The 2020 Grawemeyer for Ideas Improving World Order from the University of Louisville is going to a professor who has laid out a case for how the United Nations can better tackle environmental crises, including climate change.
Ken Conca is a professor of international relations at American University. In his book, “An Unfinished Foundation: The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance,” he argues the U.N. can and should lean more heavily on two key parts of its mandate: peace and human rights.
“The U.N. was given a mandate really to do four things, protect the peace, promote international law, advance human rights, and promote development for the world’s poor,” Conca said.
And he says the United Nations has done pretty well with applying its mandate to global environmental governance and promoting development.
“But my argument is that the other two parts of the mandate, the human rights part of the mandate and the peace and security part of the mandate, that the U.N. has really failed to mobilize and failed to apply,” he said.
In the human rights side of that equation, Conca points to previous work the U.N. has done around water access. By declaring that people have a basic human right to adequate drinking water and sanitation, he said it gave that cause a new energy and momentum.
“It allowed people to hold their governments accountable, it allowed people to measure progress, it allowed people to name and shame actors that weren’t providing and supplying water,” he said. “Now, that didn’t work perfectly, but it was an increasingly important political tool. Treaty law doesn’t have that sort of direct political impact that human rights law can have. And so what it actually becomes is a tool for activism.”
And as climate change creates natural resource shortages and instability in many nations (and the U.S. military has long realized it as a threat to national security), Conca said the U.N. has been slow to connect those conflicts to the environment.
Conca’s book was released in 2015, and since then, he says the U.N. has made some progress addressing these issues. While on an organizational level there are people who are drawing the connections between human rights, security and climate change, he said the real challenge is getting member states to embrace those connections in various forums, including the powerful Security Council.
“It’s been very controversial for the Security Council to talk about climate change. There are many countries that feel that issue just doesn’t belong there,” Conca said. “But what we need is a smarter and more adept Security Council that understands how climate change is affecting its core mission of protecting peace and security around the world. We also need stronger leadership on climate change from the Security Council.”
The Grawemeyer Award comes with a $100,000 prize. U of L announced the award for music composition Monday; awards in psychology, education and religion will be announced later this week. Conca and the other winners will be in Louisville in April to give free public lectures on their work.