from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Earth Gets Its Day: When Will It Get Its Due?

A photo of Earth—dubbed "Earthrise"—taken by U.S. astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968.

April 22, 2015

A photo of Earth—dubbed "Earthrise"—taken by U.S. astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968.
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Earth Day 2015 finds the planet in dire straits. Future generations will mock the inanity of designating a single day each year to honor the Earth while despoiling the planet on which human well-being depended.

The World Bank warns that temperatures will almost certainly rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by midcentury. The consequences will be dramatic and likely devastating. Glaciers will disappear,ice sheets will melt, sea levels will rise, oceans will acidify, coral reefs will die, fish stocks will collapse, droughts will intensify, storms will strengthen. Global averages, moreover, will conceal dramatic local swings in temperature. Under current climate scenarios, global warming will make many current population centers uninhabitable, causing mass migrations. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ office, even by the most conservative predictions, extreme weather will displace up to 250 million people by midcentury.

Such ominous scenarios heighten the urgency of a breakthrough agreement this November-December in Paris at the twenty-first Conference of Parties (COP-21) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Unfortunately, even “success” in December will not catalyze the extensive action needed. At last fall’s COP-20 meeting in Lima, countries agreed to present “intended nationally determined contributions” to fighting climate change, but these parallel national pledges are likely to fall far short of the dramatic action that is required. And how credible can such pledges be if they lack any enforcement mechanism, much less the force of law? Additionally, despite multiple promises, the world has fallen badly behind its target to ramp up international financing for the Green Climate Fund to $100 billion a year by 2020. Nor should we expect welcome bilateral deals (most notably the U.S.-China agreement from last September) or “mini-lateral” efforts such as the Major Economies Forum to fill the gap.

And climate change is just one piece of the (melting) iceberg with which Earth is colliding. Our voracious appetite for natural resources is placing unprecedented strains on the “ecosystem services” that support modern society.

Firms and governments alike invest in stocks of financial, physical, and human capital to support future progress. Only rarely do they acknowledge—much less include on their balance sheets—“natural capital” assets like clean air, fresh water, arable land, genetic resources, and healthy forests and fisheries. The failure to place a market value on ecosystem services exacerbates unsustainable exploitation of the planet’s natural environment. The consequences include mass extinction, water scarcity, spreading desertification, and rampant deforestation. And in each of these areas, international cooperation remains pathetically inadequate.

Mass Extinction: The sterile phrase “biodiversity loss” does not begin to capture what the world is experiencing. In the span of Earth’s 4.5 billion year history, five mass extinction events have occurred.The most famous was the asteroid that took out dinosaurs. As Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, human activity is now causing a sixth. Let that sink in: We are the asteroid. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s 2014 Living Planet Report, more than half of the Earth’s vertebrate species disappeared between 1970 and 2010. Back in 1992, UN member states negotiated the Convention on Biodiversity. But like most multilateral environmental frameworks, it commands few resources and little political backing. In a familiar storyline, the United States has failed to ratify the convention (over concerns about sharing benefits related to genetic resources), which virtually erases international investment in the treaty. The more narrowly focused Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) does nothing to prevent species from becoming endangered in the first place. The world of children’s bedrooms (like my daughter’s) is awash in stuffed tigers. In the “natural” world, there are fewer than 3,000 alive —not even one for every 2.5 million people.There is but one single male white rhinoceros left, under guard day and night.

Water scarcity: The U.S. National Intelligence Council predicts that by 2030 human demand for freshwater supplies worldwide will outstrip supply by 40 percent. Already, approximately 1.2 billion people live in areas of physical water scarcity. Although almost 450 international treaties have been signed on shared freshwater resources, more than 60 percent of international basins lack a structured, cooperative framework. A variety of international initiatives, including the Seventh Millennium Development Goal and UN Water, have sought to extend access to clean drinking water locally. But none have the mandate, institutional capabilities, or political heft to ensure responsible and sustainable water use, both within and across borders. The potential of water scarcity to exacerbate political instability—recently on display in Yemen—makes it imperative to ramp up current global and regional policy responses, which today amount to only a drop in the bucket.

Desertification: Thanks to climate change and poor land management policies by national governments, the pace of desertification is far beyond the historical norm and rapidly increasing. As a 2013 UN report notes, desertification is a global phenomenon. It affects 168 countries, costs the world economy $490 billion per year, and devastates another chunk of land three times the size of Switzerland each year. The sole legally binding international instrument to address this challenge is the grossly underfunded UN Convention to Combat Desertification, which encourages states to work cooperatively with local and indigenous communities. Moreover, combating desertification is rarely a national priority, leading to haphazard national policies. As the surging pace of desertification shows, the approach is not working.

Deforestation: Countries have long engaged in fruitless negotiations to produce a binding treaty on deforestation. After fifteen years of discussion and negotiation, the UN Forum on Forests agreed on a Non-Legally Binding Instrument on All Types of Forests in 2007. An independent assessment [PDF] in September 2014 found that the UN Forum on Forests was unable to adapt to evolving challenges and had implemented little of note. Meanwhile, the work of UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), a program that provides financial incentives for developing countries to protect their national forests, has been hampered by a lack of funding and global buy-in: more than 85 percent of UN-REDD funding between 2008 and 2015 came from a single country, Norway. A welter of other decentralized mechanisms to improve governance of the sector worldwide have struggled to provide the necessary incentives for states to protect their forests.

On each of these issues, international action suffers from similar pathologies: The approach is stovepiped and piecemeal, and consequently unable to address the scale and complexity of the challenge. Funding is in short supply—a problem exacerbated by divergent expectations of developed and developing countries. And finally, national leaders lack the political will (or power) to make, much less implement, meaningful commitments.

Given the Sisyphean task of coordinating a global response, the international system tends to address global challenges on a case-by-case basis, rather than in an integrated manner. UN member states hold occasional meetings to discuss interlinkages among climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, desertification, and deforestation. But in the main, they treat these as distinct puzzles. Meanwhile, the leading global environmental institutions, such as the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), lack anything close to the mandate and resources they need to provide overarching international leadership on climate change and the related environmental concerns. The world is thus poorly organized to address the interconnected nature of contemporary environmental threats, much less foster more effective and sustainable environmental stewardship.

But there is no planet B. In December, when negotiators meet to hammer out commitments on climate change, they should seek to strengthen existing environmental treaties. Although global attention to climate change has steadily increased, concrete progress remains elusive. Short-term foreign policy crises continue to capture headlines and the attention of decision-makers, while international negotiations on the environment remain marginalized within national bureaucracies. Environmental ministers, for their part, lack the political clout of their foreign or finance ministry counterparts. Going forward, the political will that enables countries to prevent and respond to traditional national security crises must be applied to environmental conservation. Otherwise, what will national security defend?

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