The Biggest Event in 2009? A Non-event...

Yes, I believe that the most important event in 2009, and even for the whole decade, is what has been universally viewed as a resounding failure:the Copenhagen climate conference held in December.

A non-event.

The classic case of a mountain (the meeting of nearly 200 countries to discuss climate change and what to do about it) that has given birth to a mouse (an agreement with no deadlines, no strings attached - simply to continue to discuss the matter in Mexico this year and South Africa next year). Neither developed nor developing countries were happy with the result. The only country that walked out of Copenhagen feeling it had been a victory was China.

Surely other events in the decade have a better Claim at Shaping History: 11/09, the War on Terror, the Big Recession, Obama's election, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Gaza, Darfur etc etc. So why should a fiasco like the Copenhagen Conference be viewed as a milestone event?

For a very simple reason: it signals the return of the world's biggest polluters to the UN negotiation process. Remember what happened to the Kyoto Protocol? Nothing, precisely because America would have nothing to do with it.

And this time, is it going to be any better? You bet! First, nations have agreed to keep talking AND they're putting money behind all this talk: a long-term fund –$100 billion by 2020– has been set up to help developing nations transition to cleaner energy.

I can just hear you mumble that's all the United Nations is good for: talk, talk, talk and who knows when or how much money will ever come to help Bangladesh and all the others who need help when climate change hits them.

That's true, of course. Funds pledged in these international conferences don't always materialize. But a pledge is better than nothing, especially when the United Nations Secretariat is there to keep reminding member governments that they're supposed to cough up the money or else...

Or else, what?

Nothing, of course, except public shame. And for politicians, that's embarrassing. So, in addition to the UN Secretariat, the world press also needs to do its part and stay vigilent. Environmental NGOs, starting with Greenpeace, also must do their part. And you can bet they will. So there is actually a BIG momentum emanating from the Copenhagen Conference.

Might a bunch of prominent environmental NGOs banding together have achieved the same result as the United Nations? It's a thought, but the answer is no. Sure, they could have made a big splash in the press but - that's the point - they couldn't have involved governments. Not directly. Only the United Nations can effectively do that and that's why it's an important organization. That's why even a failed UN Conference remains important.

It all has to do with how the system works.

Actually very few people understand how the UN system works. I know because I've worked in it for 25 years, I've participated in several world conferences and organized a couple of regional ones (in Portugal and in Cyprus - more about that another time). When a journalist writes "the UN badly organized this Conference...", it shows he doesn't really understand the system. You may remember that accusation was repeatedly levelled at the UN in Copenhagen. Perhaps the UN Secretariat did not organize this particular Conference very well, I don't know, I wasn't there. But from my experience, I can tell you that the organization of a world conference is as much the responsibility of the host country as it is of the UN staff involved...

Because, come to think of it, the United Nations doesn't even EXIST!

To begin with, they're NOT united at all. The United Nations is NOT, repeat NOT remotely a world government, not even the beginnings of one. It is not a separate entity from its member nations.

What is it then? It's essentially a (glorified) MEETING place, or to use a UN term: a "forum" serviced by the UN Secretariat. And the secretariat is, as indicated by the name, a bunch of...secretaries, well no, more than that: they're people who know how to organize international conferences and provide the needed technical information to ensure that talks are not merely hot air.

OK, you'll tell me you know all this. Member nations meet at a UN Conference, sure, but what's the use? All they do is fight: developing countries vs. developed and now there's this new, highly vocal group in the melée, the famous BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China). In terms of climate change, these guys want to maintain their chance to develop the way Europe and America did, i.e. at the expense of the environment, and they can't understand why they should restrain themselves when developed countries never did and simply blew up the climate with their heavy footprints over the last two hundred years (what delicate metaphors!).

Result of all this? Predictably no agreement in Copenhagen.

But wait a minute.

Since this whole thing about climate started back in Sweden in 1972 (The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment), we've come a long way, baby.

Sure, it has taken time - over 30 years - partly because so many people were convinced the climate wasn't changing. That's where the United Nations made a smart move: in 1992, they put together a bunch of scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, and slowly, report after report, public opinion started to change and eventually everyone became convinced that there was a problem, that the planet as a whole was threatened.

This idea of putting together high level experts is very effective, and it is something the United Nations regularly does in all the areas where it functions: food and agriculture, industry, culture and education, health, science etc And every time there's a technical input into the UN talk process, it slowly but inexorably leads to the adoption of a set of rules to govern international relations. For example, countries can no longer dump poisonous pesticides on other countries, major cultural heritage sites are defended etc etc

But I can hear you: nobody agreed to anything in Copenhagen, no rules about emissions were adopted, it was a huge letdown! That's true but something did happen. A UN Conference can be deemed a real disaster only when government representatives don't listen to each other at all. And it happens more often than you think. A Head of State or Prime MInister flies in to deliver his/her speech which is strictly for home consumption and not for the people sitting in the Conference hall... and they fly off the next minute without engaging into the slightest dialogue. Now, there was much of that going on in Copenhagen, plus a lot of confusion and protest, but there was also some dialogue. Obama did talk to the Europeans, the Indians and the Chinese. And that's very, very important.

The ball has started rolling.

And you can count on the UN Secretariat to keep it rolling till the next meeting in Mexico, and the next after that. The UN process, even when it falters, keeps going, like that water dripping on a stalagmite in a grotto: drip, drip, drip and the stalgmite keeps growing, up, up, up.

That's what the UN Secretariat is paid for...

So, the UN is not a world government, but it's an irreplaceable place to talk about what really matters: human life on this earth - the only one we've got!