By Michael Shank and Julia Trezona Peek

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Climate change is the most complex challenge the United Nations has faced since its founding 70 years ago in 1945. It is the ultimate transnational, trans-boundary threat, more pervasive and destructive than pandemics or terrorism. It undercuts every mission of the UN, from peace and health to development and trade. It is not confined to regions or concrete events, but rather exerts a constant force that is transforming the globe. With 2014 as the hottest year on record,  the threats from climate change are growing quickly. As this chapter will show, the UN will need to step up its game in order to effectively address these myriad challenges. Climate change is at the nexus of everything. Take a look:

Climate change is a health issue. Food, water, and animal-borne diseases and pandemics will spread more rapidly as the planet warms, as the World Health Organization and World Food Programme are already realizing. Ongoing environmental degradation, natural disasters, and extreme weather events, which are on the rise as a direct consequence of climate change, will result in serious health implications, as sewer and sanitation systems are compromised, healthcare services are hampered, and fresh food and water are less readily available. Already, 52 percent of the world’s agricultural land is moderately or severely degraded from climate-induced drought and desertification. Additionally, global warming is ushering in hotter days and scorching heat waves, which will increase heat strokes and dehydration, and poor air quality, ground-level ozone and allergens, which will take a huge toll on public health. This is just the beginning.

Climate change is also a human rights issue. It is already creating millions of refugees annually, and the numbers will only get worse. In 2013, over 22 million people were displaced by climate change-related disasters, far more than the amount of people displaced by wars. In the next three decades, the world will see an estimated 150 million climate refugees. With more refugees displaced from climate-related food and water insecurity, resource scarcity, and extreme weather events, the fight over land and water will assuredly lead to more conflict and violence. And while climate change is a growing concern for UN bodies like UN High Commissioner for Refugees, it will need to be a priority concern in the near future.

Climate change is a security issue. Already causing conflict, climate crises will increase violence around the globe. Whether it’s sea level rise consuming entire countries or the struggle over food, water and resources, climate change is producing humanitarian crises and threatening member states’ security. As the U.S. Pentagon notes, climate change-induced threat multipliers will aggravate “poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions” and cause “conditions that can enable terrorist activity.” Most saliently, it is exacerbating and escalating current conflicts in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, North Africa and the Horn, and beyond. From Yemen, which is running out of water, to Bangladesh, which is being imperiled by too much water and flooding, violence and conflict are on the rise thanks to global warming.

Climate change is a development issue, as the 7.2 billion global population soars to over 8.1 billion persons by 2025  and 9.6 billion persons by 2050. As the UN Development Programme knows well, affording the entire international community the right to achieve and fulfill their human potential will be costly in terms of environmental resources and increasingly difficult given climate change’s impact on available natural resources. Americans, who emit over 17 metric tons of greenhouse gases per person per year (among the highest in the world), must switch to renewable energy and adopt leaner patterns of consumption. Developing nations like China and India (who emit around 6 tons and 2 tons per capita, respectively) will need to pursue a path of sustainable development that raises standards of living while keeping emissions low.

The UN’s initial response to the aforementioned climate impacts was to set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. Bringing together the world’s top scientists, this body produces the best science on climate change. Its assessments detail the current state of climate change, the projected impacts under different emissions scenarios, and summaries for policymakers. Shortly after the IPCC’s formation, UN member states signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to establish parameters for greenhouse gas reductions, climate finance, and other climate change-related policies. And since 1995, nations have convened annually for the UN’s “Conference of the Parties,” or COPs, to make agreements on climate action.

These UN agreements have spurred nations to decrease the rate of emissions, yet the world has not taken the necessary steps to achieve the steep emissions cuts required. IPCC scientists have warned that temperatures must not warm more than two degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In order to stay within the 2-degree target, the world must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70 percent by 2050,  a target the world is not close to meeting. More action is critical.

The good news is that the 2014 UN-sponsored COP in Lima, Peru, marked the first time all nations agreed to cut their emissions.  Each nation’s voluntary plan of action in response to climate change, or their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), will be submitted in 2015 prior to COP21 in Paris, France. Some nations’ contributions will include finance for mitigation (i.e. reducing emissions) and adaptation (i.e. coping with the effects of climate change), and others will only include plans for emissions reductions. But every nation, for the first time, will be expected to contribute something.

This positive momentum, however, is not free of obstacles. An ongoing point of friction in the negotiations is whether or not richer developed nations, who created the majority of archived emissions, will help developing nations mitigate and adapt to climate change. Since poorer nations will not be able to pay for climate-related disasters, such as billion-dollar floods and storms, rich nations have an opportunity to fix a problem that they largely created. To begin, these nations can make substantial contributions to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which was set up by member states at the COPs to provide financing and program support to help developing countries cope with climate change.  The fund received its first $10 billion in Lima, and nations have committed to mobilizing $100 billion annually by 2020. The UNFCCC’s current chair, Christiana Figueres, has noted that trillions of dollars will be needed.  Rich nations should take note.

As the international community aims for an ambitious climate deal at COP21 in Paris in December 2015, the UN has an opportunity to adopt new policies, platforms, and principles to more effectively tackle climate change. While we need to get Paris right, it will not be the panacea some expect. Regardless of the Paris outcome, the UN system needs a comprehensive approach to climate change and this chapter outlines several key recommendations for this reform.

The chapter begins with a section on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will replace the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and provide a robust platform from which the UN can effectively address climate change. The chapter’s subsequent two sections deal with the security implications of climate change. Climate change has been recognized around the globe as a threat multiplier and, as such, should be integrated into the agenda of the UN Security Council (UNSC). The outdated Permanent Five (P5) veto-wielding membership of the UNSC should be transformed to deal with climate change and better reflect the political realities of the 21st century. The chapter’s final section argues that the UN must cultivate more transparent and accountable partnerships with civil society and the private sector in order to achieve a lasting impact on climate change. Civil society must have more than an ornamental role in UN deliberations, and with strong oversight the UN can harness the power of the private sector to fund and innovate climate solutions. Adhering to these recommendations will strengthen the UN’s capacities across the entire system and will give the international community a much-needed boost to fight climate change.


“Sustainable development is the central drama of our time. In many ways, humanity has squandered the time it once had to adjust to environmental realities. Now our backs are up against the wall.” – Dr. Jeffrey Sachs

One of the most comprehensive tools the United Nations has to combat climate change is the Sustainable Development Goals. As the world’s population continues to climb, sustainable development is the only way it will be possible to raise the standard of living for billions of people without creating catastrophic climate shifts. As previously stated, according to the UN Population Division, in 2014 the world’s population surpassed 7.2 billion people. By 2025, the global population is projected to hit 8.1 billion and by 2050 it will be at a staggering 9.6 billion people.

In the context of climate change, this population growth poses an enormous challenge. Going forward, no nation will be able to employ business-as-usual energy use without creating cataclysmic climate shifts. Developing nations, who are trying to provide their citizens with the same levels of wealth, industrialization, and consumption of the developed world, will need to employ a qualitatively different development agenda. And rich nations will need to scale back resource and energy use substantially. The Sustainable Development Goals paint that alternative path forward, showing how nations can develop in ways that respect the climate and resource constraints of the planet, while also providing the energy, resources, and services needed by billions of people around the world.

The fundamental purpose of the goals, which will be ratified by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 and take effect in 2016, is to “ensure the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations.” Ideally, the goals will work in concert with UNFCCC agreements, providing a comprehensive guide to sustainable growth.

As of early 2015, a UN working group had proposed 17 goals and 169 targets. Excerpted and edited, the goals  are to: 1) end poverty, 2) end hunger and achieve food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture, 3) ensure healthy lives and promote well-being, 4) provide education for all, 5) achieve gender equality for women and girls, 6) ensure water access and sanitation, 7) provide access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable modern energy, 8) promote sustainable economic growth with full employment and decent work, 9) build resilient infrastructure and promote sustainable industrialization, 10) reduce inequality, 11) make human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, 12) ensure sustainable consumption and production, 13) combat climate change and its impacts, 14) conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources, 15) promote sustainable use of land ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss, 16) promote peaceful and inclusive societies and strengthen institutions of justice, and 17) strengthen the global partnership for sustainable development.

To have any chance of combating climate change the world must adopt these SDGs. They are critical to combating climate change because they constitute a re-imagination of the nature of development and take a long, holistic view on what defines sustainability. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which were targeted primarily at poor countries, the SDGs apply to every nation. As nations prepare for Paris, member states should be thinking about how to integrate their INDCs and the SDGs.

For example, empowering women and girls (via Goal 5), helps to lower birth rates and leads to more sustainable population growth. Sustainable forest and land management (Goal 15) will increase carbon sinks and earth’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. And changing consumption patterns (Goal 12) to be less resource intensive, especially when it comes to diets, will take a huge bite out of overall global greenhouse gas emissions.

But most importantly, as nations pledge to meet the SDGs, it will be crucial that existing energy infrastructure is transformed and new energy infrastructure moves the world towards its emissions goals, not away from them. Energy is the game-changer on climate and development. Approximately 1.5 billion people have no access to electricity; another 1 billion have unreliable electricity and 3 billion use unsafe biomass stoves for cooking and heating. These energy needs can be met by decentralized renewable energy, which is poised to provide more cost-effective and reliable sources of energy than large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure, especially for rural areas without power. Off-grid solar has brought cheap electricity to 3 million households in Bangladesh. Micro-hydropower has successfully electrified homes in remote Nepal and led to an average 8 percent increase in annual household income.

Pursuing this path allows developing nations to leapfrog old technology by skipping extensive fossil fuel infrastructure and avoiding the cost of switching to renewable energies down the line. It also gets the world closer to meeting its emissions goals, a true win-win. The GCF has a role to play here as well. As of early 2015, it had not adopted a formal policy forbidding funding that directly or indirectly supports fossil fuel projects. For the GCF to be consistent with the SDGs, it is essential for it to institute strict parameters on funded projects.

Funding this renewable energy revolution will require mobilizing massive amounts of capital and adopting two key policies will make that much easier: a carbon tax and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has called for both in order to create an economy that advantages sustainable development and penalizes polluting growth.  The UN Global Compact, a consortium of businesses committed to supporting principles in human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption work, also issued a statement that recommends the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and the establishment of subsidies for clean and renewable energy.  Member states could implement these two policies to lay solid groundwork for the SDGs in 2016.

Lastly, it is worth noting that a transition to sustainable development helps address other UN goals by targeting root causes of violent conflict. Unmet basic human needs for shelter, food, safety, and agency create fertile ground for instability and insecurity. Climate change poses a significant threat to stability and peace, as the next section will elucidate. Elevating the SDGs and climate change to primary importance on the global UN agenda will be an evolution in the understanding of security.


“U.N. Security Council must act preemptively on climate change. A concerted international strategy, on par with the seriousness and scope of a UN Security Council resolution, is what’s needed to counter this climate crisis. The threat to international peace and security calls upon nothing less than the purview of the UN Security Council.” – U.S. Congressman Gregory Meeks

Climate change, as already discussed, is one of the most serious threats to peace and security faced by member states. Whether it’s the tens of millions of climate refugees fleeing natural disasters, sea level rise consuming whole countries, or violent conflict over food, water, and resource scarcity, climate change is producing humanitarian crises and threatening member states’ security. Given the gravity of the situation, climate change should be integrated into the agenda of the UN Security Council. This global threat requires a war-room mentality. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted, the threats posed and effects felt by climate change and by war are equal.

Climate change clearly falls within the UNSC mandate. Under Article 39 of the UN Charter, the Security Council maintains the right to identify threats to international peace and security and to devise means to counter these threats. More specifically, “the Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,”  and “takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression.” If the UNSC wants to be the lead arbiter of global peace and security, it must adopt the threat of climate change.

The UN Security Council veto-wielding member states are taking note. The U.S. Defense Department forecast in its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review that climate change has the capacity to exacerbate water scarcity, influence resource competition, and become a burdensome liability for economies, societies and institutions around the world.  These climate change-induced threat multipliers will aggravate “poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions” and cause “conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” The UK Ministry of Defence agrees in their Global Strategic Trends  analysis. The Defence Ministry forecasts that millions of people will be trapped in vulnerable areas, food and water shortages will be acute, resource scarcity will lead to increased tensions and conflict, and public health will be severely impacted, all due to climate change.

The UNSC should tackle the growing instability and insecurity caused by, and correlated with, climate change with the same urgency that drives the Council’s response to the violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Failure by the UNSC to proactively intervene in climate conflict in its early stages brings with it the risk of more expensive and intensive UNSC involvement further downstream in a conflict that has metastasized into uncontrollable violence and chaos.

The banner of “Responsibility to Protect” that the UNSC often uses to justify military interventions is equally, if not more, relevant in countries impacted by climate change. Island nations, such as Palau and the Maldives, face warlike scenarios from flooding and sea level rise, something that has yet to register on the radars of the Security Council’s five permanent (P5) veto-wielding members: China, Russia, United States, the United Kingdom, and France. This is why the Alliance of Small Island States has been so vocal at the UN.  Putting climate change on the UNSC mandate, however, will not automatically help island states. The P5 could be reluctant to pursue carbon caps and sanctions for non-compliance. Their emissions remain some of the highest in the world, with the U.S., China and Russia dominating top emitter rankings. For small island states and less powerful nations to have fair representation and protection at the UNSC, P5 politics must be overcome. It is incumbent upon the Security Council, which has a responsibility to protect weaker member states, to step up sooner rather than later.

Time is not on the international community’s side. The costs of continued inaction are growing. Release of the Arctic’s methane from thawing permafrost, for example, could cost the global economy $60 trillion in climate-related disasters. UN member states are already individually paying heavily, with the U.S. forking over $136 billion in 2012 for cleanup costs and China running an equally costly billion-dollar tab from sea level rise and climate change-fueled storm waves. Ancillary costs from climate conflict are mounting as well. Syria’s devastating drought, exacerbated by global warming and essential in sowing the seeds of civil unrest, as well as the prospect that an already unstable Yemen will run out of a water in the coming years, are illustrative of the incredibly costly and volatile nature of climate conflict. Global warming will continue to wreak havoc in unstable environments, from heavily populated and flood-prone Bangladesh to the tsunami- and-typhoon stricken islands of Southeast Asia.

The international community should expect these insecure environments to become more volatile and restive regions to destabilize. Climate change will increasingly be the catalyst, turning what would otherwise be normal stressors into violence and spiraling violent situations into chaos. The UN Security Council must countenance these rising human and environmental costs if it is to adhere to its mission of identifying threats to international peace and security.  But for the UNSC to effectively tackle global warming, the traditional response mechanisms, characterized by sanctions and military interventions, will be of marginal use.

Preventive approaches to climate change require a much more sophisticated set of tools, which can complemented by a stronger partnership with the UN’s Economic and Social Council, since much of the preventive and preemptive work involves changes to social and economic systems. This is also where the UN’s adoption and implementation of the SDGs becomes paramount, as they will be an essential asset in the Security Council fight against climate conflict and violence. Provided the UNSC considers integration of climate conflict into its mandate, it will require significant restructuring, as the next section will show. This restructuring is long overdue and has been requested by emerging economies for some time.


“The challenges we face have become more complex given the wide range of new and emerging threats to international peace and security. We therefore need to reform the Security Council, in particular, to make it more representative, effective and efficient.” – UN General Assembly President (69th Session) Sam Kutesa

The conversation around general UN reform is not new, nor is the more specific conversation on the need for reform within the UN Security Council. Geopolitics has shifted substantially since the power-brokers of the 1940s first constructed the UNSC.  There is a growing international consensus that allowing only five of the UN’s total 193 members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – to have a permanent and veto-wielding seat is unfair, unjust and ill suited to the present-day needs of the United Nations.

The current self-selected P5, victors after World War II when the UN Charter was created, remain military powerhouses in terms of defense expenditures, exports and imports.  As a consequence, security definitions and responses are generally limited to military action. This understanding and definition of security, however, is becoming outdated and produces no progress on climate action. The outmoded P5 demarcation becomes increasingly burdensome when it comes to tackling climate-related conflict more aggressively.

As climate threats become more transnational, trans-boundary and non-state in nature, restructuring the UNSC will make it better suited to counter them. The unprecedented and unparalleled threat to peace posed by climate change demands a redefinition of security within the UNSC and a reformulation of the P5.

There have been calls to expand the current P5 to include emerging countries and economic powerhouses, such as Brazil, Germany, India and Japan.  These arguments are buttressed primarily by the economic prowess of aforesaid countries, not by their contributions to UNSC military interventions. Economic growth, however, should not be a driving factor for inclusion in the UN Security Council as socio-economic indicators are more relevant for leadership within the UN Economic and Social Council. Any Security Council reform, instead, should incorporate countries that have already heavily contributed to climate change, nations that are now suffering from the devastating effects of climate change, and member-states capable of helping the UNSC effectively counter this growing global threat to peace and security.

Climate appropriate P5s on the UNSC will better fulfill the mission and mandate of ensuring international peace and security. As the current P5 has been riddled with obstructionism, polarizing bias and nation-state political whimsy when it comes to traditional conflict intervention in the Middle East and North Africa, a more diversified and balanced composition within the larger 15-member body would go far in restoring faith in the UNSC.  One way of configuring the Security Council might be to aggregate an egalitarian mix of Annex I (states who were members of the Organization for Cooperation and Development, or OECD, in 1992 and economies in transition), Annex II (OECD countries responsible for financing emissions reductions activities in developing states), and Non-Annex countries (developing members), including the least developed nation states. Shaping a climate consensus in the UNSC, when addressing the associated security implications, will require a representative body of impacting and impacted nations. The Annex configuration above gets us closer towards that goal.

The current P5 should undoubtedly remain central to UNSC leadership structures as their contributions to climate change, climate mitigation and adaptation, and climate conflict cleanup are sizeable. But to leave out other top carbon emitters – such as India, Indonesia, Canada, South Korea, Germany, Mexico or Japan – or to leave out countries whose peace and security is most immediately impacted by climate conflict – such as Yemen, Bangladesh, Malawi, Sudan, Maldives, Micronesia or Palau – is to miss an opportunity to harness the collective will of the international community in tackling this century’s most sizable and sustained threat to peace and security.

Going forward, the choice is clear. A reformed UN Security Council will be more representative of a new mandate that counts climate change as the dominant threat to peace and security. It will also be responsive to the needs of climate-impacted countries and, due to its revised democratic structure, more mindful of member state emissions threatening global stability. A reformed UNSC would bring other benefits too. Presently, the P5 doesn’t have the collective buy-in of all UN member states and often acts alone, to the consternation of the entire General Assembly body. In a UNSC reformed to better represent climate change’s threats to peace and security, there comes with it the prospects of a coalition of the willing that is more invested in constructive outcomes than ever before.

A continuation of the UNSC status quo will only perpetuate the likelihood that Security Council actions will remain oriented towards smaller and more traditional security threats within one nation-state, and of interest to one or two nations within the P5 (e.g. Middle East, North Africa) instead of threats facing many nations (e.g. climate conflict). If UNSC P5 reform is not possible in the short-term (since it would require a ratification of the UN charter, a process that could be tedious and politically charged), a revised UNSC mandate that securitizes climate change is an essential first step. Then, at least, the UNSC will be equipped with the appropriate mandate to begin countering the international community’s biggest threat to peace and security.  And once this mandate is solidly in place, perhaps the necessary P5 reforms will become more politically palatable.


“I have invited leaders from government, business, finance and civil society to present their vision, make bold announcements and forge new partnerships that will support the transformative change the world needs.” – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

As the previous section demonstrated, the UN must expand and diversify participating parties in order to adequately address climate change. The challenges are too varied and too large for states alone and require a robust set of partnerships and continuous dialogue with nongovernmental organizations, civil society organizations (CSOs), foundations, businesses, and other networks and institutions. No stakeholder can be exempted from the climate conversation.

When it comes to tackling climate change, multi-stakeholder partnerships will need to cover all types  – service provision and implementation, knowledge transfer and standard setting – and will require sufficient financial and human resources, specific aims, common goals with concrete deliverables, clear communication, transparent and aggressive monitoring and oversight, and trust-building and dispute resolution processes embedded throughout. While much of this may seem obvious, these essential ingredients are often left out of many multi-stakeholder partnerships.

In mitigating the effects of global warming, it is important to note that partnerships will help circumvent governmental intransigence and can potentially produce better solutions by bringing all relevant parties to the table, particularly marginalized groups who suffer the most from climate change and poor development strategies. Too often civil society is not given a sufficient voice or the private sector holds too much sway. Without adequate participation, balanced power between asymmetrical parties, and strong mechanisms of transparency and accountability, partnerships can easily become ineffective, illegitimate, or even work contrary to their supposed goals.

The UN is working with civil society and the private sector to develop and implement the SDGs and fight climate change, but more work is needed to improve these partnerships. The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service has held a series of consultations with civil society networks on the development of the SDGs and submits reports to the Open Working Group (OWG), composed of member states tasked with preparing a proposal on the SDGs. The OWG also consults with different sectors of civil society, including women, indigenous peoples, labor, and local authorities via multi-stakeholder dialogues and other inclusive processes.  While it is commendable that the UN is reaching out, it is important to note that CSOs do not have any voting or decision-making power, only a consultative voice.

CSOs also lack decision-making power at the Green Climate Fund and consequently have little impact over how funds are disbursed to help developing nations handle mitigation and adaptation. While the GCF’s 24-member board is equally composed of developing and developed nations, civil society and the private sector hold only two observer seats each, one from the North and one from the South. In marginalizing CSO participation, some argue that the GCF misses an opportunity to become a true multi-stakeholder partnership along the lines of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations or the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.  These partnerships are highly effective  and have integrated civil society, private sector, foundations, and affected populations in governing, deliberating, and decision-making processes.

Under-representation ultimately affects civil society most. They have invaluable perspective on what is best for communities but lack the financial power and influence of the private sector to make their voices heard. A poorly empowered CSO also makes it difficult to keep the GCF (and other UN bodies) accountable and ensure that projects meet the needs of communities and not state or private sector interests. CSOs are very concerned, for example, that the GCF will fund fossil fuel projects, leading over three hundred civil society organizations to formally request that the GCF exclude the funding of fossil fuel projects. Without strict standards detailing the scope of climate finance, something voting CSOs could help enforce, the GCF could be derailed by self-interested and corrupt financing, and confirm the suspicion of CSOs that private-public partnerships open the door for the private sector to pursue their own interests. The UNGA and ECOSOC have also identified this problem and discussed the need for a facility “to examine the growing corporate influence over human development.”

Going forward, to ensure the effectiveness and legitimacy of public-private partnerships, strict mechanisms of transparency and accountability are essential. Without them, the UN risks witnessing not only ineffective partnerships, but also the degradation of the UN image by companies that primarily use the UN brand to improve corporate reputation.

The UN Global Compact (UNGC) provides an instructive example of the potential gap between the goals articulated by a partnership and the conduct of participating companies. The UNGC is the primary avenue for UN-private sector partnerships and is an initiative designed to mobilize businesses around “universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption.” The UNGC board, however, includes businesses from the oil and gas industries such as Petrobras, the seventh largest oil and gas company in the world.  Given that fossil fuels must be phased out in order to stay within safe temperature limits, the UNGC will need to rethink board commitments and standards. The UNGC should be working with its fossil fuel partners to either convert to renewable energy or rescind their UNGC affiliation. To maintain their credibility and adhere to their mission statement, the UNGC must push their members to adopt standards of conduct that contribute to, rather than undermine, the SDGs.

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) is one of the stronger examples of a partnership that is integrating actors from multiple levels and sectors of society.  A large network of academics, civil society, and the private sector with scientific and technical expertise, the SDSN is producing innovative and integrative solutions for climate change and sustainable development. The network has developed national plans for deep decarbonization, monitoring and implementation plans for the SDGs, and is working on financing mechanisms for the SDGs. It is also convening working groups around crosscutting themes like reducing poverty and building peace, as well as macroeconomics and planetary boundaries. Because the SDSN leadership is a mix of civil society, private sector, and academia, it is better positioned to produce solutions that are grounded in local realities and push forward both environmental sustainability and equity.

The UN is right to capitalize on partnerships with CSOs and the private sector to help deliver the best solutions and financing for sustainable development. This will only be possible, however, with meaningful participation from CSOs and strong oversight that ensures that state or private sector interests do not override the needs of communities. Partnerships may be difficult to do right, but they are essential in the climate fight.


In 2015, the United Nations will celebrate 70 years since the UN Charter first came into force on October 24, 1945. The UN-sponsored Conference of the Parties climate talks in Paris in December, just two months after the 70th Anniversary celebrations culminate, will test the UN’s ability to corral the international community on climate action. Irrespective of what states individually commit to in Paris, the UN should still integrate climate change into every major body within the UN system – from the Economic and Social Council to the Security Council and from the International Monetary Fund to the International Labor Organization. Only then will the international community be equipped to sufficiently slow global warming. The next 70 years at the United Nations will be the critical test, since warming could increase between 4 and 10 Degrees Fahrenheit within this century. If the UN can rise to this challenge, it will also achieve new relevance as a global problem solver and be able to beat back critics’ concerns regarding UN efficacy.

A new modus operandi is essential if the UN is to rise to this challenge. The expectation within the UN system that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will continue to be the primary broker of all climate-related matters must be retired. In this new paradigm, every committee, commission, board, council, panel, working group, agency and organization within the UN will have a role to play when it comes to preventing, adapting to and mitigating climate change. Whether it’s the World Health Organization dealing with the disabling health impacts from climate change, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees rescuing climate refugees fleeing from environments that have been made uninhabitable, or the World Food Programme addressing increasingly prevalent food and water security needs, this threat requires an all-hands-on-deck approach at the United Nations.

Equipping each body within the UN with a new mandate to integrate a climate change calculus into their mission, goals and objectives comes with additional benefits beyond tackling the growing climate crisis. The new mission and mandate will significantly bolster the initiative, innovation and importance at often-undervalued UN bodies, such as ECOSOC and civil society partner organizations. New partnerships between private and public sectors will greatly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the UN body as a whole.

A whole systems approach that coordinates and collaborates on climate change will also strengthen internal relationships, leading to more productive output on other non-climate issues, and enhance external relationships, leading to more relevance among publics not previously disposed to UN leadership. This evolution, which requires recognition that climate change permeates every issue area for the UN, has slowly begun at headquarters, but more integration is needed. There is no issue that is more than two degrees of separation from climate change.

Entering its next 70 years, the UN must serve as the coordinating body on climate if the world is to manage its development process sustainably and avoid a worst-case scenario. While treaty frameworks within the UNFCCC are essential, what is equally important is the integration of climate thinking into every aspect of the UN. Every employee should be trained to understand the impacts of climate change. Every agency should be oriented to tackle it. Every outcome should be connected to some aspect of it. Short of this, the UN will be ill equipped to counter the coming climate disruption. A comprehensive approach to climate change, in sum, will need to include not only the UN-sponsored Conference of the Parties, but also a UN-wide commitment to operationalizing sustainable development goals, a securitization of the concept of climate change, a restructuring of the Security Council, and a commitment to more accountable and transparent partnerships. This is the road ahead, and, while steep, it is absolutely necessary.

Michael Shank, PhD, is the Director of Media Strategy at Climate Nexus in New York City and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Shank previously served as a senior staffer in the U.S. Congress and is a senior fellow at the French American Global Forum and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict.  

Julia Trezona Peek, MSc, is an analyst on energy and the environment, climate change, and resource use. Peek’s graduate research at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution focused on environmental conflict and her columns appear regularly in US News & World Report, The Hill, Roll Call and Huffington Post.