This piece was originally produced for the UN Association of Australia Conference, Brisbane, August 2012
Humanity today faces the first truly global crisis in its 5,000-year political history. As we enter the Anthropocene:
- 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.
- Biodiversity loss continues, at 100 to 1000 times the natural rate.
- Our emissions continue to rise, portending serious anthropogenic climate change with average global temperature rise between 2°C (difficult) and 6°C (intolerable).
It is not clear that we have the foresight and resolve to get through the ecological crisis successfully.
The international community responds to this situation through the means of UN conference machinery. I have attended the most critical of these – the Rio Earth Summit in ‘92, Cairo ’94 on population, Copenhagen ’09 on climate change, and Rio+20 on sustainability.
Our contemporary machinery is proving incapable of solving global problems. The international community of states, configured along Westphalian lines of national sovereignty, is failing the global community of peoples, who existentially embody the common interest. Our 193 UN member states competitively strive to maximise national interests through international negotiation. By definition, that cannot resolve a global problem.
In addition, we have a dysfunctional interface between the scientific and policy-making communities – wherein the integrity of objective and impartial science is impugned by direct consumption, even intrusion, from political interest.
So we have two global crises: an ecological crisis and a governance crisis.
It is a question of cognitive framework. If this were a normal problem, it would not matter – these things would be resolved at evolutionary pace. But if it is of an imminence and magnitude that constitute a crisis, then a qualitatively different cognitive framework is necessary.
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, twenty years after the Earth Summit, Rio+20 validated that prescient insight, with its limp declaration of 283 platitudinous paragraphs.
Popular attention focuses on climate change. Yet the Global Ecological Crisis is comprised of an inter-locking series of nine planetary boundaries. Three are already exceeded: climate change, biodiversity loss, and 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.
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. With the six other boundaries, little or no policy development has occurred to date.
Rather than international legislative negotiations, we need global executive action. This would be based on a creative interpretation of the UN Charter, for the sake of the (imperfect) legitimacy we have devised to date. It might take the following form:
- the UN Security Council declaring the Ecological Crisis a threat to international peace and security, triggering its binding powers on behalf of the total UN membership;
- an empowered Secretary-General, taking more personal initiative (already sanctioned under the Charter);
- an independent high-level panel, on behalf of the SG, acting as intermediary between the scientific community and the policy-making community, making analytical and prescriptive input into the Security Council.
The next few decades may be all we have left to take decisive action on the crisis we are in.