The 76th UNGA must focus on the climate crisis

The summit will deal with many pressing issues, but global warming is today's most destabilising problem

A recently released video by k-pop group BTS performing their song "Permission to Dance" in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) hall has garnered millions of views. It is intended to raise awareness ahead of the 76th annual meeting of UNGA, for which over 100 heads of government and state, in addition to many more officials, are gathered in New York this week. Fears over Covid-19 mean this year’s assembly has been scaled down, but it is the biggest global gathering of officials since the pandemic, as last year's UNGA was mainly virtual. Of course, the issues up for discussion are as big as ever.

Instability in the Middle East and further afield are at the forefront of the agenda and, as is often the case, risk dominating it. There are other, longer-term but nonetheless vital issues on the world’s plate. One is climate change. Keeping the environment at the top of delegates' minds is crucial. In a matter of weeks, the UK will hold the UN Climate Change Conference (Cop26), where countries are set to gather to discuss ways to achieve a zero-carbon future by 2050.

In an interview with The National, President of Cop26 Alok Sharma said that climate change is “the biggest security risk for the world”. And yet, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently expressed, determination to tackle the issue is flagging among countries with the biggest responsibility to do so. "It is the biggest economies in the world that are causing the problem, while the smallest suffer the worst consequences. And while progress is being made all over the world, the gulf between what has been promised, what is actually being delivered remains vast," Mr Johnson said.

Many of the countries with most to lose from international disengagement are smaller ones, unable to forge ahead on climate action without the initiative of larger economies. The Middle East's location already makes it an early flashpoint for many different environmental crises, including decreasing soil quality – a risk to food security – water shortages and rising summer temperatures. Of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world, 11 are in the Mena region. It is also warming at twice the global average rate.

Similar challenges extend across the developing world. We will have to wait and see if great powers listen –including those that call publicly for dramatic change.

Geopolitical tensions among powerful countries will not help to create the necessary atmosphere of collaboration. An ongoing dispute over Australia's plans to acquire nuclear submarine technology with the help of the US and UK has destabilised further the West's relations with China. It is even driving a significant wedge between France and its old anglophone allies. It is, however, too early to be sure that this year's climate progress is well and truly scuppered. Countries should remember, as Mr Sharma stressed, that climate change, with its huge ramifications, ultimately trumps all strategic interests, even military ones.

Published: September 22nd 2021, 3:00 AM