Can the world afford to be run by countries? Final thoughts from COP-15

Guest blog by Peter Byass, Director of Umeå Centre for Global Health Research, Sweden

By now everybody knows that the outcome of COP15 in Copenhagen was rather underwhelming. Despite gathering the majority of the world’s leaders together in one place and for one purpose, and despite the overwhelming scientific evidence stressing the need for action, the world’s response to climate change will, it seems, continue to be fudged.

Looking back over the last few days in Copenhagen, most of the attention has been on various sub-groups of national leaders getting together and coming up with proposals and drafts. It’s a bit like gangs in the school playground – forming and re-forming – but somehow you know in advance that it will be the big boys’ gang that dominates in the end. And so it was. So where were the teachers? The leadership of the UN (who were after all supposed to be organising this meeting) was not very visible in the latter stages.

But isn’t climate change the clearest example of an issue that needs to be led and handled globally, rather than by nations? I wrote recently about the relative absurdity of taking a country as a unit of observation in epidemiology, which, for example,  puts Tuvalu on the same footing as China. It must be time for the world to recognise that, just as many countries delegate various responsibilities to constituent states or regions but reserve other matters to the national level, in global terms certain issues need to be reserved to the world level. Country as a unit of observation may sometimes be absurd, and what we have seen in the last few days is that country as a unit of action on global issues can also be relatively useless. Meanwhile the world’s problems with climate continue to increase, and get more difficult to solve as time passes.

A friend asked me before I went to Copenhagen why thousands of people needed to go to a meeting to address the climate issue. I am afraid to say that in many ways the outcome has not made the question any easier to answer. I know that a lot of delegates used the opportunities of COP15 very constructively and it was by no means a complete waste of resources – but at the same time it could have led to so much more.

Peter Byass is on PLoS Medicine’s editorial board and is the deputy editor of the peer-reviewed open access journal Global Health Action.

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