Twin chal­lenges

Cli­mate change, sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment defin­ing is­sues of our time

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - DR. PALANISAMY NAGARAJAN Dr. Palanisamy Nagarajan is Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of Eco­nom­ics and Is­land Stud­ies teach­ing fel­low at UPEI

A sweep­ing wave of eco­nomic glob­al­iza­tion and un­prece­dented tech­no­log­i­cal and sci­en­tific ad­vances con­tinue to trans­form our world and the planet Earth at break­neck pace and scope. How­ever, our com­pre­hen­sive un­der­stand­ing of the dy­nam­ics of in­ter­con­nected tech­no­log­i­cal, eco­nomic, so­cial and eco­log­i­cal sys­tems re­mains fuzzy due to our in­creas­ingly frag­mented knowl­edge of the func­tion­ing of the Earth as a com­plex Sys­tem. Sadly, in the past decades, we failed to per­ceive cor­rectly the root of the emer­gent prob­lems and tackle them in the ini­tial stage with wis­dom, fore­sight, and in­ge­nu­ity.

As a di­rect ef­fect of that fail­ure, many in­tractable in­ter­locked prob­lems we face to­day are spin­ning out of our con­trol. It is high time to re­al­ize that cli­mate change, un­sus­tain­able econ­omy, deep­en­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, wa­ter, food, and en­ergy in­se­cu­rity, soil ero­sion, de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion, and more are di­rectly the re­sults of our un­ri­valed tech­no­log­i­cal civ­i­liza­tion on a deadly col­li­sion course with an in­cred­i­bly frag­ile planet Earth’s ecosys­tems. Bluntly put, we have been play­ing dice with Earth’s life-sup­port­ing sys­tems, with­out fully com­pre­hend­ing the un­pleas­ant con­se­quences for the fate of hu­man­ity and all life on this planet in the 21st cen­tury.

Re­mark­ably, more than four decades ago, a his­toric UN Stock­holm Con­fer­ence on the Hu­man En­vi­ron­ment (1972), with its motto of ‘only one Earth,’ fo­cused world at­ten­tion on hu­man­i­ty1s re­la­tion­ship with planet Earth and mount­ing con­cerns about the en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems.

Mau­rice Strong, Sec­re­tary — Gen­eral of the Stock­holm Con­fer­ence, ex­pres­sively said: “This con­fer­ence must be the be­gin­ning of a whole new ap­proach to the sit­u­a­tion. For the en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis points up the need to re­view our [eco­nomic] ac­tiv­i­ties, not just in re­la­tion to the par­tic­u­lar pur­pose and in­ter­est they are de­signed to serve but in their im­pact on the sys­tem of in­ter­act­ing re­la­tion­ships, which de­ter­mine the qual­ity hu­man life. What then is the prospect for Planet Earth? The an­swer is that no­body knows. . .”

Again, the UN World Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­ment and De­vel­op­ment (WCED), in its re­port Our Com­mon Fu­ture (1987), helped us shape a new per­cep­tion of sus­tain­abil­ity and sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment. The idea of sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment, “a de­vel­op­ment that meets the needs of the present with­out com­pro­mis­ing the abil­ity of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to meet their own needs,” re­ceived world­wide at­ten­tion, as an over­ar­ch­ing ob­jec­tive to achieve.

In fact, the com­mand­ing WECD re­port paved the way for a ground-break­ing 1992 United Na­tions Con­fer­ence on En­vi­ron­ment and De­vel­op­ment (UNCED), widely known as the Rio Earth Sum­mit. The Rio Dec­la­ra­tion on En­vi­ron­ment and De­vel­op­ment, the UN Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change (UNFCCC), the Con­ven­tion on Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity (CBO), the State­ment of Prin­ci­ples on Forests, and above all, the Agenda 21, a com­pre­hen­sive pro­gram of ac­tion for sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment, were the ma­jor out­come of the UNCED.

De­spite an in­creas­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal and sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment con­scious­ness, as re­vealed by sev­eral im­por­tant UN Con­fer­ences, fol­lowed by many in­spir­ing dec­la­ra­tions and agreed goals, our track record in mov­ing to­wards a sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment tra­jec­tory has been abysmal. In fact, we have yet to be­gin the long jour­ney to­wards sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment. The time is run­ning out, and we have al­most reached the tip­ping points.

Now, in the midst of an in­creas­ing cer­tainty of a pro­tracted ma­jor global eco­nomic slump and al­ready deep­en­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis, we have en­tered an era of ac­cel­er­at­ing cli­mate change, with its broad range of cas­cad­ing known and un­known in­ter­act­ing ef­fects on the planet Earth’s bio­sphere, econ­omy, and so­ci­ety.

The UN has been host­ing an an­nual Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ences of the Par­ties (COP) since 1995 to tackle the com­plex chal­lenge of cli­mate change. How­ever, the track record in ad­dress­ing this prob­lem has been lit­tle, as in the case of sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment.

Now, the in­ter­twined crises of un­sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment and cli­mate change have emerged as the defin­ing is­sues of our time, with an un­de­ni­able ur­gency to solve them. The re­cent Paris Cli­mate agree­ment, COP21, has been claimed as a de­ci­sive turn­ing point in ad­dress­ing the cli­mate change. Sur­pris­ingly, it is noth­ing but a non-bind­ing in­ter­na­tional agree­ment pledg­ing CO2 emis­sions re­duc­tion to keep the planet Earth warm­ing well below 2 de­grees, and at­tempt­ing to limit it to 1.5 de­grees.

As things stand now, it is an il­lu­sion that we can con­trol the cli­mate change and pro­tect the planet Earth. To be­gin with, at all lev­els, we must re­di­rect our con­certed ef­forts to move to­wards sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment by chal­leng­ing the main­stream growth paradigm. We have to ac­cept the plan­e­tary lim­its to growth, and all eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties must obey the laws of ecol­ogy and physics, par­tic­u­larly the se­cond law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics. It does not make sense to talk about sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment with­out de­vel­op­ing a trans­dis­ci­plinary sus­tain­abil­ity eco­nom­ics.

Dr. Palanisamy Nagarajan

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