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"Every day, I am faced with the challenges of our troubled and complex world. But none of them loom so large as climate change. Climate change is, quite simply, an existential threat for most life on the planet - including, and especially, the life of humankind."
- UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the Austrian World Summit, Vienna, May 2018
Climate change is one of the major challenges of our time and adds considerable stress to our societies and to the environment. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale. Without drastic action today, adapting to these impacts in the future will be more difficult and costly.
The impacts of climate change can intensify existing threats to peace, security and sustainable development. And importantly, climate change is a threat that disproportionately burdens the poorest and most vulnerable.
What is the United Nations doing about climate change?
The UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an objective source of scientific information. Through the IPCC, the United Nations provides policymakers with scientific data on climate change, its impacts and future risks, as well as options for adaptation, resilience and mitigation. Its Fifth Assessment Report in 2013 concluded that climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.
There is alarming evidence from the IPCC's report that important tipping points, leading to irreversible changes in major ecosystems and the planetary climate system, may already have been reached or passed. Ecosystems as diverse as the Amazon rainforest and the Arctic tundra, may be approaching thresholds of dramatic change through warming and drying. Mountain glaciers are in alarming retreat and the downstream effects of reduced water supply in the driest months will have repercussions that transcend generations.
Global agreements and cooperation
The UN family is in the forefront of the effort to save our planet. The UN provides a forum for bringing the world together to take collective action on climate change, through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In the field, the UN also works to assist countries transition to climate-resilient and low emissions strategies while also helping those especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change to adapt to a more unstable climate.
The 1992 "Earth Summit" led to the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a first step in addressing the climate change problem. Today, it has near-universal membership with 197 countries having ratified the Convention. In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was adopted which legally binds developed country Parties to emission reduction targets.
At the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris in 2015, Parties to the UNFCCC reached a landmark agreement to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future. The Paris Agreement builds upon the Convention and - for the first time - brings all nations into a common cause to undertake take ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so. As such, it charts a new course in the global climate effort.
The Paris Agreement's central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping the global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
On Earth Day, 22 April 2016, 175 world leaders signed the Paris Agreement at United Nations Headquarters in New York. This was by far the largest number of countries ever to sign an international agreement on a single day.
Countering climate change at the UN in Vienna
Commitment to Climate Action, which is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 13, is the responsibility of governments, organizations, cities, regions, businesses and investors. Many of the Vienna-based UN organizations are actively involved in achieving goal 13.
For example, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) shares its expertise in green and innovative technology to help, amongst others, Mexico protect the Earth's ozone layer. In Myanmar and China, UNIDO has implemented a project to foster the usage of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices and methods.
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) uses space technologies to monitor greenhouse gases related to deforestation and industrial processes, the changing of ice in polar caps and glaciers, sea-level rise and temperature.
The UN Environment Programme (UN Environment) provides support in the vulnerable mountain areas of the Western Balkans, South Caucasus, Central Asia, East Africa, and the Tropical Andes to adapt to the effect of climate change. For example, UN Environment makes roads more resilient to flooding and builds water reservoirs to help mitigate flooding from melting glaciers.
The Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-test-ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) supports research into icebergs and movements of glaciers, hurricanes and tornadoes, landslides and avalanches, seasonal and yearly variations of specific radionuclides, ocean processes and marine life through the data it collects.
Similarly, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provides a platform for scientists to use nuclear techniques to study how agricultural practices can be optimized to protect resources while reducing emissions.