was no such thing. (It did, however, seem possible to get a Ukrainian tranlsator on that floor. I must have mis-heard the instructions.) So I wandered here and there, kind people pointing me to various erroneous destinations. One elevator operator, once I finally got pointed in the right direction (ECOSOC is on the 2nd floor) told me that this could not be right, as I was not allowed to get off on that floor. Only delegates were. So he let me off on the 3rd floor, I found the chamber, entered the upstairs balcony, and then walked down the aisle stairs to the main floor. (I stepped over a high security velvet rope to do this). And there, in the main chamber, Katherine Richardson was already into her presentation.

Katherine is a marine scientist in Copenhagen who recently chaired the world’s largest gathering of climate scientists, ever. Over 2,500 of them met in March to update the state of the science on climate change, since the IPCC report was already five years out of date on publication. (The conference proceedings document will be available soon, and will be published in book form next year.)

The news, as I already reported, is not good. It sounded worse on second hearing. Indeed, it’s really quite bad news, even “worst” news, since the summary is this: global warming and its effects continue to happen, and they are following the IPCC’s “worst-case” scenarios. Or worse. Graphs from the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report that showed red and yellow danger zones have all seen those red and yellow bits grow, a lot. Katherine is really trying to hammer it home that 2 degrees warming “is not a goal.” Those big bars of red and yellow (reflecting the risk levels for things like water scarcity and storm intensity and regime changes in the way oceans circulate) have crept far over the 2 degree bar. Holding warming to 2 degrees C “cannot be said to be safe.” According to Katherine, this quite annoyed the Danish Prime Minister. Does that mean 2 degrees is dangerous? he asked. “No, that is not what we are saying,” Katherine reported the reply. “We’re saying we can’t say that it is safe.” (But as another colleague complained, neither could the scientists say that it was definitively unsafe — this is a classic science/policy communications problem.)

Daniel Kammen and Gavin Schmidt follow up with the latest news on what gains are possible using efficiency gains, renewables, etc. Hope, said their numbers, springs eternal. But the argument for a thorough and rapid transformation in our entire industrial base, economic policy rule book, consumer habits in the rich parts of the world, and ways of doing agriculture in the rest of the world (to name just a few things) have never been stronger.

The Q&A from the delegates, under way now, is lively — or at least as lively as it can be when half the participants are wearing those little plastic earphones, in order to hear in this cavernous hall with bad acoustics. Example: “Your presentation was optimistic,” says Youba Sokono, now in Tunisia running the Sahara and Sahel Observatory. “Because in your countries, you can do something, with renewables etc. But for me, it was pessimistic. Because my country, and countries like mine, cannot live with 2 degrees.” Their vulnerabilities are greater; they are already suffering; they have not yet built the energy systems from which to harvest efficiencies, limiting mitigation options, etc.

I could go on, and report Gavin Schmidt’s explanation for why some climate change is inevitable and adaptation a necessity, but most readers already know this. Instead, I will go on to the meeting I was here to attend.

Dubbed “A Conclave of Thought-Leaders on the Future of Sustainable Development,” it gathered twenty-plus people of very diverse backgrounds, from a prominent economist who criticizes the dominant growth paradigm (Steven Marglin of Harvard), to a pro-market booster who promotes “Climate Prosperity” programs (Marc Weiss of Global Urban Development), and very much in between, including leading scientists and engineers (C.S. Kiang of Beijing University), prominent civil society leaders (Ashok Khosla who now presides over the IUCN), experts who are also engaged on indigenous people’s issues (Aroha Mead, also of IUCN and a Maori from Aotearoa/NZ), etc. (As usual, I questioned my right to be there, but I was bearing my hat as president of the Balaton Group — a title I now happily share with Gillian Martin Mehers).

About our discussions … well, since this meeting is actually a work in progress, I will respect the boundaries of that discussion and say, “too soon to report.” But this “network of networks” seems very timely. There is so much happening in sustainability now, but it is very difficult to get a bird’s eye view on all of it, and on where we stand, as a world, on the sustainability agenda. This new group seems well-positioned to make a contribution in that regard.

Now the climate change session is ending, and I will have to find my way to another part of the building, where representatives of our group will brief the ministers, delegates, and sectoral representatives who are gathered for the Commission on Sustainable Development’s 17th meeting (CSD-17 in UN-speak). They’ll be presenting short reflections on the history of sustainable development, and the future, and I’ll be listening to the assembled folks think out loud together about where to go from here, as a world.

Wish me luck in finding my way through this maze. Wish us all luck.

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