Report

United we stand: Reforming the UN to reduce climate risk

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United we stand

Climate risk poses a direct threat to the UN’s mission

Out of the ashes of World War II, the United Nations (UN) was founded to maintain global peace, rights and security. Today, the world is a dramatically different place. Since 1945 the UN has helped institutionalise human rights across the world, assisted millions of refugees fleeing persecution and built agreement to address emergent global challenges like climate change.

These successes are grounds for hope, not complacency. Since 1945, the risks to international peace and security have also transformed. Today, our international systems are faced with interconnected and increasingly prolonged periods of challenge and volatility. And climate risk is threatening the United Nation’s very mission to maintain peace, rights and security.

Peacebuilding efforts are unravelling where communities compete for access to climate stressed food and water supply. People are migrating from resource depressed climates in search of stability and challenging the UN’s ability to deliver humanitarian aid at scale. And amidst multiple crises, the capacity to prioritise fundamental pillars of UN governance such as human rights and international law is thinly spread.

United We Stand is released as the race for the new Secretary General gets underway. The new UNSG must radically reform the UN to make it fit for purpose in a climate changed world or see its core mission undermined.

The UN has a legacy of innovation and reform

The UN has consistently reformed to keep pace with global change. Creating new institutions to improve oversight, such as the 1957 establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Responding to reform challenges, such as that posed by NGOs in the early 1990’s  which led to the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. And accommodating new global threats such as the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992.

However, by 2015 climate impacts were not a future threat but a contemporary reality presenting an existential future threat if not reduced. During 2015 three agreements came together to mark a turning point in the fight to tackle climate change. Firstly, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction offered a toolkit for reducing the risks of extreme weather events. Secondly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formed the 2030 Agenda explicitly recognising that there is no sustainable development without addressing climate change. And finally the Paris Climate Agreement kicked off an iterative process to build climate resilience and achieve net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the second half of the century.

By the end of 2015, the global consensus for acting on climate change had transformed. The 2015 mandate has implications for each and every UN institution, country, sector and community.

UN reform to manage climate risk will help maintain peace, rights and security

Today the UN system has a choice to make. It can either implement the 2015 mandate or face the impacts of worsening crises which will eventually inhibit the UN from fulfilling its core mission to maintain peace, rights and security.

The 2015 mandate provides a lever for UN reform. The UN must stress-test its operations against climate risk and address the risk and responsibility gaps in international climate risk management. As the histories of other regimes demonstrate, this will require institution building to accelerate learning and award sufficient prioritisation to the task. The following 6 recommendations offer a vision of achievable reform by 2020.

1.      An independent oversight body to assess climate risk management

2.      Allocated internal capacity in each UN institution to manage operational exposure to climate risks
 
3.      A political initiation and prioritisation function for urgent climate risk reform

4.      Expansion of the research base and monitoring of climate tipping points

5.      All UN institutions and large operating partners to annually disclose their exposure to climate risk

6.      UN institutions annually engage in climate risk data, analysis and methodology feedback

The United Nations is the best tool the world has to maintain international peace, rights and security. These recommendations mark the beginning of a complex and iterative set of reforms to protect the UN’s operations against climate risks. These reforms are in reach, it is now up to the international community to make its choice – will the UN become fit for purpose in a changing climate?

Read the full report United We Stand here [PDF 2.1Mb]