Friday, May 23, 2008

UNESCO, Energy and Climate Change

On Monday, James Connaughton, the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, spoke to the members of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO on the topic of "Energy and Climate Change". He stated that global warming and increased concentration of greenhouse gases are both occurring, and that scientists generally agree that mankind is contributing substantially to the buildup of greenhouse gases, and thus to global warming.

He projected the very desirable economic growth in the developing world, and noted the very major difficulty that if the world is to hold global warming to acceptable levels, the developing countries are going to have to make major changes in technology, since their current energy and agricultural technologies are "heavy" in the sense that they produce a lot of greenhouse gas per unit economic production. Even were the developed countries to achieve huge improvements in emissions, that effort would not be enough; were the improvements in developed nations emissions to be achieved by the transfer of greenhouse-gas intensive production activities to developing countries without the transfer to clean technologies in those developing countries, there would be no net gain for the reduction of global warming.

Mr. Connaughton also emphasized that the current emphasis on global climate change had had the unfortunate side effect of diverting the attention of policy makers from other environmental problems, such as water and air quality (and I would add desertification, loss of tropical forests, pollution, etc.)

Mr. Connaughton stressed that if we are to succeed in limiting climate change (and other environmental problems), the key limitation will be political will in developing nations, since we have adequate technology for the job. He also said that a critical problem was a major lack of understanding of the size and nature of the task before mankind.

In short, there is a major educational challenge for the world, to build the environmental literacy and numeracy needed to generate the political will to solve the problems leading to global warming and environmental deterioration. The effort is urgently needed, and must continue for generations.

Surprisingly, given that the talk was made to the National Commission for UNESCO, Mr. Connaughton did not make the further inference publicly that UNESCO was a logical entity to lead in the educational effort, building that public understanding and support. Obviously, UNESCO is the lead agency within the United Nations system for both education and communications and information. It leads in the natural science programs needed to develop appropriate understanding of the causes and remedies of global warming and other environmental problems, and the social science leadership needed to measure the success in changing knowledge and understanding of environmental problems.

If the White House really believes Mr. Connaughton's presentation, as does the author of this posting, then it should support a serious effort to expand UNESCO's program focusing on the environmental sustainability of economic development.

I spoke briefly with Ambassador Oliver after the talk, and she emphasized that that kind of an initiative would be a very appropriate one for a public-private cooperative approach. Voluntary contributions, both financial and in kind, would be a powerful stimulus to the development of such an effort on the part of UNESCO.

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