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Towards a Global Environmental Body

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorSeptember 11, 2009 5:18 PM


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Can anyone dispute that climate change trumps all other ecological concerns in the public discourse? In so far as any environmental issue commands the world's sustained attention, many would argue that this is a good thing. Climate scientists and climate advocates obviously take this view. But that does not seem to be the position of a distinguished group of ecologists who have written this article, "Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions," (sub req) in the latest issue of Science magazine, published today. Their overriding concern, in a nutshell:

Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining^ fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases;^ and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious,^ intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating^ scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development^ of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive^ effects.

Notice that "climate disruption" is grouped with all the other problems. In case you didn't get the message, the authors hammer it home here:

Today, climate disruption is on the international agenda but^ other, interacting global challenges are neglected. International^ institutions primarily focus on single problems, ignoring system-wide^ interactions. Addressing climate change through forest plantations,^ for example, may replace ecosystems targeted by the U.N. Biodiversity^ Convention. Similarly, promotion of biofuels can accelerate^ deforestation and erode the food security of impoverished nations. Pandemic influenza is more likely to emerge where pigs^ and birds intermingle with people; yet no global protocols exist^ for appropriate animal husbandry, only for trade in animals^ and animal products. Although mechanisms exist to address individual^ drivers, their interactive effects must be dealt with comprehensively.

The rest of the piece argues for an environmental international body akin to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which possesses the neccesary authority to induce cooperation among nations on global trade issues. As the authors note, the WTO is guided by the "principle of reciprocity." But how that principle can anchor an international environmental framework that covers a broad suite of ecological and species concerns is not clear to me. Take the recent case of Iceland's whale hunt. How would a WTO-like environmental body handle that? What would the sanctions be? At least the authors understand the enormous challenge they have laid out:

The major powers must be willing to enforce agreements, but^ legitimacy will depend on acceptance by numerous and diverse^ countries and by nongovernmental actors, such as civil society^ and business.

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