In the first two post-Rio reflections, I advanced two main propositions:
- That the international community needs to declare a global Ecological Crisis and undertake global executive action, rather than wallow in ineffective international legislative negotiations;
- That the interface between science and politics needs improvement, with the Secretary-General using high-level panels as an intermediary for policy analysis and prescription.
In this third and final reflection, I recommend consideration of a new organising framework for such global action.
Are we in a global ecological crisis? I contend that we are:
- Our ecological footprint, surpassing Earth-share (bio-productive capacity per capita) in 1981, recorded an overshoot of 18% in 1992 and 50% in 2010. Humanity is grossly over-consuming the planet’s resources, engaging in permanent ecological theft from the next generation.
- If each human pursues the consumer lifestyle of North America, the sustainable population is some 2.2 billion. At present, we are 7 billion, heading to 9 b.
- Biodiversity loss continues, at 100 to 1000 times above the natural rate.
- Our greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, portending serious anthropogenic climate change with average global temperature increase of between 2°C (difficult) and 6°C (intolerable), falling short of the stated objective of climate stabilization identified in the 1992 Framework Convention.
That, by definition, is a crisis situation.
In fact, we have known about this for almost half a century.
- In 1972, following the first UN environment conference, the UN General Assembly requested UNEP to “keep under review the world environmental situation to ensure that emerging environmental problems of wide international significance receive appropriate and adequate consideration by Governments”. (UNGA res. 2997)
- In 1992, UNEP noted that a ‘clear scientific consensus has emerged on estimates of the range of global warming which can be expected during the 21st century”. Business-as-usual could have “possibly catastrophic consequences”. (Saving Our Planet, para 3.17).
What of the capacity to respond? As early as 1982, UNEP observed:
“At the  Stockholm conference, it was generally assumed that the world’s system of national governments, regional groupings and international agencies, had the power to take effective action. …. By the early 1980s, there was less confidence in the capacity of national and international managerial systems to apply known principles and techniques or in the effectiveness with which international debates lead to action. …. Twenty years after Stockholm, it is still not possible to … say with confidence that the Governments of the world have the knowledge or the political will to deal with the global problems which we already know exist”. (Saving Our Planet, p. 165).
Forty years after Stockholm and twenty years after the Earth Summit, Rio+20 limply validated that prescient insight, with its platitudinous declaration of 283 paragraphs.
Popular attention over the decades has focused on climate change. But it has become apparent more recently that the Global Ecological Crisis is comprised of an inter-locking series of planetary boundaries. So the global executive action must encompass that.
Of the nine planetary boundaries recently identified by scientists, three have already been exceeded: climate change, biodiversity loss, and the nitrogen removal from the atmosphere. A fourth (stratospheric ozone depletion) is recovering from boundary excess. Three others (freshwater, ocean acidification, land use) are approaching the boundary. With the final two (chemical pollution, atmospheric aerosol loading) we lack sufficient data to be certain.
While human knowledge allows us to aspire to specific resilience in respect of each boundary, we have little understanding of the requirements of general systems resilience for the biosphere, with the dangers of non-linear change (‘tipping-points’, ‘black swans’) an added existential threat. The increasing risk of large-scale methane release and continental ice-melt forms an unpredictable part of this concern.
What is needed, it would therefore seem, is a formal recognition that the Ecological Crisis is real, that it is complex, and that it requires conscious and rational response on the basis of a crisis management situation.
A new organising framework, both regarding the scope of the threat and the institutional capacity to respond, could take the following form:
- UN Security Council attention to all components of the Ecological Crisis as a threat to international peace and security;
- an empowered Secretary-General, taking more personal initiative as sanctioned under the Charter; and
- a high-level panel, acting on behalf of the Secretary-General, operating as intermediary between the scientific community and the policy-making community with regard to the nine planetary boundaries (or any revised version of this as recommended by the scientific community).
At present, international negotiations have bequeathed framework conventions for ozone depletion, climate change and biodiversity. Their subsequent binding protocols proved successful with ozone but manifestly inadequate with the other two. In the case of the remaining six other boundaries, little or no policy development has occurred to date.
The next few decades, perhaps to 2020, is probably the time the international community of states has left to take decisive action for the global community of peoples.