The United Nations Climate-Change Conspiracy Theory—the idea that human-caused global warming is a false construct invented by the U.N. to justify government control of economies and people's daily lives—is alive and well in the United States.
The flames of the theory were freshly fanned last month after the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a landmark report concluding with 95 percent scientific certainty that burning fossil fuels are warming the planet, with dangerous consequences.
The report "proves that the U.N. is more interested in advancing a political agenda than scientific integrity," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., author of the book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Inhofe is far from alone. Around the country, Republican lawmakers, bloggers, and even some local TV weathercasters panned the report as further evidence of the U.N.'s plans to use allegedly false climate data to justify a global takeover.
So what do the U.N.'s top officials make of this?
In an interview last week, I asked Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, about the conspiracy theory. By phone from her office in Bonn, Germany, she initially laughed at the question.
"I'm serious, this is a real thing," I said. "Are you aware of this?"
"Yes," she responded, still laughing.
"Is this happening anywhere else in the world?" I asked her.
"No!" she said. Figueres added, "Here's the simple truth. The U.N. does not do anything that its member countries don't want to do. Period. There is no such thing as the U.N. being a super-national authority imposing anything on governments. It just doesn't exist. Syria is the clearest example of that. It's about what the countries decide to do. All the U.N. does is provide a platform for conversations and an exchange of views.… But there's no such thing as the U.N. imposing any regulation."
Figueres acknowledged that the climate-change conspiracy theory has been key to slowing and blocking action on climate change in the world's biggest economy and historically largest polluter. "It's very unfortunate that climate change has been politicized in the U.S." But she said that lately she's had reason to be heartened. Figueres has heard about tea-party groups who are so skeptical of the government they've gone off the electric grid and installed solar panels. "That's actually a welcome development!" she said.
"We're moving into a fascinating future where every one of our homes and buildings will produce the energy those buildings need. We won't depend on a corporations or government to produce energy. That's an exciting future, and I begin to see the seeds of that in the U.S and it's very encouraging—the 'Green Tea Party.' "
Still, the conspiracy theorists will have more fodder over the coming year, as U.N. officials work toward forging a historic, legally binding global-warming treaty in Paris in 2015. Next fall in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, world leaders will offer up their terms for the treaty: taxes and regulations on the fossil-fuel industries, paired with fresh spending on green technologies and adaptation to the new climate reality. Those proposals will then go into a draft treaty, to be written in Lima, Peru, at a U.N. summit in late 2014.
One controversial new concept that's expected to be part of the treaty negotiations is the setting of a "carbon budget"—the maximum number of tons of carbon pollution that could be emitted globally before the planet tips into a catastrophic level of warming—which U.N. scientists say will happen at 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The U.N. IPCC panel estimates that budget at 1 trillion metric tons of carbon—a cap scientists estimate we'll hit sometime in the next 30 years. Figueres said the carbon-budget concept adds fresh urgency to the call for governments to put forward aggressive carbon-cutting proposals. "The carbon budget clearly is one part of the time equation. We are definitely running out of time. The window to the 2 degrees is not closed but it's closing. We're called upon to truly increase speed and scale," she said.
The biggest challenge in forging a successful U.N. climate treaty, she said, will be to create binding legal commitments requiring countries to cut fossil-fuel pollution without halting economic growth, particularly in the world's most rapidly developing economies. In the coming years, China and India in particular hope to lift billions of people out of poverty and into the middle class, which means putting billions of new cars on the road and heating and lighting billions of new homes with electricity. As those economies grow, she said, they'll need to "leapfrog" past the traditional fossil-fueled development path taken by the U.S. before them and somehow achieve economic growth without the attendant growth in global-warming pollution.
To that end, she said she's encouraged by recent major shifts in the domestic climate policies of the world's two biggest polluters—the U.S. and China. Historically, the standoff between the two economic superpowers, neither of whom wished to act independently to curb their fossil fuel consumption, has been the chief hurdles to achieving a global treaty. But in recent months, leaders of both nations have rolled out historic new climate-change policies. President Obama announced plans to use the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants—a move which could freeze construction of coal plants and eventually lead to the closure of existing ones—while China has launched a pilot cap-and-trade program in seven provinces.
Both sides are motivated by forces other than achieving a U.N. treaty. In China, where thick coal pollution has contributed to thousands of deaths, health problems, and anti-government riots, officials are chiefly motivated by clearing the air locally. In the U.S., Obama is motivated by what his advisers say is a sincere desire to take action to save the planet—but also, in part, by choosing policy actions that could build his legacy over the long term.
"I see a China that is moving forward very, very seriously," she said. "They're talking about a national emission-trading scheme. Three of the most populous cities have banned coal burning around the city—not for global warming but because of the health impact."
Of President Obama, she said, "He is revamping his commitment to this issue. Obama understands that when the pages of history are written, the question will be, what did the U.S. president do on climate change? This is the long-term challenge of his presidency. He is aware of that and committed to have the U.S. contribute to the solution."
But she concluded with a familiar refrain: It's still not enough. Of Obama's plan to regulate coal plants, she said, "It certainly begins to itemize where the U.S. can begin to contribute to the solution … but I don't think the U.S. or any country is at the maximum level of contributions they can make. The sum total of all the parts on the table is not enough."