Kennedy Graham

Addressing the global crises with purpose and resolve…post-Rio reflections

by Kennedy Graham

This is the first of a series of blogs reflecting on the Rio+20 conference of June 2012.

It is a question of the cognitive framework we adopt, as individuals or governments.

-          Do we regard the environmental problems we face today as in the nature of other problems human society has faced before, and one we can solve with the right mix of national political  will and technological ingenuity?


-          Do we acknowledge that we face an unprecedented ecological crisis whose resolution requires, in a purposeful and resolute way, a  transformation of governance at the global level?

Rio+20 conclusively demonstrated what was becoming apparent for some time now .  The international community of states is proving itself to be  ill-equipped to solve the inter-related problems of  global unsustainability (resource depletion, climate change, biodiversity loss).  In fact, that a timely solution by this means, based on the principle of ‘common and differentiated responsibilities’ and the (largely disregarded) ‘precautionary principle’, is impossible.

Rio ’92, which I also attended, was different.  The Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, and the framework conventions on climate and biodiversity set the scene for action.  But the action never followed.

It is apparent that we face two crises: a global ecological crisis and a global governance crisis. Currently, the international community of states acknowledges neither.  The 2012 Rio Declaration is a model of lowest-common-denominator platitudes, that fall below the threshold of effective remedial action.

These crises are related. The first is the consequence of human action.  The second is the human inability to address it.

An increasing cohort of people, from the scientific community and civil society, less so from the business and political worlds, is of the view that we have perhaps one decade at most left to turn the direction of the global economy around – not simply to undertake to do so, but to actually do so.  In that scenario,  the international community of states needs to elide into a more effective form of global governance, one that nonetheless falls back on the international community itself for legitimacy – since that is all the legitimacy that has evolved to date.

Here is a politically-feasible way of resolving the two global crises in this manner. Regard it as a thought experiment or a practical proposal, according to taste.

  1. Security Council declare a global emergency: Have the UN Security Council acknowledge the Global Ecological Crisis and declare this to be a threat to international peace and security, enabling it to act under the Charter’s chapter VII binding powers.  The resolution would declare a ‘global civil emergency’. This is a major step. But the Council would be building upon preliminary steps already taken.  Climate change has been on its agenda since April ’07.  In July ’11, the Council declared climate change a ‘risk multiplier’ and a ‘potential threat to international peace and security’.  The Secretary-General, along with the UNEP Director-General, offered the view that climate change already is such a threat.   It is but one step further for the Council to declare the broader ecological crisis to be a threat, and this could well rest on professional and scientific studies which it could request, as with the Brundtland Report of 1987.  Is the Council a legitimate body?  It retains mid-20th century flaws of composition and veto powers but, apart from the conflicted WTO, it is the only universal body with legitimate global power.  And if India, Brazil and Japan are invited, it is de facto universally representative.  Can it presume to act as a global legislature?  It already has: in resolutions 1373 (counter-terrorism) and 1540 (weapons of mass destruction), it has required member states to undertake national legislation.  If the planet, or human society, is genuinely threatened, then the Council can undertake this role, and indeed must.
  2. Meet regularly at summit level: Based on such a declaration, the Council would meet at ministerial level on a quarterly basis, head-of-government level annually.  These meetings would monitor progress made in combatting the Global Civil Emergency as declared under the original resolution, issuing new binding resolutions as is deemed necessary.
  3. Report regularly to General Assembly: To underpin universal legitimacy, the Council should report to the General Assembly following each quarterly meeting.  The Assembly might adopt resolutions reflecting the broader mood, but these are recommendatory and would not overturn the binding powers of the Council under chapter VII.
  4. Empower the Secretary-General: The Council would support any initiative taken by the UN Secretary-General acting under his independent and interpretative powers in the Charter.  Article 98 empowers him to perform any functions entrusted by the deliberative organs, including the Security Council.  Article 99 authorises him to bring to the Council’s attention any matter which, in his opinion, may threaten international peace and security.  Acting under this, the SG could direct the IPCC, through UNEP and WMO, to report directly to a sub-committee of the Council established under the original resolution (the Ecological Emergency Sub-committee).  This would bypass the behemoth that is the UNFCCC annual conference (COP-MOPs) although the same reports could go to those conferences as well.  In this way, ecological issues (including climate change and biodiversity) would become subject to global executive action rather than international negotiation.
  5. Recognise the planetary boundaries: In fact, it has recently become clear that the Ecological Crisis goes beyond the three framework conventions (ozone ‘85, climate change ’92, biodiversity ’92).  The Secretary-General could, under article 99 and in consultation with the Council’s sub-committee, establish a broader panel of scientific advisers. Their work and recommendations may well reflect the latest insights that have identified nine planetary boundaries that act as the thresholds for ecological stability and sustainability.  These boundaries, fed directly into the Security Council, might become the principal organising framework for global executive action in the 21st century.

Humanity faces a crisis, today.  We have lost twenty critical years in which the international community of states has generally identified the global problem but proven unable to resolve it.  In this, it has failed the global community of peoples.

Time is running out: we have perhaps one decade remaining to remedy the situation before dangerous anthropogenic resource depletion, climate change and biodiversity loss make human life intolerable and untenable.

We need an alternative approach to the failed model of UN-style international negotiations among 193 member states.  We need executive action by the Security Council, acting on their behalf.  We established the Council over half a century ago, to handle international crises.  What was in mind in the 1940s was inter-state warfare.  Yet the Council has evolved since Cold War days in managing various kinds of crises and the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document declared that the Charter was adequate to handle the multiplicity of complex threats of the 21st century.

Let’s see if this is the case.