Scientists Urge Reform for a Broken Global System

Unless leaders act promptly, climate change and environmental degradation will only worsen and cause greater global problems, scientists warn.

By Stephen Leahy

Unless governments work actively to build a brighter future for humanity, climate change, poverty and loss of biodiversity will worsen and continue to exacerbate existing global problems, top scientists warned ministers attending the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) governing council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday.

Replacing GDP as a measure of wealth, ending damaging subsidies, and transforming systems of governance are some possible steps they can take, the scientists said.

“The current system is broken,” declared Bob Watson, the UK’s chief scientific advisor on environmental issues.

“It is driving humanity to a future that is three to five degrees C warmer than our species has ever known and is eliminating the ecology that we depend on for our health, wealth and senses of self.”

Watson and 19 other past winners of the Blue Planet Prize, often called the Nobel Prize for the environment, presented their 23-page synthesis report, “Environment and Development Challenges”, at the UNEP meeting.

Ministers warned that because the adverse impacts of climate change and biodiversity cannot be reversed, “The time to (act) is now, given the inertia in the socio-economic system.”

“The good news is that (solutions) exist, but decision makers must be bold and forward thinking to seize them,” Watson said.

“We have a dream – a world without poverty – a world that is equitable… a world that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable…” wrote Watson and his co-authors in their report.

The co-authors of the report include James Hansen of NASA; Emil Salim, former environment minister of Indonesia; Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank; M.S. Swaminathan; and José Goldemberg, Brazil’s Secretary of Environment during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

The tipping point

“There has been very little progress in the 20 years since the Rio Earth Summit,” said Harold Mooney, a biologist at Stanford University and 2002 winner of the Blue Planet Prize, adding that poor governance is one of the key issues.

“Decision makers and the public need to understand that we’re not going to make it,” he said.

The report recommends that leaders look beyond the interests of their own states. It also said that decision-making processes need fundamental reform, so that they empower marginalised groups and integrate economic, social and environmental policies instead of having them compete.

Mooney called preliminary plans and hopes for the Rio+20 conference in June this year tepid as well as vague, even thought the twentieth anniversary of the Earth Summit offers a major opportunity for world leaders to set human development on a new, more sustainable path.

“We are not getting to the crux of the matter. There is an urgent need to raise the stakes.”

“Weaning ourselves and the world off our fossil fuel addiction, moving on to clean energies, cannot be solved by the U.N. process,” said James Hansen of NASA, the 2010 Blue Planet winner, along with Watson.

Hansen told IPS that it is too easy for a country to refuse to meet its carbon reduction commitments, as Canada did with the Kyoto Protocol.

Fossil fuels are heavily subsidized and fossil fuel companies do not pay the huge costs of air and water pollution. Nor do they pay for the impact they have on the climate.

Hansen argued that the simplest way to address this problem would be to collect a fee from fossil fuel companies at the domestic source (mine or port of entry) and distribute the money uniformly, on a per capita basis, to legal residents, he said.

Fuel costs would rise under this “carbon fee and dividend” scheme, but the costs for the majority of people would be covered by their share of fees collected. It would also act as a financial incentive for individuals to reduce their carbon footprint, he said.

“This will have a tremendously positive impact on the economy, as entrepreneurs introduce carbon-free energies or energy efficiency.”

The Blue Planet Laureates’ paper also urged governments to replace GDP as a measure of wealth with metrics for natural, human and social capital, as well as how they intersect.

The paper also called on governments to eliminate subsidies in sectors such as energy, transport and agriculture with high environmental and social costs. In addition, it urged leaders to tackle overconsumption and address population pressure by empowering women, improving education and making contraception accessible to all.

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