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The International Order Isn’t Ready for the Climate Crisis

The International Order Isn’t Ready for the Climate Crisis

Cleaning up garbage along the Pasig River, Manila, Philippines, June 2021

The planet is currently facing an environmental emergency. Humanity’s continued addiction to fossil fuels and its voracious appetite for natural resources have led to runaway climate change, degraded vital ecosystems, and ushered in the slow death of the world’s oceans. Earth’s biosphere is breaking down. Our own survival is at stake due to our depredation on the planet.

It is surprising that the multilateral system has not reacted more forcefully to these risks and instead has merely tinkered with the margins. Although the United States and the European Union have adopted measures to slow the pace of global warming—by setting more aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets, for example—nothing guarantees that they will adhere to those pledges, and such steps do little to encourage decarbonization in China, India, and other major emitters. These efforts fail to address other aspects of the looming disaster, such as collapsing biodiversity. 

The natural world has no sovereign boundaries. The worsening ecological crisis does not either. It is time to act bold stepsTo overcome the gap between an international system that is divided into 195 countries, each with its own imperatives and a global calamity which cannot be solved in a piecemeal manner. It is time for the world to be governed as if it was a living entity. What the world needs is a paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy and international relations—a shift that is rooted in ecological realism and that moves cooperation on shared environmental threats to center stage. Call this new worldview “planetary politics.” All governments, starting with Washington, must designate the survival of the biosphere as a core national interest and a central objective of national and international security—and organize and invest accordingly.

A shift to planetary politics requires a new, shared understanding about the duties of sovereign countries, serious commitments towards sustainable development and investment, as well as innovative international institutions. Leaders around the world will need to adopt a new ethic for environmental stewardship. They will also need to expand their notions of sovereign duties to include a responsibility towards the protection of the global commons. Governments, businesses, and communities will need to value and account for the earth’s natural capital rather than taking it for granted and exploiting it to depletion. Finally, national governments must reformulate and strengthen the legal and institutional frameworks for international cooperation in environmental matters. The United States is in a position to lead this charge—indeed, any such effort will fall short unless Washington is in the vanguard. 

In our best interest

It is not difficult to see the devastating environmental effects of human activity. Recent reports from groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPC) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF for Nature) show the extent of human activity on the planet. They predict a future of rising seas and heat, raging wildfires and acidifying oceans, violent thunderstorms, rising seas and mass migration. As humans despoil lands, waters, introduce invasive species and harvest natural resources in an unsustainable way, biodiversity is being threatened. The numbers are shocking: wild vertebrate population has declined by more than 60 percent since 1970 and that of insects by 45 percent since 1970. The damage isn’t limited to fauna. The surface of the planet has been damaged by extractive industries such as agriculture, ranching or logging, and some areas irreparably. Each year, the planet loses a large area of tropical forests the size of Costa Rica. Near-term extinction is imminent for approximately one million species of animal and plant species.

Our species is our own. suffering, too. Hundreds of millions are now facing food insecurity and water shortages around the globe. As humans and domesticated animals continue to disrupt biodiverse ecosystems, and meet once-isolated species, we are more vulnerable to new viruses. Scientists have identified over 200 zoonotic pathogens in the past 20 years, including the Ebola virus which causes SARS and is likely to be the virus that causes COVID-19. 

Things are poised to get worse. Despite a decline in fertility, the human population will not reach its peak until at least 2060. Additionally, the growth of aspiring middle classes all over the world will only increase the ecological strains. As we plunder the planet, we risk rendering it uninhabitable—a crisis that cries out for global solidarity and collective action. Many countries still view ecological problems as secondary foreign policy priorities, ignoring presumably more important matters like international trade, geopolitical competition, arms controls, and global security. The results are predictable: global environmental governance is a patchwork made up of weak agreements that are sector-specific and overseen by underpowered bodies who are unable enforce compliance. The fate of the planet is largely dependent on a mix of uncoordinated national promises driven by short-term economic and domestic political considerations. 

The natural world has no sovereign boundaries. The worsening ecological crisis does not have any.

The global environmental crisis requires a new statecraft built around the proposition that every other state concern—from national security to economic growth—depends on a healthy, stable biosphere. This new framework would not eliminate the national interest concept, but expand it to include conservation and environmental safety. This reframe might be frowned upon by traditionalists of foreign policy, who may be concerned about distracting diplomats or defense officials from the dangers that have directly affected the survival and growth of states over most of history. The ecological crisis has changed the nature and extent of these threats. 

This truth seems to be being grasped by U.S. President Joe Biden. Biden issued a historic executive order one week after his inauguration declaring climate change a top-tier threat to America and directing U.S. federal agencies and departments to lead unprecedented, whole-of government responses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt for global warming. Three months later, Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told world leaders assembled at a virtual climate conference that climate change “must be at the center of a country’s national security and foreign policy.” 

Rhetoric can be easy. This is why the Biden administration must instill this new approach throughout the executive branch and work closely with Congress to revise a massive U.S. security budget that is still overwhelmingly focused on countering traditional military and geopolitical threats. It must also work with foreign partners to develop a multilateral response for slowing down and reversed environmental collapse.

What’s mine is yours 

If the United States is serious about spearheading the global response to the planet’s ecological emergency, it should start by working with other countries to remold traditional concepts of sovereignty. Washington can start this process by explicitly recognizing that countries have a responsibility for protecting the earth and requiring them to refrain any activity that could fundamentally alter or harm the environment. 

There is no such consensus today, as evidenced by the row that erupted in 2019 between Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Emmanuel Macron of France, when tens to thousands of fires engulfed Amazon forest. Macron accused Bolsonaro of “ecocide”: by allowing the world’s largest forest to be exploited by rapacious loggers, ranchers, farmers, and miners, Macron argued, Bolsonaro was committing a crime against the planet. The enraged Brazilian leader blasted his French counterpart and charged him with treating Brazil as if it were “a colony or a no man’s land.” 

This clash was underpinned by two rival conceptions about sovereignty. Bolsonaro claims that Brazil has the right to develop the Amazon in any way it chooses. “Our sovereignty is nonnegotiable,” his spokesperson declared. Macron retorted that all of humanity has a stake in the rainforest’s survival. The world is a stakeholder and not a spectator as Brazil destroys this vital carbon sink, irreplaceable oxygen source and precious repository for plant and animal life. The core debate, as Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has pointed out, is whether Brazil should be considered the rainforest’s “owner” or merely its “custodian.” More leaders and societies must come to accept Macron’s view and reject that of Bolsonaro. Territorial sovereignty is not a blanket check to plunder collective resource.

What is the Earth’s worth?

This shift in thinking is possible. The understanding of sovereignty is not fixed or absolute. They are constantly being contested, negotiated and adapted. It is now common to accept the notion that sovereignty comes with both obligations and privileges. At the 2005 World Summit, all member states of United Nations agreed that governments have a responsibility for protecting their citizens from mass atrocities. They may lose the right to avoid foreign intervention if they fail to do so. 

A similar adjustment is necessary in light of the twin crises posed by climate change and the collapse of biodiversity. Under an existing international principle known as “the no-harm rule,” sovereign states already have a general obligation not to damage the environment in areas beyond their jurisdiction. However, this law has been difficult to enforce. There is no consensus on what constitutes transnational environment damage, what obligations states should have, and when they should kick in. As potential sources of damage become more complex, these questions become more difficult. As the planet’s ecological emergency deepens, countries must expand the definition of the global commons—shared resources managed as part of humanity’s common heritage—to include all critical ecosystems and natural cycles. They must agree not to engage in activities that could compromise the integrity of the biosphere.

Cleaning up garbage along the Pasig River, Manila, Philippines, June 2021

June 2021: Clean up garbage along the Pasig River in Manila, Philippines

Eloisa Lopez / Reuters

This expanded commons can only be protected if we place a price on nature. Too many people have invested in human capital (education and health care) and produced capital (buildings roads, machines, software) while ignoring the natural capital that sustains our lives and provides the foundation of all prosperity. We have taken the natural world as a given and assumed technological innovation and market incentives would allow us to escape the constraints of a finite earth. These attitudes are no longer valid. According to the UN Environment Program, the planet’s total stock of natural capital has declined by 40 percent on a per capita basis since 1992. Reversing this trend will require reworking the current understanding of wealth to include the value of the world’s natural assets and the myriad benefits they provide. In January 2020, the World Economic Forum estimated that over half of global output—$44 trillion per year—is highly or moderately dependent on benefits from nature that are increasingly in jeopardy. Another study, published in 2014, has placed the total annual value of the planet’s ecosystem services—water filtration, nutrient cycling, pollination, carbon sequestration, and so on—at between $125 trillion and $145 trillion.

However, most environmentalists resist putting a value on nature. Instead, they cite its intrinsic value. Failing to do this encourages individuals and businesses to take ecosystem services for granted, and to exploit them to the point of exhaustion. The result is market failure in the form of environmental costs borne not by the participants in any specific exchange but by society as a whole (what economists call “negative externalities”). 

Another problem is that GDP (the conventional measure of progress and wealth) does not account natural capital. This makes GDP a poor indicator both of long-term productivity and well-being. The international community needs to work together to create metrics that can account environmental assets. Nearly 89 countries have established natural capital accounts, which include all EU members. This allows for transparency and tracking of these assets. The United States should follow suit.

National and international security must have the survival of the biosphere as a central goal.

It is important that governments adopt regulations and provide incentives to firms to accept the environmental consequences of their market behavior. This will help them to be more responsible than passing them on to society. Partha Dasgupta, an economist has estimated that the annual global cost for all environmentally harmful subsidies (including fuel and agriculture) is between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. By contrast, governments devote only $68 billion annually to global conservation and sustainability—about what their citizens spend every year on ice cream. National authorities can also use taxes or fees to ensure that prices for goods and services accurately reflect the social and environmental value of the natural resources involved in their production. They can also use sector-specific market mechanisms and encourage environmental conservation. Overfishing can be effectively controlled by measures like catch share schemes. These are where communities have a guaranteed right to harvest a certain number of fish in a particular area.

A solid framework for natural capital accounting could be used to justify compensating countries rich in biodiversity such as Bolivia or Indonesia to restore or protect local ecosystems and services. There are small-scale precedents for this kind of investment—when authorities pay landowners to preserve watersheds or give tax breaks to farmers who plant carbon-sequestering cover crops. More significant international efforts are underway, however: The Biden administration is negotiating a multibillion dollar deal with Brazil to protect a portion the Amazon rainforest.

The global financial sector must also play a larger role in environmental stewardship. Some national financial regulators, such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are pushing for mandatory disclosures by corporations about their exposure to climate risks. This will make investors aware of the vulnerability of firms in the face of environmental shocks caused by a warming planet. International financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank encourage partner governments to invent their natural capital assets and to adopt laws and policies to protect them. In the private sector, there is a sea change: BlackRock, Goldman Sachs and other major players have committed to incorporating sustainability into their investment decisions. The practical challenge, of course, is to distinguish between credible corporate responses and greenwashing campaigns, which are merely intended to burnish a company’s public image. Greenpeace or the Natural Resources Defense Council are two examples of environmental advocacy groups that can hold companies accountable. They expose hollow commitments and raise the specter for consumer boycotts and other civic activism to persuade them to stop harming nature. 

The way forward

Without multilateral institutions and global governance, planetary politics will not succeed without the international cooperation required by the intertwined biodiversity and climate crises. The most pressing near-term priority is to close the yawning gap between the desultory negotiating process hosted by the UN and the stark reality outlined by the organization’s own Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which envisions catastrophic warming unless the world takes immediate, dramatic steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is no conceivable way for the world to meet the emission targets established by the UN’s 2015 Paris climate accord, however, without massive investments in terrestrial and marine ecosystems capable of serving as carbon storehouses. As such, governments should make expanding these carbon sinks a key part of their contributions to the Paris targets.

Global governance must also adapt to trade. One solution would be to reform global trade rules, allowing countries that are committed to decarbonization not to discriminate against other countries that want to continue doing business as usual without running afoul the World Trade Organization. WTO members could adopt a blanket waiver that allows border adjustments for carbon, such as taxes on imports or rebates on exports. This would allow EU countries to penalize imports from Turkey and Russia of carbon-intensive cement, and reward trading partners who use more environmentally friendly production methods. Such an arrangement would encourage the formation of “climate clubs,” made up of countries committed to reducing emissions and thus eligible for nondiscriminatory treatment. 

Deforestation on indigenous land, Pará state, Brazil, September 2021

Deforestation on indigenous land, Pará State, Brazil, September 2021

Lucas Landau / Reuters

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Also, development models will need to change. International partners are needed to support poor countries in the development of policies and incentive structures that encourage. private actorsConservation of nature is a responsibility of all people and communities. In countries with weak environmental regulations and a dependence on primary goods exports, extractive industries such as mining and timber often harm the ecosystems. The local residents are often the ones who suffer the most, rather than the companies or the consumers. The World Bank and other donor countries can provide technical assistance to give governments of developing countries a complete picture of the true costs of environmental degradation. This allows them to hold corporate perpetrators accountable and force them into paying the full costs. Finally, the United States and other rich countries can encourage nature-friendly development by devoting a greater share of bilateral and multilateral aid to global conservation efforts and, more generally, conditioning their assistance on sustainable environmental policies—much as the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation makes access to its financial resources contingent on good governance. 

Moreover, countries must strengthen the international legal framework to protect biodiversity, especially the Convention on Biological Diversity. Although the treaty has not been able to slow down the loss of ecosystems or species, there is hope. In late 2020, Costa Rica and France established an intergovernmental group known as the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which seeks to permanently protect 30 percent of the planet’s terrestrial and marine surface by 2030. Scores of governments have since committed to the so-called 30×30 target, which is slated for approval at the CBD’s conference in the spring of 2022. The Biden administration has already adopted 30×30 as a domestic goal. There is no reason why it shouldn’t join the global campaign. It should also end the United States’ outlier status as the only country in the world that has refused to ratify the CBD by submitting it to the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent. 

The Biden administration should also try to achieve the successful conclusion of the UN high seas biodiversity convention. This convention is currently in its final stages of negotiations. The agreement would establish a framework to conserve and sustainably manage the living marine resources and ecosystems lying beyond national jurisdictions—a vast global commons that accounts for 43 percent of the planet’s surface. The high seas are an amazing source of biodiversity. They also protect humanity from the worst impacts of climate change by absorbing large amounts of heat and carbon dioxide. As new technologies make it possible to exploit them in unprecedented ways, their health is deteriorating rapidly. And a patchwork if regulations fails to protect them. The difficulties of international collaboration are highlighted by the long negotiations and ongoing disputes over details of the convention. Washington is well-placed and able to broker new rules for marine protected areas, environmental impacts assessments, and sharing of benefits from marine gene resources. 

The greatest collective-action challenge ever faced by humanity is the global ecological crisis.

The United States should support the Global Pact for the Environment. This has been a topic of UN discussions since 2018. It would bring coherence and consistency to the fragmented legal system of environmental protections. Contrary to the global trade system, which places the WTO in the forefront of international rule-setting and adjudicating, there is not an international legal framework or organization that focuses on global environmental issues. Instead, hundreds and sometimes conflicting multilateral treaties promote collaboration on specific environmental issues like endangered species and hazardous materials, as though each issue could be addressed individually. The Global Pact would establish a fundamental human right for a clean and healthy environment and codify a sovereign responsibility to ensure that private and state actions do not cause harm to other countries or the global commons. The pact would encourage prevention and provide restorative justice by supporting the principle that polluters should be held responsible for environmental degradation. The convention would require periodic reporting and establish rules for liability. It also provides mechanisms for peaceful resolution of transboundary disputes. 

Multilateral negotiations on the pact fell apart despite overwhelming international support. This was due in part to the Trump administration’s opposition. The Biden administration should explicitly disavow its predecessor’s position and join ongoing efforts within the UN Environment Assembly to negotiate a nonbinding political declaration on the global environment as a prelude to an eventual global pact. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an example of how informal declarations can be used to lay the foundation for formal international conventions. 

It is important to be aware of the legislative hurdles that stand in the way of the U.S. ratification the CBD, a high seas Convention, or the Global Pact. The United States has often opted out of treaties—even those it spearheaded and drafted—and today’s intense partisan ideological divisions may encourage this tendency. However, the United States’ experience with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (which it championed) suggests that the Biden administration is not a ratifier of this international law. should seize this momentTo help shape the international legal framework for environmental cooperation.

Bridging the Gap

The greatest collective-action challenge that we have ever faced is the global ecological emergency. Rebalancing humanity and the biosphere will require a fundamental shiftIn the way that foreign policy is conceived. It will require us to reimagine our place on the Earth.

Think about the atlases we use for depicting our planet. There are usually two maps that open atlases. The first map, a geophysical one, captures the world in its natural state, revealing a startling array of biomes and ecosystems—rainforests and savannas, steppes and taigas, mountains and glaciers, river valleys and deserts, icecaps and tundras, remote atolls and barrier reefs, continental shelves and deep-sea trenches—shading into and overlapping with one another. The second map, a geopolitical one, depicts the earth’s terrestrial surface carved into independent territorial units indicated by precise lines, each colored distinctly from its neighbors.

The first map represents the planet accurately. The second map, with its artificially imposed borders, is akin to a work of fiction—and yet people tend to treat it as more important. The crisis of biosphere has caused a collision of these two maps, exposing tension between an integrated nature world and a divided global democracy and demanding that we find a way to reconcile them. 

While national sovereignty is not in danger, a new international approach may be able to bridge the gap between the political world and the natural world. Perhaps a crisis of such magnitude can’t change the way countries formulate their national security policies or approach the global economy. This predicament is not a time for resignation. It calls for a commitment to the stewardship of the only planet that we have. It calls for planetary politics.

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