Animal Planet: The UN seeks more Effective Governance of a Natural World in Crisis, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Mar

This space is normally taken up with grave matters like Security Council disagreements over Ukraine and the shape to come of peacekeeping operations.   But this week, another dimension of global gravity took center stage, one with security implications that go significantly beyond the urgent needs of Small Island (SIDS) and Lesser Developed States.

On March 4, the General Assembly held an informal plenary to commemorate World Wildlife Day.   Much of the content of this event was welcome, including Germany’s efforts on behalf of a ‘group of friends’ to remind other states, to quote the UK, “that we overlook wildlife trafficking at our peril.” There was also an admission by the US that ‘we have been part of the problem and wish to be part of the solution’ and a warning by Kenya that unchecked wildlife poaching could threaten fulfillment of the SDGs in many countries.

The next day, a group of states sponsored a ‘One Ocean’ event that was ostensibly focused on the value of ‘ocean sanctuaries’ but which also issued a deeper call for a more profound biological sensitivity than we are currently practicing.

One current theme in the “One Ocean” event was the important role of science in alerting us to environmental threats and helping to provide data sets to guide sound remedial policy.   As Ambassador Thomson of Fiji science can provide evidence of negative human impacts on climate and help us mediate the space separating “prophecies of doom” and living with our “heads in the sand.”

The two events were complementary in some measure, primarily in their insistence on more effective governance of eco-threats. The tenor of the “Wildlife” event was less about appreciation of the complex web of life we are still privileged to enjoy and more about the economic and security implications of insufficiently protected animals such as Tigers.   Needless to say those implications are considerable especially for states for which wildlife-related tourism is a major source of income as well as states fighting the insurgencies for which trafficked wildlife parts constitutes a major source of potential revenue.

But as the BBC reminded us recently in the context of a program on China’s elephants, the greatest threat to their existence (if not our own) is no longer poaching but habitat destruction.   In other words, while there are still threats from criminal elements and terror groups seeking to pad their accounts through the sale of Rhino horns and such, the larger threat of habitat loss is one that is our common legacy. And it is a quite dangerous matter, as we are now by many accounts in the beginning of what some describe as an epic species extinction, the repercussions of which elude firm scientific forecasting.

‘Habitat’ seems like a fairly simple matter, like putting up an A-frame house and turning on the heat and water. But in the natural world, life forms struggle to adapt to and synchronize with other life forms on which their very existence depends.   This linkage was especially highlighted at the “One Ocean” event. We have undermined functional synchronicity with an appalling lack of sensitivity, threatening to extinguish ourselves as much (if not as quickly) as the many other essential contributors to our web of life. In that context, the Netherlands’ insistence seeing oceans through a biodiversity lens as much as an economic or development lens was most welcome.

In addition, the words of Palau’s president Remeingesau rang particularly true when he insisted that the SIDS “are already living what science is telling us.” Science can, indeed, tell us much about the climate impacts of what Ambassador Thomson referred to as our “blind exploitation of resources,’ the status of our dwindling fish stocks and ice caps, the sources of pollutants that are affecting migrating ocean wildlife, and much more. And we need to listen carefully, as one senior diplomat after another insisted. But science can’t always forecast implications, it does not have the power by itself to “regenerate” entire oceans, and it certainly cannot provide actionable incentives to large scale behavior change. Science can (and thankfully does) provide ample evidence of our folly, but it can offer no clear remedial pathway. Such a pathway must come from another place, a place open to inspiration towards meaningful change. As Israel noted, we simply must do more at many levels to better help us resist “spoiling a world that none can fix.”

Human beings have become, sometimes even with glee, reckless predators that not only crowd out other life, but compromise our own existence.   With all due respect to the need for more global governance on oceans and biodiversity, we now seek to govern the movement of horses in a barn whose door has long been ajar.   We migrate to cities in record numbers, in part for economic opportunity but perhaps also in the mistaken belief that cities represent a fortress against an influx of degraded biodiversity that has our fingerprints all over it. Our policymaking is now very much a product of our increasingly urban mindset – ignoring the needs of farmers, consuming with little recognition or remorse, mistaking the predictability of our urban parks for genuine attempts to reacquaint ourselves with natural processes. This pattern is clearly not the pathway we seek.

When I was a child, I discovered that the only way to get out of a swamp when you’ve lost your way is to back out the way you came.   Trying to outsmart the swamp only gets you in deeper with even less control of potentially unsavory outcomes.   It may be time for us collectively to back out the way we came, to abandon the current obsession with using technology to ‘battle’ our way through global challenges rather than retreat to firmer ground on which we can reflect and assess. If we continue to defy and disrespect this ‘swamp’ of our own making, we might one day find that we and our closest, domestic animal companions are all that remains of a planet once teeming with life.

During the “One Ocean” event, Ambassador Sareer from Maldives reminded the audience that there are cultural and “national identity” implications of climate health. Ambassador Cardi of Italy insisted that the health of future generations was much more likely to be guaranteed with healthier oceans.   All of this is true and none of it is sufficient.   We need better eco-governance and more scientific input at every stage.   We also need more compelling norms to stimulate more urgent climate-healthy behavior. As a principle, norm-making, global institution, and as the origin of much of the international community’s current climate change interest, the UN’s role and responsibility in species and biodiversity protection should remain in the spotlight going forward.


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