COVID and Climate Change Should Be the UN's Priority, New Global Poll Says

Nearly a million people were polled by the United Nations ahead of its 75th General Assembly.
October 1, 2020, 2:04pm
The remains of the guest houses at Calistoga Ranch smoulder after the Glass Fire passed through in, Calistoga, Napa Valley, California on September 30, 2020

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, the General Assembly issued a multiple choice survey called UN75 to the citizens of the 193 member nations. The poll sought to answer an important question: In 2020, as a multitude of global issues bear down on the earth from all angles, what were the population’s greatest concerns?

The organization found a rough consensus across all continents and nations; of the over 810,000 people who responded to the poll, 419,000 of them listed climate change as one of their top three concerns. Healthcare came in second, with 279,000 respondents saying it was a top priority. That dwarfed the poll’s other options, which included overpopulation, organized crime, cyber warfare, and terrorist attacks.

The results weren’t surprising, but they do point to two areas where the UN has been criticized. The organization has not played a leading role in formulating a response to the global pandemic, and on climate change, activists have attacked the international community for failing to respond aggressively enough to UN-issued reports about the severity of the crisis—last year Greta Thunberg denounced world leaders at the UN for “failing us.”

The UN wasn’t looking for unqualified praise from the UN75 survey. According to Lisa Laskaridis, a spokesperson for the UN, the goal of the survey was to get a  "reality check" from ordinary people around the world about where the global governance organization has fallen short.

"We did not want to treat this anniversary as a celebration. Instead, we wanted to use the occasion to listen to the people we serve," Laskaridis said. "Dialogue was at the heart of UN75. At a time when the world feels divided, we wanted to bring people together, from classrooms to boardrooms, to discuss how we can solve the challenges we face collectively."

What could the UN do better?

The survey indicated areas of concern among the world’s people, but it didn’t provide a clear road map for what the UN could do to help fight the pandemic and protect the environment from potentially cataclysmic destruction. But experts and NGO leaders had some suggestions.

Heidi Tworek, a professor of history and public policy at the University of British Columbia, said that so far, the international community has not presented a unified front when faced with this generation-altering pandemic. Instead, individual nations have been implementing their own agendas with very little collaboration between them. This seems like a missed opportunity: The United Nations was founded to foster international cooperation. As we look for a way to order the chaos of this crisis, there's no reason the General Assembly can’t lead the way.

"One of our global issues is we don't have a single definition of what it means to confront COVID. New Zealand's goal is to completely eliminate the disease, Sweden wants to have a sustainable response. There's all this range," Tworek said. "That's one of the underrated things about the UN. It's where people meet, confront each other, and have the same definitions of things. That's a role the UN could take. What are the goals we're aiming towards?"

A whopping 87 percent of respondents to UN75 said that some form of global cooperation was crucial to addressing  any challenges like COVID; 74 percent said that the UN in particular was essential to tamping down both COVID and global warming. Turning that momentum into action might require changes to the UN structure, said Georges C. Benjamin, the Executive Director of the American Public Health Association. He thinks the time has come to open the UN floor to nongovernmental organizations alongside the diplomats.

"There's a whole bunch of us NGOs that are very much involved in climate change, and to some degree we're supplemental and we're sitting on the sideline," he said. "I know the UN's goal is to engage government entities, but there's enormous influence and power that's off to the side. Having these groups more effectively banding together could push governments in a more proactive way."

Currently, groups like the APHA have to convince nations to adopt their positions and then advocate on their behalf at the UN. Benjamin would like to cut out the middlemen and get his organization a seat at the table in order to fight for the expansion of health coverage. Other NGOs could do the same for their countries. 

A multitude of climate activist organizations want the UN to step up when its member nations refuse to do the right thing. Phil MacDonald, COO of the climate justice organization Ember, noted that UN Secretary‑General António Guterres has called for a moratorium on new coal power plants. "Now they need to begin to name and shame the countries still building this obsolete technology," he said. "The UN has the gravitas to shame countries like Germany which even in 2020 are opening new coal power and condemning European citizens to choke on the air pollution they put out."

The environmental group 350 also wants the UN to step up. Thanu Yakupitiyage, an associate director at 350, said that one step the UN could take would be to revamp and strengthen the landmark  Paris Climate Agreement. "[We must] make it more ambitious and robust. At this point, the current Paris Climate Agreement does not do what is necessary to keep warming under 1.5 degrees," she sad. "Countries should commit to phasing off of fossil fuels and creating bold national plans that provide job training for workers in renewable sectors. On a global scale, it is absolutely necessary to build the political will to ensure we can tackle the most pressing issues of our time."

It's easy to be disheartened by the nationalism that has defined the current era of politics. But in times like these, activists and government officials should remember that there is a precedent for global cooperation. In particular, Tworek points to the smallpox vaccination campaign in the 20th century. At the height of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union combined their resources in an agreement brokered by the World Health Organization to fully eradicate the disease from the biome. "It's good to remember that these moments can happen," she said. "But the politics of this moment make it complicated."

The UN, at least, holds faith that another moment of unity is in arm's reach, if it is able to muster the buy-in, political will, and public infrastructure necessary. 

"Despite what we may see on our social feeds, there is much more that unites us than divides us," said Laskaridis. "People want a safer, fairer and more sustainable future. They want a say in decisions that affect them. And they recognize that global challenges require global solutions."