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January-February 2011

Vol. 36, No. 1


UN Climate Change Conference: 50-50-50

You, O God, are the Holy One who gathers us together in the womb of our earth. This is a beautiful and poetic opening sentence to the prayer in the People’s Companion to the Breviary for the morning of January 1. On the first day of the New Year humanity is reminded that it is one species stemming from a common origin intimately connected to the Earth. Implied is the destiny of all who emerge from the womb: To grow and develop.

Part of the early development of humanity was awakening to consciousness of the future. As humanity sharpened its sense of the future, it universally developed a sense of hope for a better future for its offspring. Everywhere touching stories are told of parents who sacrifice for their children’s future. This basic human characteristic continues to evolve. Today it takes the form of a pull toward thinking as a species for the well-being of whole generations of future children. Unfolding along side of this is the knowledge that the well-being of the next generations will be dependent on a healthy and flourishing Planet Earth. Just as at a certain point a child must care for its mother, humanity, which has degraded the Earth in recent decades, must now care for it as it would care for the womb from which it emerged.

Attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico in December 2010 heightened the sense of where humanity has been and provided a peek at where it may be headed. Regarding the distant past, the meeting was held near ancient ruins where the Mayan civilization developed and flourished. At the conference though, it was the future that most impinged upon consciousness. First of all, from all countries a cross-section of humanity was present. In this great mix, labels of developed and undeveloped peoples were not easily apparent. Rather, those present were fundamentally characterized by thinking into the future for the well-being of generations of humanity yet to be conceived. The immediate past, with its over-exploitation of resources, stood as witness to the need to create a future that uses resources sustainably, so that the whole human species may go ahead in dignity and prosperity.

Fifty-fifty-fifty! These are the words used repeatedly in Cancun by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. They articulate the direction of the human course if future generations are to find themselves born onto a planet that is hospitable. The meaning is stark. By 2050 the global population will have increased by 50 percent, bringing it up to nine billion people. For life to be tolerable, greenhouse gas emissions will have to be cut by 50 percent below the 1990 level. A second phrase constantly reiterated was, “Building low-carbon economies.” The last phrase that characterized the conference was, “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” On top of the mythos engendered by these phrases were continuous hard work and frank negotiations. Fortunately, China and the United States were more conciliatory than most people had thought possible. India came forward as a brilliant, competent leader and the conference preparation by Mexico was unquestionably excellent.

Conference President Dr. Patricia Espinosa was efficient and diplomatic; she demanded complete transparency of the conference participants and led the negotiations with dexterity and finesse. The new Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Dr. Christina Figueres, proved herself to be an apt spokesperson for a united and focused conference outcome. She challenged everyone to invest in a safer, healthier, more prosperous world.

The most noteworthy achievement of the conference was to “solidify the role of the United Nations at the center of international policy and cooperation moving forward”: Countries’ greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets are definitively under the UNFCCC process.

Greater transparency in emissions reporting by all countries is ensured. A Green Climate Fund to help facilitate financial support to developing countries was established. (See Reflections on the Cancun Agreements.) For a summary of outcomes see the UNFCCC December 11 press release.

The agreements that were reached at Cancun do not of themselves guarantee the future. What they accomplish is a step forwards … a step, not a giant step! Nevertheless, the capacity for working together as one human family was strengthened. A reasonable foundation was established for building up, higher as it were, towards a better horizon for all. True, a colossal amount of work will have to be done in order to fill in the gaps of the present Agreement; however, the direction set is hopeful.

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