Not long ago, concerns about environmental degradation were marginal in U.S. national security deliberations. What a difference climate change has made. Foreign policy officials and experts are starting to recognize profound linkages between planetary health, economic prosperity, and international security. These connections were on full view Wednesday, when the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) teamed up with Conservation International (CI) to convene a symposim,“Global Resources, the U.S. Economy, and National Security.” The livestreamed event (available here) assembled intelligence officials, development economists, defense experts, conservation biologists, and corporate executives to discuss the rapid degradation of the earth’s natural endowments and its dire implications for long term prosperity and stability. The provocative conversation ranged far beyond global warming to assess the implications of deforestation and desertification, collapsing fisheries, habitat destruction, and water scarcity. That these topics were broached at CFR—an august institution traditionally concerned with issues like Middle East peace, nuclear proliferation, or China’s rise—shows how central the subject of sustainability has become for foreign policy professionals.
The reasons are clear. For the first time in Earth’s 4.5 billion year history, the most powerful force shaping the planet is human activity. Some geologists have coined a new label for this era: The “Anthropocene.” This epoch may turn out to be short-lived, however, given the disastrous pace at which our species is degrading the earth’s natural capital endowments—from rainforests to oceans to aquifers. Globally, governments have failed to account for—and private markets to put a price on—the many “ecosystem services” that nature provides, ranging from arable land to clean air to fresh drinking water. Unless humanity reverses course, warns the Stockholm Resilience Center, the world could be in for “irreversible and abrupt environmental change.”
Powerful demographic and economic forces are driving these trends. The world will need to make room for two billion more people in coming decades, before the global population stabilizes at nine billion. Consumer demand will accelerate even faster, as humanity becomes richer. Between now and 2030, the global middle class is slated to double. These newly affluent populations will place extraordinary strain on the earth’s limited supplies of arable land, fresh water, fisheries, and forests, with knock-on consequences for political instability and international security.
- Fresh Water. According to the National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) Global Water Security [PDF] report, the world’s annual water requirements will exceed current supplies by forty percent in 2030, thanks to demographic pressures, agricultural demands, and watershed degradation. Nations will need to negotiate new arrangements to manage the world’s 263 shared water basins (among these the Mekong, Nile, and Tigris-Euphrates) negotiate equitable access to stressed aquifiers The alternative, the NIC warns, could be growing instability and conflict, particularly in contexts of “poverty, social tensions, and weak political institutions.”
- Arable land. Meanwhile, the global demand for food will surge [PDF] more than thirty-five percent by 2030, as populations swell and dietary preferences (particularly for meat) evolve. Already, food consumption has outpaced production in seven of the last eight years—and current global food reserves amount to only two months of world production. Such scarcity virtually ensures a future of price volatility and disastrous shortages, of the sort that led to food riots in dozens of countries—and the toppling of the Haitian government—in 2008. Historically, degradation and scarcity of arable land has fuel violence, whether in Central America in the 1970s or Darfur in this century.
- Fisheries. The degradation and emptying of the world’s oceans were among the most alarming trends discussed at the conference. As Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment and Science, told the gathering that the vast majority of the world’s commercial fish species are over-exploited [PDF], fished to capacity, or barely recovering, thanks in large part to rampant illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Simultaneously, growing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are acidifying the oceans, portending “an unprecedented loss of species,” including the disappearance of biodiverse-rich coral reefs by the end of the century. Such an environmental catastrophe would have devastating implications for global food security, given that one-fifth of humanity depends on fish for their primary protein source.
- Deforestation. Finally, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that global deforestation and forest degradation continue, albeit at a slower pace. Already, twenty-seven percent of the world’s tropical forests are cleared, and each year, the world loses additional forest cover twice the size of New Jersey. Rampant logging—much of it illegal—deprives the world of valuable biodiversity, degrades watersheds, destroys habitats, and leaves countries vulnerable to environmental disaster. Uncontrolled and illegal logging has been linked to repression and violence in many countries, from Cambodia to Haiti, Burma to Liberia.
As the conference sessions made clear, recent multilateral efforts to advance conservation and environmental sustainability have been woefully inadequate. Several problems stand out. First, the world is clearly fatigued with large, UN-sponsored mega-conferences (like the UNFCCC Conferences of Parties or the Rio Plus 20 meeting), which promise comprehensive solutions but deliver little but rhetorical pablum. Second, the existing set of “regimes” governing the global environment is fragmented, with significant overlap and redundancy among competing, but underpowered and underrersourced institutions. In the absence of a single “World Environmental Organization,” one answer may be to ramp up the UN Environmental Program into a fully-fledged specialized agency, on a par with the UN Development Program (UNDP), to help provide coherence to UN efforts. Third, international negotiations on the environment suffer from a crippling bureaucratic weakness. They are typically conducted under the purview of the ministers of the environment—whose political clout pales in comparison to their foreign or finance ministry counterparts. Finally, global environmental cooperation is hamstrung by a lack of global leadership—not least from the United States fails—which remains outside the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Given the perceived failures of top-down, intergovernmental efforts, what can be done? Conference participants offered several suggestions. One was to look more closely at narrower “minilateral” efforts. Rather than insisting on the presence of all countries, why not begin with coalitions of the willing, relevant, and capable? A second was to encourage parallel national processes when a formal treaty or agreement was impossible. In place of a binding agreement, ask countries to adopt a “pledge and review” approach in which countries promise to take certain actions—such as phasing out harmful subsidies, embracing “green procurement,” or increasing foreign aid for natural resource management—and set up a system to monitor commitments. Another was to expand the use of multi-stakeholder partnerships, including by enlisting the private sector in certification schemes to ensure that their complex global supply chains do not inadvertently contribute to illegal logging, overfishing, or trafficking in endangered species. Advances in information technology, including geospatial mapping and remote sensing, can play an important role in identifying problems (from deforestation to poaching to illegal fishing) and empowering governments and law enforcement.
Participants also noted the potential of multi-level approaches that could enlist municipalities and local communities and even individuals as partners in the campaign for sustainability. Among the few major accomplishments at the 2012 Rio+20 conference was the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group—a coalition of fifty mega-cities whose mayors (including Michael Bloomberg of New York) agreed to collaborate on new approaches to urban waste management.
These are all laudable initiatives, but we can’t afford to ignore the multilateral track entirely. Three priorities come to mind. The first is to ensure that the post-2015 successor framework for the Millennium Development Goals includes new sustainability priorities beyond the provision of “clean water and sanitation” and attempt to price the ecological costs of economic activity. In parallel with this effort, national governments should endorse the proposal by the UN Secretary-General’s Global Sustainability Panel to create a Global Sustainability Index [PDF], which would measure “development” beyond mere calculations of gross domestic product. Second, the international community must deepen its commitment to fight corruption and increase transparency among UN member states, recognizing that organized crime is frequently at the core of rapacious behavior toward the environment. A good place to start would be to develop an analog to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) or the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which could establish minimum environmental standards, identify non-complying or underperforming jurisdictions, and eventually permit the naming and shaming of countries, corporations, or organizations that embark on environmental crime.
In closing the conference, CFR President Richard Haass joined with CI’s Chairman Peter Seligman and Vice Chair Harrison Ford in underscoring the “direct connection” between global resources, the U.S. economy, and U.S. national security. Ford’s message was a plainspoken reminder that “nature doesn’t need us. We need nature.” Richard Haass, for his part, explained that the world, unlike universities, isn’t divided into separate departments. In the twenty-first century, major security challenges will span borders, both geographic and disciplinary.