No hid­ing from sus­tain­able devel­op­ment

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

One year ago, I was in Brazil to launch the Brazil­ian chap­ter of the United Na­tions Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment So­lu­tions Net­work (SDSN), an ini­tia­tive of UN Sec­re­taryGen­eral Ban Ki-moon. The main mes­sage I heard that day was that Sao Paulo was suf­fer­ing from a mega-drought, but that state and lo­cal politi­cians were keep­ing it quiet. This is a re­al­ity around the world: too many po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are ig­nor­ing a grow­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis, im­per­il­ing their own coun­tries and oth­ers.

In the case of Brazil, state and lo­cal of­fi­cials had other things on their mind in 2014: host­ing the World Cup soc­cer tour­na­ment in June and July and win­ning elec­tions later in the year. So they re­lied on a time-tested po­lit­i­cal tac­tic: hide the bad news be­hind a “feel-good” mes­sage.

Some places have been even more fool­ish than sim­ply ig­nor­ing the risks. North Carolina’s coast­lands, like coastal ar­eas around the world, are threat­ened by ris­ing sea lev­els caused by hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change. Yet in 2012, land de­vel­op­ers con­vinced the state leg­is­la­ture to bar the use of sci­en­tific ev­i­dence on ris­ing sea lev­els in the state’s coastal man­age­ment poli­cies, at least un­til 2016. The is­sue is equally fla­grant at the fed­eral level: US Congress mem­bers, on the take from Big Oil, sim­ply deny the re­al­ity of cli­mate change.

But grow­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal threats are forc­ing their way into the head­lines whether politi­cians and land de­vel­op­ers like it or not. The bad news about mega-droughts and fresh­wa­ter scarcity stretches from Brazil to Cal­i­for­nia to con­flict-rid­den coun­tries in the Mid­dle East.

Sao Paulo’s metropoli­tan re­gion of 20 mln peo­ple is now on the verge of wa­ter ra­tioning, an un­prece­dented threat for one of the world’s lead­ing cities. In Cal­i­for­nia, this win­ter has been an­other dry sea­son in a bit­ter four-year drought, one of the most se­vere in the re­gion’s his­tory. In Pak­istan, the min­is­ter of wa­ter and en­ergy re­cently de­clared that, “Un­der the present sit­u­a­tion, in the next six to seven years Pak­istan can be a wa­ter-starved coun­try.” In Iran, the Hamoun wet­lands bor­der­ing Afghanistan are dis­ap­pear­ing, pos­ing a grave threat to the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion.

Look­ing back, it is also clear that a decade-long drought in neigh­bour­ing Syria helped to trig­ger the un­rest that es­ca­lated into a cat­a­strophic civil war, with at least 200,000 Syr­i­ans dead and no end to the vi­o­lence in sight. The drought had dis­placed an es­ti­mated 1.5 mln peo­ple and caused food prices to soar, lead­ing to a spi­ral of protest, crack­down, and even­tu­ally war. Though drought does not ex­plain all of the en­su­ing vi­o­lence, it cer­tainly played a role.

Each of th­ese droughts re­flects a com­plex mix of fac­tors: long-term cli­mate change, short-term or decade-long weather pat­terns, grow­ing pop­u­la­tions’ ris­ing de­mand for fresh­wa­ter, mis­man­age­ment of lo­cal re­sources, and, of course, a lack of po­lit­i­cal at­ten­tion and will. Ev­ery drought must there­fore be con­fronted lo­cally, ad­dress­ing lo­cal re­al­i­ties.

Yet the global mes­sage is also clear: the world’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion (now at 7.3 bln, but likely to reach 8 bln by 2024 and 9 bln by around 2040), hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change, and the overuse of fresh­wa­ter for ir­ri­ga­tion and ur­ban needs (es­pe­cially when cities are built up in dry re­gions) are all fu­el­ing the po­ten­tial for catas­tro­phe.

Re­cent re­search in­di­cates that th­ese trends are likely to in­ten­sify. Al­most all stud­ies of hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change show that the Mediter­ranean re­gion, in­clud­ing se­cu­rity hotspots like Libya, Egypt, Is­rael, Pales­tine, and Syria, is likely to ex­pe­ri­ence a fur­ther sig­nif­i­cant decline in rain­fall, com­pound­ing the dry­ing trend that has oc­curred dur­ing the past quar­ter-cen­tury. Like­wise, a re­cent study by my col­leagues at Columbia Uni­ver­sity’s Earth In­sti­tute has shown that hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change is likely to cause in­creas­ingly fre­quent mega-droughts in the Amer­i­can south­west and Great Plains states in the sec­ond half of this cen­tury.

In Septem­ber of this year, world lead­ers will gather at the United Na­tions to adopt a set of Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals to ad­dress th­ese ris­ing threats. The SDGs will not en­sure global ac­tion, but, as US Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy once said about UN agree­ments, they can serve as a lever to help move the world to­ward ac­tion. That is why it is so im­por­tant to start plan­ning for the SDGs now.

Ban launched the SDSN to help coun­tries achieve the new goals. Its key mem­bers in­clude uni­ver­si­ties and think tanks around the world, with lead­ing busi­nesses and NGOs serv­ing as im­por­tant part­ners. Na­tional and re­gional SDSN chap­ters are be­ing formed world­wide, in the Amer­i­cas, Europe, the Mid­dle East, South Asia, East Asia, Africa, and Ocea­nia. The goal is to en­sure strong par­tic­i­pa­tion in the SDSN in ev­ery coun­try by the time the SDGs are adopted in Septem­ber.

This spring and sum­mer, in coun­tries around the world, SDSN-af­fil­i­ated in­sti­tu­tions will in­vite gov­ern­ments to begin brain­storm­ing about how to achieve sus­tain­able devel­op­ment in their cities, coun­tries, and re­gions. Many politi­cians, no doubt, will be grate­ful for the sup­port of their uni­ver­si­ties, NGOs, and lead­ing busi­nesses. And those who want to hide from re­al­ity will find that they no longer can.

That is be­cause our new re­al­ity is one of droughts, heat waves, ex­treme storms, ris­ing sea lev­els, and un­sta­ble cli­mate pat­terns. Un­less we act with fore­sight and base our ac­tions on sci­en­tific ev­i­dence, wa­ter stress, food in­se­cu­rity, and so­cial crises will not be far be­hind. In other words, to­day’s mount­ing threats can­not be cov­ered up. The Age of Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment must be built on open­ness, par­tic­i­pa­tion, and science.

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