Tag Archives: Unied Nations

Island Get-Away: Heeding the Call of the Climate-Vulnerable, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Sep

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Delays and laziness are the two great gulfs in which multitudes of souls are drowned and perish. John Fox

You cannot prove your worth by bylines and busyness.  Katelyn S. Irons

Nathan thought people needed to wash dishes by hand sometimes. Prepare their own meals more often. And take walks.  Eileen Wilks

We cannot put off living until we are ready….Life is fired at us point-blank. Jose Ortega Y Gasset

If you want to save some money at Christmas, you can say Santa Claus died in a wildfire. Chuck Nice

This year’s high-level week at the UN has come and gone.  Barriers designed to separate those invited and not-invited to this grand political party are coming down as I write and most of the dignitaries (and their entourages) have had their say and boarded planes for home. The time will soon come for the diplomats and other stakeholders who walk the UN’s halls daily to translate some of the promises made into concrete policies, as well as to attempt to soften some of the bravado of heads of state who came to the UN to air their grievances and/or to use their platform to, in some instances, defend the indefensible (as with Brazil) or attempt to undermine the value of multilateralism from multilateralism’s most cherished podium (as with the US).

It was a frenetic scene from early Monday’s opening of the Climate Summit through Friday’s high-level event focused on some of the growing, existential threats posed to small-island states from climate change.  Indeed, some of the most significant take-away messages from this UN week were from those very same events.  The widely-reported, emotional statement uttered to dignitaries by Greta Thunberg (“how dare you”) at the Climate Summit underscored the absurdity of middle-age diplomats of privilege putting “hope” in a teenager who should be home and in school, a teenager who is asking only that leaders listen and respond to the science of climate change and not their own polling numbers.  For her part, Greta might well have been one of the only persons in that Summit (not living within walking distance of the UN) whose mode of transport did not contribute to the problem that the dignitaries had ostensibly gathered to address.  Indeed, the vast environmental “footprint” associated with this event (a fact not lost on some skeptics) should have led less to “hope” in the singular determination of a teenager and more to shame regarding the behavior of political leadership who, in too many instances, still lacks the fortitude to practice what they preach.

Friday’s event focused on the growing climate urgency felt by small-island states couched within a mid-term review of the SAMOA Pathway.  This review highlighted the plight of states staring “point blank” at rising sea levels and ever-angrier storms, and gave rise to frustrations with the limited ability of UN leadership to evoke practical climate commitments from the heads of several large-emissions states. But the event also underscored the degree to which the UN remains highly valuable as a platform to appeal for and garner support for island states which have contributed little to the climate problem but which, in too many instances, suffer from its most severe impacts.  In some ways, this event represented the best (as Sweden’s Foreign Minister referred to the UN) of this “global public good” – passionate, honest, helpful and thoughtful –offering hope to small islanders that big-power interests would not be allowed to deflect responses to the now-existential fears that the economies and cultures of their small-island homes could soon be added to our rapidly-growing list of global extinctions.

There were many important messages emanating from this event that highlighted the urgency of the times and the “lazy delays” that have often characterized our common commitments.  Ireland’s President Michael Higgins spoke well of the dangers of “recurrence” of our collective challenges which he believes can only be prevented through a new ecological-social “compact.”  A native speaker from Hawaii was more graphic, noting that there are more plastic objects in the ocean “than stars in the Milky Way” and highlighting the greed that makes us the only species that “forces disharmony” with the natural order.  Climate problems for one, he noted, soon become “problems for all,” underscoring the hope of UN SG Gutterres that if we can find the courage to solve climate change at its most difficult point, we can solve it at other points more readily.

And in a remarkable SAMOA event statement, Barbados’ Prime Minster wondered aloud how long her taxpayers would continue to authorize trips to New York to continue to say and hear the same things over and over, statements with political value perhaps but also with limited practical impact, statements which merely provide cover for the “arrogance” of too-many leaders and other stakeholders who apparently believe that we are already doing enough to stave off our own extinction when we clearly are not.

Back in the General Assembly, Palestinian President Abbas might well have put the matter before us most succinctly:  “Be careful. Be careful,” he warned, “you must not deprive the people of hope.” The following day, also in the GA, the Prime Minister of Lesotho highlighted the role of the UN in saving people from the “follies” of their leaders, surely including the folly of those who tout “patriotism” and “nationalism” as some “magic-bullet” antidote to the limitations of the multilateral order, an “order” that can clearly still attract a crowd but which its own leadership acknowledges has not yet lived up to its lofty billing. We should be so very grateful for the confidence that people continue to place in these hallways despite evidence that the UN’s signature, high-level segments still care too much about themselves and not enough about the yearnings of global constituents.

In a Lower Manhattan park this week, removed from the traffic jams and crowds of people with credentials trying to push their way into UN conference rooms, a small group of people led by Green Map’s director toured a small and now-threatened area once dominated by drug culture but now an oasis of hopeful possibilities – sculptures and a turtle pond, chickens, recreation areas and gardens full of native plants. The tour highlighted the sustainable development goals and was accompanied by park rangers who know just how far this strip of land has come, how much love and attention it has received from current and former neighbors, how much would be lost if the city’s plans to denude the park ostensibly to make it more “climate resilient” would take effect.

It is an emotional and intellectual challenge, for us and others, to balance the “bylines and busyness” so very much valued in the crowded halls of the UN with the millions of local actions (and actors) struggling to overcome impediments imposed by some of the very same global leaders who should be opening pathways to well-being instead.  These actors, the ones perhaps more likely perhaps to “wash their own dishes and prepare their own meals,” the ones who must find walking destinations to restore and refresh in local contexts, are also the ones who need the promises made by leaders during this high-level week to translate — somehow, someway — into fresh motivation and inspiration for local, climate-related progress.

Greta and her youthful colleagues have laid out before us a science-informed path where practical hope in a healthier and more sustainable future is still feasible.   With all the power and influence at their disposal, global leaders can do better than defending their political and “national” interests and (in some instances) casting dispersions on young actors who have taken into their hands responsibilities for climate changes which too many leaders have neglected for too long and which now threaten virtually every island and coastal community on this fragile planet.

Simply put, we need to see more urgent leading from leaders well in advance of the next UN high-level party in 12 months time.

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.