The United Nations at 75: Looking Back to Look Forward, Episode 2, with Maria Ivanova

October 22, 2020

United Nations Environment Programme headquarters, Nairobi, Kenya. CREDIT: Maria Ivanova.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Hello, welcome to the second installment of Looking Back to Look Forward, a four-part interview series that the Carnegie Council is producing this Fall to mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. My name is Adam Read-Brown and I'm the editor of Ethics & International Affairs, Carnegie Council’s quarterly peer-reviewed journal, published by Cambridge University Press.

This series builds on the work of the Fall 2020 edition of Ethics & International Affairs. That issue features a special collection of nine essays on the UN at 75, organized and guest-edited by Dr. Margaret P. Karns. To explore the content in that issue, we encourage you to visit eiajournal.org.

For this second episode, I am once again honored to introduce Dr. Karns as our host. Dr. Karns is professor emerita of political science at the University of Dayton, and since 2015 she has been a visiting professor in the global governance and human security Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She has published widely on UN peacekeeping, post-conflict peace building, global governance, and the future of the UN system.

Today, Dr. Karns is joined by special issue contributor Professor Maria Ivanova. Her essay in the journal is titled "Fighting Fire With a Thermometer? Environmental Efforts of the United Nations," and it focuses in particular on the role of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as an anchor institution on issues. In their conversation today they will explore the role of UNEP, efforts to protect the ozone, climate change, and much more.

We are delighted to have Dr. Ivanova here with us today. And with that, I will hand things off to Dr. Karns to get things started. Enjoy the discussion.

MARGARET KARNS: Thank you, Adam, for that generous introduction. It has been my pleasure to work with you in putting together this special issue of Ethics & International Affairs on "The United Nations at 75," and now it is my pleasure to introduce my colleague, Professor Maria Ivanova, who is associate professor of global governance and human security at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Maria also directs the Center for Governance and Sustainability here at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. She is also visiting scholar at the Center for Collective Intelligence at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Maria's work focuses on the performance of international institutions, especially the United Nations Environment Programme, and on the implementation of international environmental agreements and sustainability. From 2014 to 2018 Professor Ivanova served on the Scientific Advisory Board of the UN secretary-general. She is chair of the board of United Nations University and its Institute for Advanced Study of Sustainability, and is an Andrew Carnegie Fellow. In 2018 Marie chaired the jury for the $5 million New Shape Prize for Global Governance by the Global Challenges Foundation.

[Editor's note: Dr. Ivanova will also have book out in February 2021 on UNEP, The Untold Story of the World's Leading Environmental Institution UNEP at Fifty.]

Welcome, Maria. I am delighted to have this opportunity for a conversation about your marvelous essay, "Fighting Fire with a Thermometer." That memorable phrase is a great way to start your essay, when you note that the planet is literally on fire in this year 2020—California, Australia, the Amazon, now the Pantanal and Colorado this week.

When Wade Rowland wrote that phrase the United Nations had just created UNEP and had just begun to take up environmental issues, issues that were not even mentioned in the UN Charter and were not on the radar screens of any but a few activists in different parts of the world at that particular point in time in the 1940s. Clearly today there is far greater awareness around the world of a wide range of environmental issues. Yet as you wrote and note in your essay: "Many persist, some are getting worse, and new crises are emerging."

Can you walk us through what you see as some of the UN's most important accomplishments with regard to environmental issues to this point in time?

MARIA IVANOVA: Thank you, Peggy. Thank you very much for having me as one of the authors in this special issue on the UN's 75th anniversary and for being one of the people that you interview for this podcast series. As an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, this truly is a special honor for me.

We are having this conversation on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations and celebrating its achievements. Indeed, the United Nations has won the Nobel Peace Prize 12 times over 75 years. Most recently, just 10 days ago, the World Food Programme won the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in stemming world hunger and preventing states from using it as a weapon in war.

Environmental degradation affects all the core business of the United Nations—development, human rights, and security—and yet it was not discussed at the very beginning. So let's step back and review how did environmental issues get on the agenda of the United Nations, and then we can talk a little bit about the accomplishments.

I want to ask us to think back to that iconic photo of Earthrise. The crew of Apollo 8 beamed the photo of the Earth rising on the horizon on Christmas Eve in 1968. That symbol of our planet as a blue marble galvanized public awareness of the planet as our common home.

At the United Nations at the time they developed a recognition that: (1) the planet was a single and shared system and that humans could damage the entire biosphere; (2) that resources were limited; and (3) that collective action was imperative. These truths still hold today.

So in 1968 the United Nations took the decision to hold the first international Conference on the Human Environment, which would take place in 1972 in Stockholm. It takes a while for the United Nations to take decisions and to convene conferences.

MARGARET KARNS: Indeed.

MARIA IVANOVA: In the 1970s environmental concerns gained more and more attention. They reached a public crescendo in the United States, in Europe, and in Japan. The first Earth Day was held in the United States in April of 1970, and 10 percent of the U.S. population went into the streets, which resulted in the creation of the U.S. environmental institutions for environmental protection, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Environmental Policy Act, and so forth, the Clean Water Act.

So the Stockholm Conference in 1972 provided the platform for a similar initiative at the international level. It brought together 113 nation-states. The United Nations at that time had only 132 Member States, so a little over 85 percent of the UN Member States gathered in Stockholm to create environmental infrastructure, and they set the foundation for international environmental law and created what I call the "anchor institution" for the global environment, the UN Environment Programme.

Fifty years later, the achievements of the United Nations on the environment include: assessment—the United Nations is good in identifying what are the problems and what do we need to tackle, the development of policies and laws, the increase of awareness, and the increase of capacity in countries around the world. Environmental ministries around the world were created as a result of the Stockholm Conference. And the United Nations was successful in catalyzing action. Both within countries and within the UN system a lot more international institutions are working on environmental issues.

There are certain successes that the United Nations can be proud of, but ultimately the environment, while it moved as an issue that was absent in UN discussions to one that was critical to all of its core operations, is still an issue that the United Nations has to take seriously and undertake actions so that we can resolve environmental issues that are central to peace and security, to development, and to human rights.

MARGARET KARNS: Can you talk a little bit more about what you see as some of the most significant shortcomings in UN efforts to address environmental issues?

MARIA IVANOVA: If we start with that symbol of the blue marble and the slogan of the conference, "One Earth," and the surprise that everyone in a sense thought that they were doing environment and yet there was no one environmental institution, the action was to create the UN Environment Programme. With that came the expectations that UNEP will achieve a lot, that UNEP will resolve the environmental problems.

So when we talk about the shortcomings of the UN system, we often say: "Oh, here are the shortcomings of UNEP. It has not resolved the environmental problems." However, it was never supposed to resolve the environmental problems because as your previous guest David Malone spoke about, the United Nations is a conglomerate of Member States. The United Nations cannot go into countries and act on its own will or behalf. Therefore, UNEP was never supposed to go and resolve environmental issues in countries. UNEP was supposed to coordinate the environmental activities of the UN system.

There are two sets of shortcomings: (1) of us as a civilization. We have not been able to address our environmental problems. And (2) of the United Nations as our core institution. We cannot say that the United Nations has not addressed our environmental problems, but as Wade Rowland, the journalist, wrote in 1973, we are still "fighting fire with a thermometer," meaning we can see what is happening, and yet we do not have the squad of firefighters at the international level who could be deployed and who could go and address the problems that need to be addressed.

So the environmental institutions that we created—UNEP and the numerous multilateral environmental agreements—detect emerging issues. They alert the world community to impending crises, but they rarely have the capacity to resolve them directly. So, while we have those shortcomings, I would not attribute them to the United Nations system. This is the nature of the UN system.

However, the greatest shortcoming of the UN effort in my mind is that they are not greater than the sum of the parts. They are not greater than the sum of the parts. The United Nations is an agglomeration not only of states but also of agencies, programs, funds, and initiatives, and they all undertake environmental activities. Yet many of those remain independent rather than integrated, and to me that is the biggest shortcoming that actually is possible to resolve.

MARGARET KARNS: To follow that up a little bit, you have talked about UNEP as an anchoring institution in some of your other work, and as you have just mentioned there is rather a complicated structure of organizational entities in the UN system now for various types of environmental issues and purposes. It does raise the question, for those of us who study international organizations, of whether it might be time for the United Nations to transform UNEP and its Member States to transform UNEP and the various convention secretariats, etc., into a more robust UN environmental agency.

MARIA IVANOVA: My story, as an environmental governance student and scholar, started exactly with this question. In 1997 I delved into these questions when I was doing my master's work. I started, Peggy, by arguing that, yes, we need a global environment organization—a GEO, which would make for a great acronym—for a range of reasons. At that time I was researching and I was writing and very much would have answered your question with an emphatic yes.

But then, I started doing my doctoral work, and I started asking the deeper questions: Why don't we have a world environment organization, a global environment organization, I asked when I was doing my dissertation. If I was going to advocate for one, I had to figure out why we didn't have one. Is it because the people who created UNEP didn't know? Is it because they just omitted something? Is it because they didn't want the environment to be an important issue? Is it because they didn't want this organization to succeed?

I found that none of the above were true by going into the UN archives, going into the living rooms and kitchens, and on phone calls with the people who imagined the United Nations' response, who created the United Nations' response, and who created UNEP as an institution. I was much humbled by the discoveries through my doctoral research, and now I would answer that question with no, we do not need a new institution, we do not need a UN environment organization or a world environment organization. UNEP was created right.

The founders of UNEP, the individuals who imagined what this institution should look like, would look like, how it would act and to what purpose, they knew that the environment was not a sector, and it should not be relegated to a specialized agency which is autonomous. The vision, by the way, was that the environment institution would be on the 38th floor of the United Nations, which is the euphemism of the secretary-general's office. That was the original vision, that environment should go through-and-through the fiber, the being, of the United Nations.

I think that vision is still relevant. It still needs to be actualized, and UNEP has the most ambitious and yet attainable mandate, and through all of my research I have not found evidence that transforming it into a specialized agency and into a world environment organization would actually resolve the environmental problems.

We have a history of that. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization used to be a program, and it was transformed into a specialized agency. I don't think much has changed in terms of how it operates. The issues go much deeper. We need to change the mindset of how we approach environmental issues, and I think UNEP has the right instruments, but it needs to do its job better.

MARGARET KARNS: I'm curious in the work that you have done whether there are two or three issues where you would say the United Nations has been particularly effective, that is, specific environmental issues. We all know the frustrations with climate change and its incredible complexity and the difficulty of moving states and people and so on to change behavior, but are there two or three other specific issues where you think there have been particular efforts successfully made through the United Nations?

MARIA IVANOVA: There is one issue that the United Nations and especially UNEP have been particularly effective in resolving, and that is the global issue of the ozone hole. Honestly, this is the only global problem we have resolved collectively by using the science, the institutions, and the individuals. It is the perfect example of how one could use all of the instruments at our disposal within the United Nations. It's a fabulous story of leadership, both from governments—the United States really pushed for the creation of the Montreal Protocol and for imposing very stringent limits.

Within the United Nations, Mostafa Tolba was the executive director of UNEP at the time in the 1980s when the ozone issue came to the agenda, and he said: "I am not going to shrink back and give this to the governments. I have an obligation as a scientist and as a civil servant to advocate and to resolve environmental problems." And he did so to the chagrin of some governments at the time, and yet he managed to bring them together and bring about the resolution of a true global environmental problem, which was the depletion of the ozone layer. That is one excellent example, and the book by Richard Benedict, who was the negotiator of the United States, is a fantastic book, telling the story of the negotiations, of how it all came to be.

Another issue that we are currently working through but that UNEP also has put on the agenda is the issue of chemicals and waste. Through the work of UNEP we have created a number of international conventions: the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal; the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which regulates pesticides; and now the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which is the most recent convention on chemicals.

Currently we are in the process of arguing for and perhaps creating a convention on plastics. There is a real groundswell around the world against the use of single-use plastics and of thinking about how we could better manage the plastic production, the use of plastics, and their disposal.

That is to be seen. That story is to be written. As you know, we have dissertations in our department on these issues, so we will be looking to see the results.

MARGARET KARNS: Indeed. I would just add in terms of the ozone, you mentioned the three conventions for chemical waste, but there are now nine protocols relating to ozone. It is an ongoing effort to address the issue and to refine the responses to it as science evolves.

MARIA IVANOVA: Indeed, and we are now using those instruments to address climate issues, and that is the Kigali Amendment, using the successful Montreal Protocol and the platforms and instruments that we have for ozone to regulate greenhouse gases. These are promising developments indeed.

MARGARET KARNS: Right, right. The science too, I understand, with respect to plastic—there was a recent news story that at least some of the chemical companies producing plastics may have found some alternatives, because that was a key for ozone back in the 1980s, finding a substitute for chlorofluorocarbons.

MARIA IVANOVA: Indeed. This is where this kind of innovation and the openness of our society now through all of these technological means could lead to much greater innovation, and both the pressure that we saw in the first Earth Day, that 10 percent of people going into the streets, but then the ozone in the 1980s was the innovation from companies, from the producers and from governments. I think now we are at a time when we could combine those two forces and perhaps change things for the better once and for all.

MARGARET KARNS: Great, great.

You and I share an interest in the roles of women in leadership in global governance. There is a very interesting situation now with women serving in the posts of both executive director and deputy executive director at UNEP as well as a number of women leading some of the environmental convention secretariats. While António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, has made greater gender parity in the United Nations senior management posts his top priority, I wonder if you have any explanation for what seems like an unusual concentration of women in official leadership positions in UNEP.

MARIA IVANOVA: It is a very important issue, indeed. A lot more studies in the business realm now show that collective intelligence rises with the number of women in a group—the more women you have, the greater the collective intelligence of that group—and that engaging a critical mass of women is linked to more and more progressive and positive outcomes and to more sustainability-focused decision making across various sectors.

We see that movement in the United Nations, you are absolutely right, and your article in this issue points to the numbers. We see an upward trajectory. And UNEP has made significant strides on gender parity. The overall staff of UNEP is 1242; 60 percent are professional staff, and 40 percent are general service staff. Among the professional staff, 53 percent are women. So it is not only at the directorship level that you mentioned, but it is also within the professional staff.

Your article talks about glass ceilings and glass walls in the environmental field. Some of them are being shattered indeed, but as we gather more and more data we will have more levers to reshape hiring and promotion.

But you also note in your piece, for example, that broader question: What difference does it make to have more women in these positions? 

Here perhaps the story of Christiana Figueres is the most telling one that I would like to share with you and the listeners and viewers. If we think about climate change, which is the existential crisis of our times, I have had the privilege to go to many of the Conferences of the Parties (COP) and I remember very well the one in Copenhagen in 2009, COP 15, that was deemed by all a failed COP.

After that, in 2010, Christiana Figueres took on the leadership position of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. She became the executive secretary. No one thought that significant change was possible. The mood after Copenhagen was dark, it was dire, and there was very little appetite for any serious collective action. But I would dare say that it was Christiana Figueres' contribution to the climate movement that we got over that hurdle and that we managed to attain the Paris Agreement five years later, in 2015.

How did she do that? Being a woman there is no small part of that accomplishment, because Christiana Figueres changed the narrative from one of sacrifice to one of opportunity, and she moved from the tactic of "name and shame" that we hear about so often in policy studies to "name and acclaim." She created a strategy that a lot of women use successfully, that is, focusing on what unites and not on what divides, and then progress becomes much more attainable.

So Christiana, rather than focusing inward and limiting the number of negotiators and the number of parties, she actually opened things up and allowed citizens, civil society, to engage and to come in with their own commitments, with their own contributions and be counted, not only as someone who demands action but also as someone who commits to action.

Just before the Paris conference in 2015 I wrote an op-ed piece of why more women need seats at the climate table, and CNN picked it up; the Boston Globe picked it up. I was really surprised by the attention that such a piece could get.

Then Vogue also ran a piece about 13 "climate warriors" in 2015. I had showcased 15. Then Time magazine in 2019 also ran a story about 15 women leading the fight against climate change. Some of these women have appeared in many of the articles that we talk about, but many women have not; they are new. 

So these stories inspire and empower a new generation of women. I have actually great faith that through these generational narratives we could inspire a lot more women, and we see that happening.

MARGARET KARNS: Of course, we have the generational narrative with Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager confronting the United Nations, confronting the Davos summit, and so on with her calls to action. Do you see not only women but perhaps teenagers, young people, playing a key role going forward?

MARIA IVANOVA: Absolutely. I see not only teenagers and young people, but I see also old people making serious contributions. I always think of Greta Thunberg and Jane Fonda because they are working on the same issues in the same way. One is a teenager. Greta is brave, and she took on this important issue in the way that she could. And Jane Fonda is a phenomenal celebrity, and she took to the streets and organized in her own way. When these generations of women come together to inspire, there is certainly a spark. I see then a lot of women in my generation who are now working both with those who come after us, the younger women, but also those on whose shoulders we stand, the much older women.

I am now in that age bracket of when I met many of these women. I met Christiana Figueres in 1998. She was probably about my age now and has seen me grow up and mature into the scholar-activist that I am right now. So I do have a lot of hope of us working through generations and connecting. 

It's easier these days to actually connect. We see what technology does, and even in this dark moment we are able to connect. I believe that the leadership of individuals in institutions is critically important.

We often don't talk about women such as Barbara Ward, who was absolutely critical to the Stockholm Conference, to go back to where we started this conversation. Between 1968 and 1972 Barbara Ward worked hand-in-hand with Maurice Strong to identify the world's scientists who could help prepare the Stockholm Conference, and later Donella Meadows had amazing contributions in the field of the environment. Both of them have passed, but I see a whole generation of young women, of young men, of middle-aged scholar-activists, who stand on their shoulders and are pushing forward.

One last thing here. UNEP's highest award is the Champion of the Earth Award that it gives every year in a number of different categories to people and organizations that have contributed to resolving environmental problems. Last year that award was given to Fridays for Future, this organization that Greta Thunberg started. The young people who went to receive it went to New York, and they declined it. They declined the highest leadership award from UNEP, and they said: "We will hold it for you to earn because you, UNEP, you, United Nations, have the responsibility to lead and have the responsibility to earn this award." I thought that was quite stunning and yet quite inspirational.

MARGARET KARNS: Indeed.

You have been quite inspirational, Maria. There is a lot of doom and gloom around this 75th anniversary of the United Nations, and particularly a lot of doom and gloom on the issue of climate change, that existential issue that we all face. But it's wonderful to end this interview with a more positive, optimistic note for the future.

I thank you very much for your time today and for your very good remarks. Thank you.

MARIA IVANOVA: Thank you. My honor.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Thank you, Peggy and thank you so much, Dr. Ivanova, for joining us.

This has been a conversation between our host Dr. Margaret Karns and her guest Maria Ivanova as part of the Ethics & International Affairs series The United Nations at 75: Looking Back to Look Forward, produced by Carnegie Council. Once again, my name is Adam Read-Brown, and I am the editor of the Council's journal Ethics & International Affairs.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the first episode in this series with David Malone, rector of United Nations University. In the next episode Dr. Karns will speak with Dr. Noeleen Heyzer about the role of women at the United Nations over the years.

For more information about this and other Carnegie Council programs, visit carnegiecouncil.org. And for more information about the Council's journal, including our recent special issue on the UN at 75, visit eiajournal.org. Thanks for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed the program.

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