Tag Archives: oceans

STEM Cells:   The UN seeks an Elusive Balance on Human Innovation, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jun

Medicine Bottle

If you are too careful, you are so occupied with being careful that you are sure to stumble over something. Gertrude Stein

A single decision can spawn a thousand others that were entirely unnecessary or it can bring peace to a thousand places we never knew existed. Craig Lounsbrough

Don’t sail out farther than you can row back.   Danish saying

This was an interesting week at the UN punctuated by important elections for the UN Security Council and for the president of the General Assembly.   The new Council members – Belgium, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa – will bring considerable policy savvy and expertise to the Council oval as well as well-crafted positions on how the Council can be reformed to more effectively serve the interest of the membership and more skilfully address peace and security challenges.

As for the incoming president of the General Assembly, we have high hopes for María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, currently Ecuador’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Our own twitter feed has been on overload all week as people reacted to the sound of a strong woman’s voice set to lead the UN’s most democratic chamber.  Ms. Espinosa Garcés, as has been noted often, is only the 4th woman to hold this post in the history of the UN.  But what excites us is the range and strength of her policy priorities – disarmament and indigenous rights, gender and environmental health, including ocean health.  She is well-positioned to continue the recent history of successful GA presidencies while keeping a watchful eye on challenges that now threaten a vibrant multilateralism.

In these and other policy matters, she has her work cut out for her.

Among the many policies elevated by the UN this week – from migration and criminal tribunals to counter-terror and the drive to end tuberculosis – the state of our environment took center stage. Of particular concern was the urgency of eliminating single use plastics that have created toxic islands larger than France in the middle of our oceans, endangering all marine life including (as noted in a side event) the birds that must rely on a now-plastic-infested and declining ocean bounty.

Former GA president Peter Thomson of Fiji is now heading the UN’s efforts on ocean policy and he held a series of meetings with diplomats and other stakeholders to promote a more urgent engagement with ocean health, including support for Law of the Sea treaty obligations and his own plans for a conference in 2020 to assess ocean-related progress.  Thomson, as per his reputation, did not mince words, noting that “we are losing the battle” on oceans, though at least now “we know we are losing” due to a series of dismal ocean indicators.  One can, he suggested, “plead indifference, but not ignorance” to the science that paints an uncertain future for human life as ocean life continues its own downward trajectory.

Later during one of his multiple engagements, Thomson suggested, much more hopefully, that we are all “ocean people” in this room, citing “snowballing commitments” to policies that can address an array of ocean related threats – desalination and depleted fish stocks, plastics pollution and commercial dumping – while we still have the opportunity to reverse conditions.

The question for us had something to do with ocean policy but more to do with the science which must direct such commitments, ensuring that remedial policy measures are correctly targeted, robust in their application, and sufficiently engaging of the widest range of global stakeholders.  As with other existential threats to our children’s future, we are long past the point where half-hearted, token gestures will reverse our current stable of “dismal indicators.”  For too long, we have ignored the scientific evidence of ocean decline.  But more than that, we have resisted the call to better understand the benefits and limitations of the scientific community. We have resisted allowing scientists to help create communities of learning in policy settings, in which global innovation and global ethics can combine to guarantee global health.

Ironically perhaps, as the state of ocean health was being debated in one UN conference room, the STI Forum (Science, Technology and Innovation) sponsored by the UN Economic and Social Council was taking place in another.  In the STI plenary meetings and side events, participants heard much about innovations that promise more accurate and comprehensive data to drive policy response on some of the crucial issues facing the planet.  Of particular note for us was the “integrated system” developed by the World Meteorological Association that seeks to ensure high-quality, real-time information on weather-related shifts and potential climate disasters necessary to accurate forecasting in a time of increasing climate volatility.

But much of what interested us at the STI is the interplay of those for whom technological innovation is now essential to our very being as a species and those who cast a wary eye at any innovation not attached to clear warning labels.  Indeed, the gap between these erstwhile “camps” seems to be widening a bit as more and more people place their bets on technology to solve global problems while others cringe at the increasing complexity of personal and institutional technology which is already running far apace of regulatory policies and structures of governance.  As a representative from Alibaba Group admitted, we are now “being split,” in part because we fail to recognize that all technological developments “are a two-edged sword,” a reassuring breeze in some instances, a tornado in others.

As someone probably more Luddite than acolyte, I have an innate sympathy with those with “stick up their noses” at the enticements of innovation that few actually seem to be asking for and that promise benefits as likely to increase inequalities as level them.   As Brazil urged this week, regarding this “4th Industrial Revolution,” we must “learn the lessons” from the 2nd and 3rd Industrial Revolutions.  Why are inequalities still so pervasive in this world?  In this “tech rich” (and tech-obsessed) age, how is it that so many people are still without toilets?  These are the questions that continue to preoccupy our office, even as our high regard for scientific inquiry remains unbroken.

There are important questions to ask regarding this seemingly widening gap, a gap in part driven by technological enthusiasm, in part driven by a neglect of growing global inequalities, in part driven by public disconnect from the science that can provide indicators of trouble at a moment when trouble can still be diverted.  With climate and ocean threats taking center stage, how do maintain the “culture” for scientific inquiry that keeps us creatively innovating but also mindfully regulating? How do we ensure that the regulation we endorse is robust and flexible enough to keep from “stumbling” over the next iterations of scientific advance?  And perhaps more relevant to the security policy community, how do we keep from running further and further behind the pace of technology for which “dual use” continues to communicate both the promise of progress and of existential threat?

On the table where I am writing sits a bottle of pills that I am “required” to take as part of my long-term recovery from my genetically-mandated heart surgery.  In many ways, these pills (and the complex surgery that preceded their use) represent a culminating moment in my personal interaction with science and technology, having been at least temporarily “cured” of a problem that apparently killed many of my ancestors, a cure that highlights the plight of many of my global contemporaries who, in this stunningly unequal world, do not have access to the high-tech, life-saving measures that I do.

This pill bottle, like many other of life’s affairs, comes attached to both a promise and a warning.   Take the pills as instructed and I am more likely to reap health benefits.  Take them otherwise and not only are the benefits threatened but other complications could ensue – including in this instance liver damage.  When medicines enter a complex organism such as the human body, it is essential  that we do our best to assess risk factors.  What can possibly go wrong here and how can we minimize adverse impacts?

The global community represents complexity on a scale that much more vast, and thus the responsibilities raised by our “ingestion” of technological innovation become more complex as well.  As the World Economic Forum’s Philbeck noted during the STI, we must “avoid language directed towards technology that either fears or romanticizes it.” Other speakers warned of the dangers of taking a passive stance towards technological innovation, noting that as science continues to move past conventional boundaries, we must ensure that any new resulting “tools” enhance sustainable development  rather than take us in another, less inclusive, less participatory direction.

As Philbeck also interjected, trust must be earned in the technological realm as in others, but trust must be grounded in our attentive awareness of potentials and pitfalls.  In an age where so many people are still denied access to the “fruits” of science and technology, where elites eagerly horde both the capacity and application of those “fruits,” and where regular folks increasingly demand the benefits of technology independent of any responsibility to assess its impacts and avert its addictions, we risk exacerbating a crisis of our own making.   We may, indeed, have already sailed further and faster on these technological “waters” than is in our best collective interest.

This is not the time for timidity or the excess caution that might cause us to stumble, to be sure, but it might be wise to slow down the pace of our sailing a bit and recalibrate our distance from the shore.






An Ode to the Ocean Conference:  A Poet’s Reflection, Elena Botts

14 Jun

Editor’s Note:   This from Elena Botts is both longer and more poetic than we usually post. Elena is indeed a full-length published poet as well as a student at Bard College.  She represented Global Action at the recent Ocean Conference and seemed both intrigued and perplexed by much of what she witnessed. Elena’s presence with us continues a long tradition of making space for young people with diverse skills, insights and interests beyond the remit of international affairs.  Their collective (and often provocative) “take” on what the UN is and is not, what we at Global Action are and are not doing, helps us chart our course in this policy space. (Title is mine, not Elena’s.)


There is no city except a city in fog before anyone. Had woken as the trees moved in an otherworldly breeze. There is no ocean but the ocean. Before anyone was stranded on a distant shore overlooking the bluffs of crazy sorrow. And here is the horizon that first finds the sun and moon as they rise and no stars but these stars as cannot be traced. By anyone. I saw you in a dream but then it was only seeing you in a dream. When still the ghost of you walks this earth.


We begin by stating (once more) that the ocean is the easiest thing to envision as “the beyond”. All of the delegates sat in a circle out on the windy dunes, some half-buried in the sand, others laughing like loons and spinning into the surf. We sat in the sun or sought a beyond in the waves like the way the people come to the beach just to sit facing the surf and sky without a prayer but the prayer of being alive and think nothing of it. We didn’t think anything of it. One ambassador asked another if they might have lunch and an NGO intervened to say hello and cast a distrustful eye on their shared national interests. An intern tried to find the right shoes. Of those around him, he thought to himself: “No, I wouldn’t say you all are selfish, just absorbed in your own perspectives and motivations. I’d say there’s always something to talk about. One can always trace the stars into a constellation, but will it catch on?  Will anyone talk about it? And then, will someone fly into outer space with billions of lines of bungee cord and-”

It is a motif in all our lives, the Secretary went on empathetically or perhaps nasally but probably not. He was only talking to the dim thunder of the surf.

He said something like this: “Given the immensity of the ocean, I can hardly think of the loss that our destruction of it represents. But instead of turning away, it becomes all the more important to calculate the effects of acidification, pollution, overfishing, resource extraction, and other human actions. A particular focus of conference is regional consequences for different countries whose representatives are in attendance. There is a portion focused on the Senegalese plan for facing these issues.”

The Secretary reminded us all that he was from Portugal and that Portuguese writer Vergilio Ferreira once had something to say about oceans. What Secretary quoted was that “A language is the place from where you see the World and in which the limits of our thinking and feeling are mapped out. From my language I see the sea.” What he did not say was that “From my language its murmuring is heard, as from others can be heard that of the forest or the silence of the desert. Therefore the voice of the sea has been that of our restlessness.” It wasn’t the real words, it was translated, as everything eventually is, into English. Are we made of the contexts we have forsaken? Do we meet here to discuss the world before we go out and find it?

Every country that has a statement on Sustainable Development Goal 14 (it calls for us to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”) has the right to make a scathing remark about how the U.S. is being an irresponsible bastard when it comes to climate and everyone knows it. Every day, the Americans renew their commitment to a carefully constructed guilt complex that has emerged in the aftermath of withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. We have never been good at national shame, however, so the guilt becomes new fodder for airing our differences and plastering our laptops with stickers just so everyone knows that our allegiance lies with not with the USA, nor with any special creed or conviction, but none other than the unimpeachable moon herself which we will soon colonize after we finish untangling Congress, our sense of morality (sometimes referred to as Guantanamo and other times called late stage capitalism, for more information, please take your local epileptic to Times Square), and the Dark Web.

So let’s talk acidification, pollution, overfishing, resource extraction, and other human actions (dumping especially), regional consequences for different countries whose representatives are in attendance, and let’s see what the Senegalese have to say. Today we are going to affect the lives of everyone on the planet. Don’t breathe or let your heart beat too loudly. I’ve heard that in sacred political spaces, the butterfly effect deafens. Let your heart beat too loudly.

Every organism is, in a way, representative of the whole ecosystem because something that impacts one, impacts all (much like the international system). I think most of us know this. It is hard I think to understand the depth of the human impact on the planet, sometimes I think scientists have only observed a small fraction of our influence. And even that which we have measured and can extrapolate from, in terms of climate change among other phenomena, is difficult to really process. I think it is emotionally numbing for many people to care about environmental problems just because they seem so insurmountable and the average person seems so powerless. However, it is important to overcome this attitude if only because it is through cooperative effort that we can enact real change, and this requires participation from all parties.

And what is the outcome of this? The delegates at the UN Ocean Conference are meant to determine and agree upon a set of voluntary commitments regarding marine life as a contribution to Sustainable Development Goal #14.

These commitments are put forward by nations and by NGOs and enacted as initiatives through governments or organizations. It is my personal hope that these initiatives are implemented, and expanded because the ocean is an immeasurable resource and critical for the continuance of that illimitably precious thing, life on earth. ‘The world’s oceans are key to sustaining life on the planet. They provide a range of benefits for human well-being and prosperity by providing food, jobs, habitats and biodiversity, and by moderating temperatures and capturing carbon.’

Later, you’d tell everyone that the greatest thing was the obliteration of sound when you fell into the collision of two oceans, midwinter in Africa. It was a yelling kind of frigid, your whole body syncopated.

Because afterwards, is the storm of doing but for nothing? What is this action plan, this nexus of hope but a ruse to tie us together when we are already tied together, when we are already threaded and indeed tired. ‘These are the action years’ says somebody, says probably the secretary of something. “This is the best opportunity we will have.” But I see you talking, sir. All I see is you talking. There is nothing happening here, all of the happening happens somewhere else through the efforts of people more committed than these. It is a vast and bureaucratic machine with no sense to soften it.

Suddenly, a group of scientists and researchers descends, all speaking excitedly of mangroves. Flood protection is vital they say, and economically viable. Eastern Caribbean states are especially vulnerable to storms and loss of coral reefs. Still, the Cook Islands might have trouble getting up. He and his people have, he says, “a disproportionate burden”.

And when the earth is destroyed, we will not inherit the earth, not even the scientists who were devoted will inherit but one shoreline in the shadow of a great beached whale. If it is as the minister of the Cook Islands has said, even his little heaven shall be underwater.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!” He cries (sixty percent of his own territory is legally protected). The Cook Islands soon hope to transition to all renewables. “You know”, he says, as an aside, “we really do have more water than land.”

There is an actor here and for a moment I’m afraid he was hard to discern from the enthusiasm of the Canadians. He says that he is full of goodwill but that the “g” in “goodwill” is in uppercase. He is positively giddy. He talks for a long time. He says nothing of substance. It is just a hundred flickering signs on the backs of the chairs where it is written: “Save the Ocean.” Maybe this is hopeless optimism. Maybe this is willful pragmatism. Maybe this is all messaging and now that meaning is gone, we’re effectively underwater. Maybe this is someone was commissioned to create ocean-related sculptures outside so now we too must play our part and take pictures of their creative work. It isn’t creative work. It’s a bunch of waves or something. You act like you’re too postmodern for this.

Sri Lanka keeps taking it all very personally, as we all might do if avoiding confrontation regarding the human rights abuses incurred over the course of one’s own civil strife.

The Swedish would like some fish. Or they’d like their fish back, which is why they’re co hosting and altering their fishing regulations to improve sustainability. Fiji is co hosting because soon they’ll have nowhere else to be. All it takes is a few cyclones. Palau and Tuvalu also mention the importance of fishing  regulations and indigenous solutions to prevent further “exploitation of international waters.”

The Chinese nodded along like buoys in a harbor. Someone cheerfully metaphorized the stock market, comparing it to a tide, rising and falling.

All of the people of Bolivia came here in one person to fight against “the commercialization of biodiversity” and “capitalism as a threat to the earth that must be broken down.” It’s amazing what modernity can do. He thinks we must be the siblings that he lost to imperialism so every day, every hour we must remind him that we are his enemies, that we would like to take his soul and sell it and afterwards eat of the cocoa leaf too.

Bolivia is getting so tall lately, says one of the five, but finally they decide to maybe help the landlocked developing country renegotiate with Chile for fair sea access. Bolivia is forced to clarify that “brother” is not a pejorative but comes from a place of deep cultural sensitivity. He goes on to explain that not everyone is born rich and that cultural traditional is important to those of indigenous heritage.

The Gabonese Republic mutters about “discrimination” and sanctions and the oceans become a thematic backdrop for allegations of vote-rigging. The sea is apparently the new locale for international justice.

If Belgium is in a hurry then is everyone else in a hurry too? No, no one else is in a hurry. Belgium is simply confused. Because it is important that we all sit in a room emailing and texting each other while someone else grants us idealistic colloquialisms about the fate of the word and this is not a circle jerk because in between important meetings we all drift as by osmosis, colliding with one another like random, idea-generating particles. But random doesn’t apply here because we are caught and we are each a mess of intentions and I need you to be quiet here for a moment and watch the boats go by in the lounge where no food or drink is allowed so that I can think about the state of our world or maybe just my state afterwards (I must address my constituents somehow, they are more real to me than these walls and these people and these ideas which I cannot fully bear).

After all, when you had first entered the building, did you know that you are inside the inside of everything? You know you must have been here before that time before you were born. Once again it was very quiet and everyone moved like the wind.

It is important that you remember that you are not a real person. It is good that way, no one will see you. You are a political entity and should act as such. It is perfect; every bit of the space has meaning but no one knows what it is. It’s like a song that you make up as you go along, except that no one is singing anything, at least until some Pacific Islanders came to the front and howled in song and it was the most beautiful thing about it. Come to think of it, you’re all alone. Only Pachamama is watching.

A man with a vacuum emerges around the corner and vacuums all around but not under your feet. You avoid one another’s gaze. There is a solitary ship on the East River, dim lit bulbs strung at its helm. A diplomat watches as you pass, evaluating the import of your step. You say you have no message but the words stick in your breath. This is the part of the story where- “she’s trying to feed dragging the dead calf after her”- marine life suffers and dies due to discarded fishing gear soon to be followed by a teary-eyed conservation society proclaiming that greater fishing regulation is necessary for the health of our oceans.

If you were a real person, you know what you would do. First, you would get a new shirt. Then you would recycle, but really recycle, not only cans and jars or nets and plastic bags (floating like death for the mammals to bite into, floating like manufactured ghosts, on the high seas, floating), recycle all the great sorrow of the people and the earth (as though in some implicit suicide pact, we fall, by warming, we lose even our essence and are melded together in that final hour, maybe even wading through a rising ocean, and scarcity was uncompelling and in the end we didn’t know what it meant to be human, we just knew that we were dying if we didn’t find out) and turn it into something compelling like a solution or as they call it lately, these days, a multilateral agreement, like a great something (beached whale?) between nations.

Finally, you would ride on a foreign minister’s back like a strange monkey from far away. You would say hello to everyone that you saw in the hallway. It is not impractical to address every single human being here, it is like playing god without being divine and especially without any pride. In the morning, you wake with the realization that we sprung from the womb as fully formed solutions. Surely, we could write the whole thing off to existential rot. Surely we could say who’s bright idea was existence anyway? To hell with the oceans! To hell with her that is like my mother and my father and my whole world, all that I have ever loved.

Yeah I care about what the ocean thinks. The real problem here is that there is no wind inside the building. It is not like we went into the great wood and oh goodness it breathed, those stormy trees and a weighted breeze rippling the solid calm of lake. Here I can only beg you not to speak so quietly when all lives bend to the water but you do, oh you do. The united nations climbed a tree, fallen as it was and each spoke of how everyone was restrained in a mighty fear, like something that could not be named so we named it and the world shook out from under us until we entered the old earth.

Let’s be judicious. Let’s have a council. Let’s prepare statements while we sit on airplanes or jets shooting across the sky like renegade falling stars that somehow, and to find fuel, to combust and propel oneself from a thousand foreign countries, immersed as we all are, after all, in the oceans. This all makes so much sense we don’t have to say it aloud. We’ll say it aloud anyway, loudly and ad nauseum. Did anyone forget that we are here to, in fact, save the oceans? We’re here to save the oceans. We’re here and we’re naked and we want more than anything to gird ourselves in compliance and measures to limit pollution from industry and eventually we would like to succumb to the formalization of an international system that seems so increasingly unsteady like, forgive me, a captainless rudderless ship sailing out between the dead buildings of New York City.

And in ghost – walking the city one recalls that there are many organisms that think they are separate organisms. If the nations are united then is this just another city? No, because no one is eating here and no one is sleeping here but mostly no one is knowing here another thing, for what it is. It is inescapable, New York, as we walk into a unseasonable temperature, passing security guards who ask if we are okay or perhaps feeling a bit under the weather today.


I keep thinking about the ruler of the universe, you know the one who controls the aquatic symphonies, the tides. He has a cat, a gingery thing that will leave his side and often but somehow remains like a piece of his face only you wouldn’t think of his face you’ll never remember his face quite even after you’ve met him and maybe it’s this way for a lot of people but for some reason. His face makes you remember a lot of things but these are as unspeakable as the planet in its slow revolutions of the sun and nothing ready to the mind, you cannot speak.

He lives in a small house. Here there is a table and a cat, a gingery thing that eludes him somehow more or less than all the ether that he cannot convince himself is real. He doesn’t believe in anything, he says. Most especially not himself and that is why I recall him so fondly, perhaps he is a generation of my own eroding. Maybe it is fond to know little or nothing or perhaps it is endearing to us who know mostly of failings and less of things that stick and stick and stick like stars or even the constellations of skin, so fixed is my vision on impermanence, so broken my bones by merely the thought of it and breath just another thing to carry me out of this world. Had I known myself enough here to know this place.

He lives by the sea, but we all do in our minds, anyway, ourselves forever wading or cresting. It depends on whether we are in it or of it, whether we could know it, or even the moon. He has a face like the moon and he breathes a cosmic wind that floats down and flutters us, our bones, our terrible unshakeable hearts that we do anything and everything to annihilate. As oblivion was the first true love.

When you embrace the ruler of the universe, he only shivers and admits that he doesn’t know if he exists, let alone if there is a universe. The others often aim at convincing him, that yes, there is great care in the cosmos, even rabid desire and the minds of animals, even the salivating human animal, and that the spinning suns burning out implode for something after all, even the nethers of us. But he is. The cat has lost itself in the wave but pads out again, slim flank and a trim fish in mouth or maybe an imaginary fish, a scintillating thing that the felid devours madly, streaking the bones and ravening. They comfort the body of the ruler, hold him tight though he is unmoved, moves little. His body doesn’t speak fathoms and his eyes are forgettable to each of us. We hold him like nobody until we are released. He smiles at us and says he will soon return to his little shack on the rim of the great ocean on this planet that is smaller than most but on which he is lonesome, that is if one can be alone, that is if he is what he is and there is a shack crumbling and an ocean also and a rim of all things, though he says, and skuffles a foot into a dune, I cannot suppose that is so. I do not know.

Oceans 14: Making Peace with Life Below Water, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Jun


Global warming is the foreboding thunder in the distance. Ocean acidification is the lightning strike in our front yard. David Horsey

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.   Ansel Adams

If you’re out someplace like the ocean on a capsized boat, it doesn’t matter if you have academic degrees, or if you’re a martial-arts ninja. Nature is a bigger force than you. Rachael Taylor

Monday, the UN is poised to welcome delegates from around the world, including many heads of state and foreign ministers from Small Island Developing States (SIDS). These leaders have come to profess their deep commitment to the vast and unique resource represented by our oceans.  They have come to share threats of desalination and sea water rise, of acidification, fisheries depletion, mass “islands” of plastic waste and growing species loss.  They have come to ask for justice and assistance to preserve their island homes and ways of life.

For months now, under the guidance of the president of the General Assembly, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, and with enthusiastic support from much of the UN system, our UN conference rooms been the scene of intense scrutiny of the consequences of our frivolous and longstanding misuses of our oceans, a resource that our western mythology has long cast as infinite and fearsome, but which we now recognize is showing grave strains that jeopardize the livelihoods, safety and well-being of all who live on its shores, all the families and communities who depend on its bounty.

The culmination of efforts by President Thompson and many other UN leaders is what is known as “The Ocean Conference,” or in its longer version, the United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

The larger policy backdrop for this meeting is a series of climate-related warning signs with implications for and from our oceans, including mass ice cap fissures, record high global temperatures, and increasing levels of food insecurity exacerbated by climate-related drought, flooding and damage from massive ocean storms.  And then there is the decision by the UN’s “host state” to pull out of the Paris Climate agreement, only one of a series of steps taken by the current US administration to roll back virtually all environmental protections for which the federal government has previously taken responsibility.

This isn’t the setting to undertake a thorough critique of the US president’s decisions on environmental protection, ocean health and climate change. From a multi-lateral perspective, though, we are inclined to reject the lens promoted by many in the media that US leadership is utterly indispensable to the urgent pursuit of ocean and climate health.   We have, in fact, both seen and welcomed the determination of many states around the world to step up their environmental commitments in partial recognition of the fact that the Paris agreement, for all of its hopeful policy urgency, establishes a still-shaky floor for climate health.  Many scientists believe that the targets established by Paris are probably not robust enough (a point also made by Nicaragua which has thus far refused to support the agreement); some scientists believe that we have already crossed a dangerous threshold and that much more will be needed from many corners of the globe if a permanent crisis is still to be averted. A bit of formal US government hostility towards environmental health may increase the shaking a bit, but thankfully others are doing more and pledging even more than that.  And the tide in the waters of US state concern can always turn again.

In this context, we should recall that a lack of formal US commitment to UN agreements has rarely, on its face, indicated an unwillingness to work with relevant UN mechanisms.   The US has long been a serial offender when it comes to ratifying UN treaties but not always a serial offender when it comes to honoring their spirit.  The US may never ratify the Rome Statute, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that the US won’t work with the International Criminal Court prosecutors to promote justice for mass atrocities.  There is wiggle room here to negotiate cooperative, if not binding arrangements on oceans and other climate-impacting resources, even with members of this fact-challenged administration.

Nevertheless, given recent threats to state support (at least for now in the US) for climate-healthy, environmentally-friendly policies, the onus must shift (and has shifted in many instances) to cities and communities, activists and academics, designers and farmers, people from all walks of life and their supporting organizations who have both skills and contexts to contribute to our urgent environmental tasks.  Indeed, one key feature of this week’s Ocean Conference is its focus on voluntary commitments from state and non-state actors, commitments ranging widely from efforts to rid the oceans of discarded fishing gear and micro-plastics to establishing new or larger ocean sanctuaries.  We will need to solicit and network many thousands more of these commitments by government and non-government actors, especially from within the major oceans-abusing and even climate-denying states.

One “commitment” that we value greatly is Green Map, which is now in the process of aligning its global iconography (170 core images) with the Sustainable Development Goals.   The point of this exercise is not to promote the icons themselves, but rather what the icons themselves promote – hopeful local sustainability initiatives taking place in communities worldwide.    There are many such initiatives underway and many more soon to take root.   We need them all, and then some.

If some states begin to lose their grip on the urgency of our ocean and climate risks, the rest of us must tighten our collective resolve.  We cannot survive as a species without our oceans.  We surely cannot meet our diverse obligations to the SDGs without healthy oceans. We cannot eliminate poverty, educate our children, resolve our governance-related issues, end discrimination and even solve climate change without oceans that can sustain its complex and still-undiscovered life forms while continuing to host our livelihoods and absorb our carbon excesses.

Many of us have had the experience of standing on an ocean shore staring at darkening clouds kissed by a setting sun.   Alarmingly, the thunder in those clouds is louder now; the lightning is getting closer than is comfortable.  The time has come, indeed past, for us to pause our grateful gaze and take up our urgent cause.


The Importance of Importance:   The UN General Assembly Reasserts its Cross-Cutting Value, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Sep


UN Photo

One of the things I marveled at during my months (long ago) as a hospital chaplain in Harford, CT was the ability of emergency room medical staff to perform “triage” on incoming patients.

The principle is simple in the abstract if not in practice:   In a system under constant stress, professionals must be able to distinguish quickly between patients requiring urgent attention and those who can wait a bit – albeit often uncomfortably – for their turn at treatment in the hope that full health can be restored.

This “triage” is hardly confined to hospitals; parents make these judgment calls all the time, sequencing the lives of children so that they get more of what they need when they need it, especially during times of urgency.   And of course many of these judgments point down a life-long road – sealing the relationship linking healthy diets, prompt health care, home reading and other nurturing activities, and the promotion of future self-directed adults able to contribute much to families and communities.

The UN has its own versions of “triage” though the public face of this is largely confined to Security Council meetings where “matters of importance” take place, including assessments and responses to threats that literally leap on to the front pages of our media.  There are, indeed, matters of gravity punctuating the Council agenda – Syria and Yemen are only the most notable – and the Council is learning again about both the potential and limitations of its policy solidarity.  Thankfully, Council members are also spending more time in the field – as we write this, they are in South Sudan – in part in an attempt to better grasp some of the practical consequences of their sometimes inadequate decision making to maintain (or restore) peace and security.

What the Council has most in common with emergency rooms and families is the expectation of relevant potency.   While hardly omnipotent, the decisions of ER doctors and parents are clearly binding within their “areas of jurisdiction.” For its part, the Council is one of the few modalities within the UN that has a mandate to “make states do things” that they might not do otherwise.  While the effectiveness of Council responses has been and should continue to be challenged, the assumption reflected within the Council’s mandate is that if states do not abide by its resolutions, more or less coercive measures may well follow – sanctions, travel bans, peacekeepers or even overtly military operations.

For many people, this coercion is a critical dimension of “importance.”   If we can’t make governments and other entities abide by rules of law and conduct, if we can’t force states to keep their treaty or resolution promises, then “triage” is little more than the creation of a priority list for institutional impotence.   What good, for instance, is it to create (as the UN is seeking to do this week) massive ocean refuges beyond national jurisdiction in an attempt to heal the seas if there is no trusted mechanism of enforcement – if there is no “ocean police” to ensure that fish stocks are not depleted, biodiversity is preserved, plastics and toxins are not carelessly dumped into increasingly compromised waters?

But it is not at all clear to what degree the UN’s use of coercive tools have actually modified the behavior of recalcitrant state and non-state entities.   Moreover, it seems to us, as it now seems to many UN member states, that there are many “soft power” options that have been – and remain – largely underutilized in this institutional space – tools such as mediation and good offices, to be sure, but also what we might call the “power of importance,” the resolve that comes from knowing you are placing priority on the most urgent matters with the most far-reaching consequences.

We don’t get many compliments in this office (few of us at the UN do) but the kindest remark ever paid to us was by a diplomat who noted, “You folks always show up for the most important discussions.”   For us this year, “showing up” has largely meant following the exhausting itinerary of the president of the 70thGeneral Assembly (PGA), Denmark’s Mogens Lykketoft.  This PGA has run a marathon during his year of service, refocusing and empowering the General Assembly while offering (even insisting upon) tangible support to other key UN functions, including the Financing for Development mandate of the Economic and Social Council  and the peace and security mandate of the Security Council.   He has lent the support of his office (and his personal presence) to a host of issues on the UN agenda that must stay firmly on our collective radar – pandemic threats, the rights and well-being of migrants and refugees, our urgent climate challenges, the political participation and employment of the world’s largest-ever generation of youth, the elevation of peacebuilding skills and architecture, the healing of our oceans, the transparency of the current Secretary-General search and its full inclusion of women candidates, the end to discrimination against disabled persons, indigenous women and far too many others.

We have few if any quibbles with the PGAs triage.   With or without the power of formal coercion, he has focused the attention of the GA on the issues about which we will learn to cooperate more fully or perish more rapidly.

And he saved some of his time and energy to focus on his own office – its needs in relation to the extraordinary expectations now placed upon it. Part of this has involved exposing the hypocrisy of a system that demands more and more of its key leadership without the funding commensurate with those responsibilities.  Lykketoft recognizes the advantages of coming from a wealthy country anxious to subsidize his success.   Other PGAs have not been so lucky.  Others have had to cut corners and make deals, often in ways that sow suspicions.   Plugging the institutional gaps in the system closest to the PGA is both a gift to his able successor (Fiji’s Amb Thompson) and to our collective ability to sustain interest in the most important policy priorities which the PGA and his VPs have energetically highlighted.

This past week the PGA hosted a “culture of peace” event in Trusteeship Council.  It’s a bit of a “mushy” topic, to be sure, but the event did underscore the diverse responsibilities of peacemaking beyond the control of weapons and coercive responses to wrongdoers.  It also gave UN officials and others the opportunity to share some of what drives their commitment to this place and keeps them energized to fulfill its multi-lateral potential.  From Nicaragua’s insistence on poverty reduction priorities and Italy’s call for youth inclusion to Malaysia’s urging of political moderation efforts and Indonesia’s call to find pathways out of “fragility,” many states welcomed this space for the kind of deeper reflection that keeps our policy deliberations on track, the kind of reflection on which good policy triage depends.

Also during this event, Tunisia’s Nobel Laureate Wided Bouchamaoui noted that, despite the slow pace of change, we must keep our focus on the reform that “alters destinies,” a reform that requires humility, the renunciation of despair and a commitment to concrete outcomes. Albania directly referenced Mother Teresa, warning that “we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”  On a similar note, SG special adviser David Nbarro, a key architect of the UN’s Ebola response and now focused on the Sustainable Development Goals, reflected that “human beings can respect themselves better as they learn to respect others better.”

These contributions are not a substitute for good policy, but they reference attributes of the human experience essential to good “triage,” keeping our eyes and energies fixed on matters of urgency in these gravely challenging times. We thank PGA Lykketoft for his year-long lesson on what truly matters.

A Climate Conducive to Peace:  The UN Confronts its Exterior and Interior Spaces, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jul

The unofficial theme of this past week at the UN was ‘climate week,’ from the High Level Political Forum in ECOSOC and a General Assembly High Level event, to numerous side events ranging from Oceans to Migrants and an Arria Formula discussion in the Security Council, led by Malaysia and Spain, focused on climate as a ‘threat multiplier.”

Among the features of this week’s events, in addition to momentum-gathering efforts to counter what the Secretary-General referred to as a “snail’s pace” of urgent UN action on climate health, was the high-level presence of policy leaders from the Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

SIDS political and civil society leadership have long called for urgent measures to stem the tide of an eroding climate, a “tide” that is causing mass flooding, the destruction of fish stocks, the pollution of ocean habitats, even what Kiribati activist Alofa cited in the Security Council as the “great sadness” occasioned by the very real possibility of eventually having to abandon her family home.  As Seychelles noted, the SIDS must be considered as a “special development case,” but many states are coming to realize the degree to which SIDS crises have both been ignored and are increasingly being mirrored in other global regions.  As an Italian Minster warned, climate threats “know no borders, require no visas.”

Despite this growing awareness, progress on firm, remedial measures remains stilted. In the General Assembly, Kiribati’s President Tong cited a “loss of hope” from telling the same story over and over and wondering if anyone is listening.   As noted by Palau Minister Beck in the “One Ocean” event, whether we are prepared or not, the dire predictions of last generations’ climate scientists appear to be coming true.  And as Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Debrum prodded the Council (which had last taken up climate 2 years ago), “what has really changed” in our collective response? The answer echoing through all the week’s events was, clearly not enough.  As DSG Eliasson lamented with a good deal of off-the-cuff passion, “we are not at peace with nature.”  We have not, as Sweden shared in the Arria meeting, done our part to “supplant national red lines with nature’s red lines” nor have we fully grasped, as noted by Poland, the full relationship between the health of oceans and other ecosystems and the success of our development efforts to eradicate poverty once and for all.

And while some states wondered if the Council should be heavily invested in climate issues apart from interactions with ECOSOC and other relevant UN agencies and programs, the peace and security implications of climate were also laid bare.  Lithuania was one of several states which highlighted the degree to which a damaged climate can be a “driver of insecurity.”  And Chile provided its own thoughtful statement that underscored climate’s role in bringing otherwise latent conflicts, especially over water access, into the open.  In this context, Chile wisely reinforced the human rights and gender dimensions to any Security Council or other UN actions designed to counter or even reverse climate-related security threats.

All of this discussion – in the Council, in ECOSOC and the General Assembly, in some extraordinary side events – was welcome if perhaps a bit late in the game.  But all of it also pointed to another ‘climate’ dimension, the climate we have created within our diplomatic and UN walls, a climate that equally needs attention and even healing if we expect the global public – and especially younger generations – to trust our ‘strategic sincerity’ to manage this planet-threatening  crisis.

Why indeed, many wonder, is it taking so long for the international community to respond to what is such an obvious external threat, risking an overheated and contaminated bequest to future generations of which we should be at least alarmed and probably also ashamed?  We have our own analysis, but many of the answers lie in the words of the diplomats whom themselves are authors and products of an interior version of our ‘climate’ challenge.

Part of this struggle of internal climate is related to the habits, some helpful some destructive, that we dutifully cultivate but rarely interrogate.  In ECOSOC it was Romania’s MP Borbely who noted how the most “beautiful” sustainability plans are undermined by our “stubborn mindsets.”    South Africa chimed in at the same event, noting our collective consumer culture that has gotten “out of hand,” a habit that is difficult to break but which must somehow be tamed if we are to convince skeptical publics that UN climate policy can truly inspire altered behaviors on the scale needed.

Then there are the other messages we send, often incidentally, that undermine public confidence in our internal climate and the decisions that proceed from it.  For instance, in a discussion in the Security Council this week on Darfur and the International Criminal Court, as is protocol in such matters, the Sudanese Ambassador was given the final word, attacking the professionalism of Prosecutor Bensouda and allowing those who were witness to the statement to come away thinking that the Sudan government was a victim of a witch hunt rather than a perpetrator of abuse on a mass scale.  As is their habit, the Council members had already spoken.  None came to the defense of Bensouda’s mandate amidst the Sudanese assault, and protocol granted no permission for her to come to her own.

The next day in the Council’s monthly ‘wrap up” session the UK’s Ambassador Rycroft called attention to another sometimes dispiriting aspect of our institutional habit – the endless reading by officials of policy statements, largely in impersonal and dispassionate tones. His concern seemed to be in part with presentations that are repetitive, abstract, do not respond directly to other state positions and are, as New Zealand noted during the same meeting, a means of “scoring points” rather than solving problems in places like Yemen, Syria or Palestine. Such failures of political resolve, as Malaysia noted, undermine confidence in a fundamental responsibility of the UN system, and this confidence is eroded further as states address in monotone while onlookers seek some passion.  As someone new around the Council table Amb. Rycroft’s statement suggested, perhaps against hope, that Council members can communicate a more personal, caring and even urgent engagement in their dealings with each other and with respect to the billions of people living at the edge of our policy decisions.

The sometimes tired, habitual  and even mean-spirited messages that can be experienced in many UN meeting rooms may seem unrelated to climate policy, but such messages can collectively undermine public confidence in our ability to adjust institutional habits in constructive ways to fit the world’s urgent circumstances. If we at the UN — people of education and privilege — cannot (will not) shift the energy of the structures and protocols of our institutions and their (in this instance) climate-related decisionmaking, there is little reason to believe that the more modestly situated will be able and willing to do so.  Especially on climate, it is discouraging at best to see stakeholders fussing over ice cream that is seconds away from melting on the floor.

Back at the General Assembly event, the Secretary-General virtually begged delegations to “quicken your pace and raise your ambitions.”   That an existential threat such as climate change would require such a plea is perhaps more telling than the plea itself.   We understand full well that science-generated data sets alone do not drive policy, let alone its consensus.   But the circumstances to which this data points will require all of us one day to answer for any and all vestiges of our stubborn neglect.   By not changing our messaging and (more importantly) our policy content on climate, we risk being roundly scorned in our absence by another generation that will be forced to cope with a crisis that may no longer be able to be resolved.

In that same General Assembly event, President Tong of Kiribati expressed his longing, one day soon, to be able to say to the world’s children “you don’t need to worry anymore” about climate health.  Getting to this ‘peace of mind’ (not to mention ‘peace with nature’) will take more compassion from all of us, as Elder HE Mary Robinson explained during a recent side event; but also an institutional commitment to “prioritize the most vulnerable and least responsible.”  In other words, we must commit more to encouraging that hopeful combination of less change in our external climate, and more change in our internal one.