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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13 responses

  1. The following statement from this  “Environment and Development Challenges” report:

    “In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency, society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us.”

    …sounds hauntingly similar to the “Warning to Humanity” issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists 20 years ago coinciding with the 1st World Summit on Sustainable Development:

    “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain
    life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.” –

    It’s hardly news that after more than two decades of talk about the need for sustainable development, we humans continue to have a poor track record when it comes to achieving sustainable results. How can we implement change while up against the overwhelming current of business as usual? It will take a new perspective, new approaches and different means of leadership.

    Sustainable Land Development Initiative
    How do we develop a sustainable civilization?

  2. Add Fukushima to the already critical mess and we’re facing worldwide extinction. Read more about Fukushima at

  3. UPDATE:

    August 29th, 2012

    The State of Sustainable Development According to Professionals
    by RP Siegel –

    “A solid 77% of respondents felt that there will have to be major
    catastrophes before national government will address these entrenched
    global issues. If that turns out to be true then we’d best hope that
    those catastrophes come sooner rather than later, lest conditions
    continue to worsen rapidly.”

    “Finally, 66% of respondents felt that a fundamentally new approach to the global governance of SD is needed.”

  4. Science Debate: Obama vs Romney invited thousands of scientists, engineers and concerned citizens to submit what they felt were the the most important science questions facing the nation that the candidates for president should be debating on the campaign trail…

  5. The World Bank: Assessing the investment climate for climate investments

    One of the strong messages that came
    out of the recent United Nations Climate Change conference in Durban
    was that the private sector has to play an important role if we are to
    globally move toward a low carbon, climate resilient — or “climate
    compatible” — future. However, private investment will only flow at the
    scale and pace necessary if it is supported by clear, credible, and
    long-term policy frameworks that shift the risk-reward balance in favor
    of less carbon-intensive investment. The private sector also needs
    information on where to invest in clean energy in emerging markets, and
    it needs policy support to lower investment risk. Barriers to low carbon
    investments often include unclear and inconsistent energy policies,
    monopoly structures for existing producers, stronger incentives for
    conventional energy than clean energy, and a domestic financial sector
    not experienced in new technologies. With the long-term goal of
    promoting and accelerating the implementation of climate mitigation
    technologies, this study aims to facilitate development of a policy
    framework for promoting sustainable investment climates for clean energy
    investments in South Asia and elsewhere.

  6. NY Times
    For Insurers, No Doubts on Climate Change
    Published: May 14, 2013

    “Insurance is heavily dependent on scientific thought,” Frank Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, told me last week. “It is not as amenable to politicized scientific thought.” Yet when I asked Mr. Nutter what the American insurance industry was doing to combat global warming, his answer was surprising: nothing much….

  7. The Guardian
    The IPCC report takes us from alarmism to adaptation
    Monday 31 March 2014 by Suzanne Goldenberg

    A United Nations report raised the threat of climate change to a whole new level on Monday, warning of sweeping consequences to life and livelihood.

    The report from the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change concluded that climate change was already having effects in real time – melting sea ice and thawing permafrost in the Arctic, killing off coral reefs in the oceans, and leading to heat waves, heavy rains and mega-disasters.

    And the worst was yet to come. Climate change posed a threat to global food stocks, and to human security, the blockbuster report said.

    “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC.

    Monday’s report was the most sobering so far from the UN climate panel and,
    scientists said, the most definitive. The report – a three year joint effort by more than 300 scientists – grew to 2,600 pages and 32 volumes.

    … “The one message that comes out of this is the world has to adapt and the world has to mitigate,” said Pachauri.

    Regulator Takes Focus on Climate Change Preparedness
    By Don Jergler | October 30, 2014 –

    …the nation’s longest serving insurance commissioner and chair of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Climate Change and Global Warming Working Group, believes insurers are not taking climate change seriously enough.

    The insurance commissioner from Washington was part of a report issued by Ceres on Oct. 22 that slammed the industry for “a profound lack of preparedness in addressing climate-related risks and opportunities.”

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