Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance - Is it: Good Idea, Conspiracy, or Waste of Time?
On Friday the journal Science published an article titled Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance , along with a discussion and interview on the Science Podcast for March 16th (first part):
Science assessments indicate that human activities are moving several of Earth’s sub-systems outside the range of natural variability typical for the previous 500,000 years (1, 2). Human societies must now change course and steer away from critical tipping points in the Earth system that might lead to rapid and irreversible change (3). This requires fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions toward more effective Earth system governance and planetary stewardship.
The paper was produced under the guidance of the Earth System Governance Project (ESG), a social science research network. This work was done as a precursor to the ESG’s Planet Under Pressure conference, which is aiming to influence the UN’s “Rio+20” conference coming up this year. See the recent Guardian article for an overview.
As the Science article itself is behind a paywall, here is a summary of the recommendations in the paper (from the ESG press release):
In particular, the group argues for the creation of a UN Sustainable Development Council to better integrate sustainable development concerns across the UN system, with a strong role for the twenty largest economies (G20).
The article also suggests upgrading of the UN Environment Programme to a full-fledged UN agency – a step that would give it greater authority, more secure funding, and facilitate the creation and enforcement of international regulations and standards.
In addition, the article calls for stronger consultative rights for representatives of civil society in global governance, based on mechanisms that balance differences in influence and resources among civil society representatives.
In order to improve the speed of decision-making in international negotiations, the article calls for stronger reliance on qualified majority-voting in international decision-making.
The scientists also argue for increased financial support for poorer nations, including through novel financial mechanisms such as air transportation levies.
These five recommendations are sure to cause an uproar, not just in the UN-fearing American far-right electorate but also in any nation that fears losing control.
And that is the problem - control.
As the lead author said:
Lead author Frank Biermann, of Free University Amsterdam and Lund University, Sweden, said, “Societies must change course to steer away from critical tipping points in the Earth system that could lead to rapid and irreversible change. Incremental change is no longer sufficient to bring about societal change at the level and with the speed needed to stop Earth system transformation.
“Structural change in global governance is needed, both inside and outside the UN system and involving both public and private actors,” said Biermann, who also is chair of the scientific steering committee of the Earth System Governance Project.
This will be of course red meat for the Tea Partying portion of American politics. Indeed, one of the first reactionary articles to show up was at WTFUWT, where the author predictably focuses on climate change even though the bigger problem, of sustainability, is due to the sum of human activities and not just those immediately affecting climate.
(See for example water issues: The Dusty Limpopo River)
So, can we indeed successfully “navigate” the Anthropocene? Are the five recommendations (quoted above) by the authors of the Science article the way to help us out of our problems?
I do not have the answer, but I do accept that the current course of action we humans have taken is fraught with so many problems that the lives of a very many people are going to suffer under the burden of too many negative consequences from our reckless destruction of the biosphere and our changes to the atmosphere and land surface.
So far, at least after the Montreal Protocol, increased institutionalization of international actions has not appeared to stop (and certainly not reverse) human destruction of our collective environment. While some international efforts (especially in the trade of endangered species) may have helped slow down certain aspects of the sustainability problem, the general trend of continued destruction surrounds us.
Here in the US, as long as our political system is controlled by the likes of James Inhofe I do not expect the US to implement initiatives towards increasing international cooperation for the purposes of sustainability (except, as noted above, for our continued lead in trying to control the catch and trade of endangered species, something which seems to have broader political support than tackling other environment-related issues.)
Anyone disagree with my rather gloomy outlook?
Related (and highly recommended): The Atlantic’s A World Without People photo essay.