But the main adversaries of economic and social rights are no longer to be found in state governments. They are the international financial and trade organisations. As seen above, the World Bank is a partial exception, seeking to co-opt rather than oppose rights language along the lines of ‘we’ve always done it’. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been more explicit in its hostility. It has stated that ‘IMF was not a signatory to the Covenant … IMF did not specifically take States’ obligations under the Covenant into consideration when negotiating or consulting with them…’ (UN CESCR 1999). Thus, the IMF refuses to take a position on how states are supposed to mediate between their human rights obligations and the obligations imposed on them in respect of loans. Various governments, including those of Argentina and Egypt, have made it clear to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that, when negotiating with the IMF, they do not have the power or leeway to resist particular measures in the name of human rights (Dowell-Jones 2004: 80). So far, despite all the protests against the financial institutions in recent years, civil society pressure specifically in relation to its (legal, political or moral) human rights obligations has been fairly minimal. The first legal study of possible human rights obligations of the Bank and Fund was published only in 2001 (Skogly). What little pressure there has been has had no noticeable effect at all.

Given the rapidly changing contours of global climate policy, those groups that are flexible in their approach to the issue and that show themselves willing to engage with new actors in order to construct imaginative and diverse coalitions of interest are likely to be more successful in the long- term. A reading of where power lies in the climate debate suggests that attention increasingly needs to turn to the power brokers in the global political economy. Pension funds, export credit-rating agencies, banks, as well of course as the larger multilateral development banks that oversee the allocation and use of significant sums of aid money, are central actors in day-to-day decision-making, in direct and indirect ways, about whether resources are channelled into activities which benefit or undermine the goal of climate protection.  Groups with more access to the legal and scientific expertise necessary to meaningfully engage the international negotiations on climate change appear to enjoy the most influence on climate policy, as traditionally understood. Yet ultimately the real agents of change may be those groups which are able to alter the behaviour of economic and corporate actors whose decisions chart the climate footprint of the global economy in more direct and immediate ways than the governments that continue to attract most attention from civil society activists.

We should recognise at the outset that many of the world’s most important political and economic actors benefit enormously from the processes and practices that create climate change. Most systems of large-scale industrial production and energy provision are based on the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. To the extent that climate change highlights the unsustainability of the fossil-fuelled growth trajectory that underpins the contemporary global economy, it focuses scrutiny on the economic growth strategies promoted by the world’s leading global economic institutions, most notably the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Because of the enormous global climate footprint that results from the increased movement of goods transported around the world as a result of lower trade barriers, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the governments that created and sustain it necessarily also enter the spotlight. Internalising the externality of dangerous climate change amounts to demanding that the richest and most powerful economies of the world transform the economic structures that have brought them their economic wealth (the abundant supply and exploitation of cheap reserves of fossil fuels). We should not underestimate the political obstacles to doing this. The threat that action on climate change poses to traditional patterns of economic production and energy consumption is evident in the response of the Bush administration in the U.S to the Kyoto Protocol.

Perceptions and representations

 There is also the highly contested terrain of representation as it pertains to the United Nations. The UN is represented variously by its most ardent supporters as offering by far the straightest road to peace, justice, and global governance. The UN is generally represented by its fiercest critics as a dream palace of illusion, as ‘a dangerous place’ where ‘irresponsible majorities’ rule the roost, and as an irrelevant talking shop when it comes to the critical challenges of global security and the world economy. Richard Perle, an influential neoconservative, and Dore Gold, a leading Israeli diplomat, illustrate how far this hostility to the United Nations can be carried (Perle 2003; Gold 2004). This spectrum of representations explains why it seems often impossible to achieve a consensus on the content and character of global reform. Both clusters of representations, the favorable and the critical, tend to proceed from the premise that the UN is the boldest global experiment ever in establishing a normative framework and an institutional authority that challenge the primacy of the sovereign state. Such talk about the UN seems inflated, even grandiose. It overlooks the extent to which the boldest and most consequential organisational initiatives on an international level, at least with respect to overriding sovereignty, can be more convincingly associated with either the European Union or the triad of international financial institutions – the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) – rather than with the UN (Falk 2004: ch. 3). The IMF and World Bank are nominally linked to the UN but are operationally autonomous, while the WTO was deliberately established with no formal link to the UN. At this stage of history even governmental critics treat the UN as a sufficiently important arena for achieving the legitimisation and implementation of policies that they rarely advocate the policy option of withdrawal. But acknowledging this importance is not the same as a shared commitment to a stronger or more effective organisation in relation to the Charter (the goal of genuine UN reform, as distinct from the United States’ geopolitical or hegemonic understanding of effectiveness). It is this encounter in the realm of representation, and related imaginaries of world order, that has made previous reformist efforts in the UN setting so often founder. Such a realisation of these difficulties erodes commitments to reform and suggests the need for a politics of reform for the UN on the part of those who believe that the UN has the potential to contribute more to peace, justice, equity, and sustainability in the world.