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Lungs of the World

The Clinton Global Initiative‘s afternoon plenary on “Protecting Tropical Forests” has just begun. I’m in the press room tuning in. This session is being moderated by climate expert Rosina Bierbaum. In her opening remarks, she lays out a pretty persuasive case for why we should be paying more attention to tropical forests, particularly if we are interested in addressing climate change. According to Bierbaum, “forests are the lungs of the world,” and their decimation is responsible for 20 percent of carbon emissions. Apparently, if we continue on the same path, over the next hundred years, deforestation would add 80 to 135 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere, the equivalent of one or two decades of fossil fuel burning. It would also decrease the Earth’s biodiversity by 20 to 40 percent.

She just passed the mic over to Jane Goodall. I’ll keep you posted.

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Ban calls for ‘stronger UN for a better world’

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened his first annual debate of the General Assembly with a call to global leaders to back efforts to bolster the United Nations.

“Our changing world needs a stronger UN…My vision is an administration focused on results – efficient, directed, pragmatic and accountable, an administration representing excellence, integrity and pride in serving the global good.”

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President Bush’s Concluding Thought

…at the opening of the 62nd General Assembly today:

With the commitment and courage of this chamber, we can build

a world where people are free to speak, assemble, and worship as they wish

a world where children in every nation grow up healthy, get a decent education, and look to the future with hope,

a world where opportunity crosses every border.

America will lead toward this vision where all are created equal, and free to pursue their dreams. This is the founding conviction of my country. It is the promise that established this body. And with our determination, it can be the future of our world. Thank you, and may God bless you all.

(Full text of the President’s speech). More analysis to come.

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World Leaders Address Opening Session of 62nd UNGA

The 62nd UN General Assembly opens today at 9am ET with remarks by Secretary-General Ban, the GA President Dr. Srgjan Kerim, the President of Brazil, and, at approximately 9:45am ET, President Bush. I’m still in New York at the UN following our hosting bloggers at the High-Level Event on Climate Change yesterday. The energy level (and security level) in Turtle Bay is high. Watch live and stay tuned on UN Dispatch for analysis. The opening session (and the statements of world leaders) will continue through today and tomorrow.

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Putting Today in Context

So 80 heads of state, plus international celebrities like Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger all came to the United Nations today. Great! What did they accomplish? Well, if you are looking for a single document committing UN member states to combat climate change, you are looking in the wrong place. Rather, the significance of today’s meetings needs to be understood in the longer term.

In 2015, Kyoto will expire. As the thinking goes, it will take two years to negotiate a successor to Kyoto, then another four years for member states to actually ratify the treaty.

In December, the process of negotiating a successor to Kyoto will kick off with a meeting in Bali. This meeting will be largely technical in nature, i.e. what sort of carbon emissions targets should be achieved and how to set up a global carbon credit market. The purpose of today’s meetings was not to talk about those technical issues, but to inject some desperately needed political will into the Bali meeting so that when negotiators descend on Indonesia in three months they will be empowered to push for robust climate change policies.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that for the Bali negotiations to be successful, the Kyoto non-signatories (namely the United States, China and India) need to be on board. And herein is the reason why the UN appropriate venue to hold these talks: In a body composed of 192 member states, it is very difficult–practically speaking–for a tiny group of nations to hold out against the will of the rest.

It is a basic negotiating tenet here at the UN that countries try to avoid being “isolated.” (And conversely, that negotiating blocks strive to isolate hold-outs as a way of winning concessions.) That’s why Security Council vetoes are so rare. It is also why so many UN issues (like the budget) are resolved by consensus, not majority vote. No country feels comfortable being a “spoiler” by positioning itself against the will of an overwhelming majority of UN member states. The decision to use the UN to host climate change discussions, therefore, is born out of a basic pragmatism. In smaller venues, like the G-8, it is simply harded to use “isolation” as an instrament of diplomatic pressure.

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Al Gore Speaking

Al Gore may have just burnt his bridges with Hollywood. The former Vice President receieved a nice ovation for urging us to turn our attention away from Anna Nicole Smith, OJ Simpson and Paris Hilton, and instead focus on the important climate change meeting in Bali in December.

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