Debunking the U.N. Climate-Change Conspiracy

National Journal
Justice Gilpin-Green and Coral Davenport
Oct. 21, 2013, 12:55 p.m.

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.”

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