Climate change, sustainable development defining issues of our time
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