The Rights Of Earth

An "Environmental Security Council" of the United Nations
could soon become a reality

One of the articles in Global Climate Change (IC#22)
Originally published in Summer 1989 on page 29
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Philosophers are not alone in calling for a change in the way we relate to the Earth. Noel Brown, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, speaks here of the need for all of humanity to rediscover a basic respect for life. This respect must be translated into programs and policies that protect the Earth, and many of these will necessarily be international in scope.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and works to catalyze and coordinate environmental efforts worldwide. But as Noel explains, the increasing international priority being given to environmental concerns could lead to its role – or the role of some other UN body – being elevated to something more like Security Council status.

UNEP also has projects designed to foster more individual awareness of our responsibility for the Earth, including promoting the observance of an "Environmental Sabbath" by all organized religions. For more information on this and other UNEP programs, write to them at Two UN Plaza, New York, NY 10017.

Bill: Could you outline for us what UNEP is doing with regard to global climate change?

Noel: In November, 1987, we made a decision to establish an intergovernmental panel on climate change. We gave that panel three charges: First, to help us assemble as much scientific data as possible so that we are able to get a fairly good answer to the question, "What is scientifically accepted and valid? What do we know precisely about the nature of planet change?"

The second charge is, "What precisely will be the socioeconomic impact, not only globally but internationally?" I don’t think governments will respond to this issue unless they have some precise sense of what will happen to their country and their regions.

The third is, "What policy options will governments have to consider in order to stabilize climate change?" We hope to have the reports in about 18 months, and we plan to convene, in cooperation with the World Ecological Organization, a second major global conference on the question of climate change. By that time we hope to have a fairly decent consensus on these items and enough political momentum globally, because suddenly the world is becoming aware that all is not well with the Earth.

The summer of 1988 may yet be seen as the "environmental awareness summer," when the Earth spoke in droughts and floods. The Earth spoke and somehow we listened. Suddenly people are beginning to understand that nature is very closely bound up with our economic futures. Wall Street understood this, and the commodities market began to show very serious response. I believe this new context is likely to generate a certain amount of pressure on the world to act. We expect that coming out of the Conference on Climate Change and Global Warming will be some specific actions by governments.

Bill: Do you expect to develop a protocol or "Treaty of the Air" to deal with climate change?

Noel: That is the route we are likely to go. First, a framework convention would secure an agreement in principle by all governments that human activity is indeed accelerating the warming of the atmosphere so significantly that we are likely to have very serious effects that we can’t manage. Once we secure that agreement, then the hard technical question is, what will we do about it?

The old questions of carbon dioxide load, the use of energy, and fuel emissions are likely to be the subject of a protocol. We would also like to have a protocol on the other greenhouse gases – chlorofluorocarbons for example – as well as deforestation. We may have to establish some limit on the rate at which we are destroying the natural sinks for C02. So yes, we hope to have the framework convention as well as a protocol, but we are not sure what these will be in precise terms yet.

Bill: Do you expect these protocols to be more difficult to develop than the protocol on the ozone layer?

Noel: Yes and no. The ozone protocol was the result of 10 years of active consultations and negotiations, and yet we were only dealing with one sphere of action, the ozone shield. We had to identify the offending substances, get the science right, ensure that all interests were reflected, and then make a decision. We knew with a fair degree of precision exactly what certain substances do to the ozone layer.

In the case of global warming, however,we are dealing with uncertainty of an unprecedented magnitude, and secondly the strategic elements are infinitely more complex. Energy is the centerpiece of industrial society, and you cannot talk about energy without talking about the technology that is available. The internal combustion engine is a very important part of our life. Will we be able to look on the technological horizon and find alternative systems for utilizing energy, and do that within the next ten years?

The short term option is more efficiency, but that’s only buying time. We’ve got to look at the whole place of fossil fuel in our civilization. That is going to be extremely complex. For example, developing countries are to date on the low end of fossil fuel consumers. But given their populations, and the fact that many are now on the threshold of becoming industrialized, they are likely to become the major consumers. We are talking about 70% of the world’s population, all wishing to consume energy at some level that makes for human decency. That’s going to steepen the curve. Now, how do you tell them that they cannot utilize energy at the same rate that industrialized countries did? It’s a question of equity. The politics of these negotiations is going to be extremely intense.

So the answer to your question is, yes and no. On the one hand the United Nations Environment Programme, having worked with the scientific and political communities for ten years on the ozone issue, has more confidence. We know how to do it right. On the other hand, we are dealing with a very, very complex issue. We are not entirely sure that all the players have the same appreciation for the urgency of the problem and the same sense of their own responsibility for helping us ameliorate it. That’s a difficult equation.

Bill: Yes, and many people believe that we don’t have ten years to make major policy changes.

Noel: We don’t, actually. My own Executive Director, Mustafa Tolba, suggested that the decade of the nineties will provide us with the last window of opportunity to turn the tide. That means we should not wait until 1999. We need to start addressing the problem in earnest, and I think that if the first major steps have not been taken within the next five years, each year we wait will make the problem more difficult.

But there are some things we are now working on. For example, one source of methane – which is a greenhouse gas – is rice cultivation. We are asking, is it possible to genetically engineer a strain of rice that does not require the swamping of traditional rice cultivation, a "dry rice"? We are talking to people in biotechnology and genetic engineering to see if we can at least buy some time that way.

Secondly, we know that reforestation – massive reforestation – will give us a little better control over carbon dioxide. Now, that’s something we can do. The world knows how to reforest. It’s a matter of money and a matter of will, but there’s no mystery to it. I think we have to make a very strong case for getting that part of the equation out of the way.

Thirdly, more efficient use of energy is something that is socially desirable, and there are technologies available now. The U.S. demonstrated during the energy shortage of 1973 that it could use energy more efficiently. We saw how the automotive industry was able to retool our system and give us cars that delivered 40-50 mpg. Some are talking about 100 miles to the gallon. Others are talking about a hydrogen-powered car. We need to create a new revolution in the technological sector to design systems that will not aggravate the global warming problem, and at the same time help us conserve our precious resources in a way that can make for a sustainable lifestyle.

Bill: Have you been able to talk to any of the major automobile manufacturers about this?

Noel: Yes we have, and I know companies like General Motors are very seriously interested and are now engaged in internal debate on the implications of global warming and climate change for the automotive sector. We are consulting actively with them on the problem of cooperation.

Bill: They realize how serious the problem is.

Noel: It’s not a game anymore. People are beginning to look at the data, and the skeptics are coming around. What UNEP hopes to do is to create what we call "matching agendas" with the private sector. We don’t have the money to engage in the kind of research that is urgently required, but in some companies, for example, there are a very large number of Ph.D’s working in biotechnology. If we could put our concerns on their agenda, and get a certain percent of the research money and power focused on some of these items, we will accelerate the process of finding solutions, instead of the lamentation and ecological name calling, which is not going to help.

We simply can’t let this problem solve itself. We have to be actively engaged in it. All sectors – from the consumer who puts pressure on society to ensure that we have environmentally benign products, to the technological and scientific sectors looking at what they are able to do – have to make a contribution. UNEP is trying to design a strategy of action for each of the various sectors.

Bill: Many people are concerned about the growth in biotechnology, as I’m sure you’re aware. Can you talk about the difficulty in balancing issues like global climate change – which has the potential to undermine civilization – against possible threats from biotechnology, which we may need to use to help mitigate global warming?

Noel: We in UNEP share that concern, but I wouldn’t look simply at biotechnology as a subject for rigorous scrutiny. I would look at all technology. Biotechnology is one that creates particular uncertainties – when you’re manipulating life forms, you could open Pandora’s Box. So within the United Nations community there are several groups looking at questions of safety, standards, and preventing the surreptitious and premature transfer of these technologies to developing countries in order to escape the more rigorous standards in the industrialized world – which has happened on three occasions already.

We also worry about genetic junk. What do we do with genetically engineered waste? How do you dispose of it, and who monitors these things? These are risks to society, and we’re looking for ways to solve one problem without creating another.

Bill: Which we have a long history of doing.

Noel: Yes, there are risks. And we have to ask ourselves if we are prepared to take some risks that we may be able to manage over other risks that we may not be able to manage. Because what scientists are now telling us is that global warming is an open-ended problem – we’re changing the temperature so fast that we may not be able to control it.

Bill: Two years ago, when the Brundtland Report on sustainable development was released in the UN, the conclusion drawn was that the environment and development were completely tied up together, that all policy making on all levels had to take the environment into account, but that dealing with poverty issues throughout the Third World and economic growth on a country-by-country basis must continue.

However, the Brundtland Report did not take global warming very strongly into account. Do you think that civilization can continue to grow economically and still be sustainable?

Noel: I think it can, I think it must, and I think it will. My concern is with the quality of the growth, the values on which that growth is based, as well as the way the growth is driven. I’m not sure that market-driven growth can be sustained. The market-driven sector of the global economy is about 25% in terms of world population. Just think of globalizing that pattern – I think you’ll have some very serious concerns as to whether it can be sustained.

That being said, we should also say that this is an unbelievably productive planet. The question is whether we can continue the type of skewed distribution that exists and the disregard for products that end up in the waste stream. I think we will have to make waste a resource in the future. I also think that the gluttonous, greed-driven sectors of the world may have to rethink whether high consumption and a high waste factor make for quality of life. I think they’ll see that it is a poor formula for civilization.

Civilization has advanced because we have become a highly productive people. The environmental crisis is advancing because we have been disregarding how we relate to the Earth. We’re developing a better sense of how the Earth works but social organization will have to change. Look at urbanization, for example: the way we aggregate changes the way we use energy. The role of the automobile in the future aggregation of the planet may have to be rethought. The Brundtland Report addressed this tangentially in the question of the global commons, but it did not pretend to be the definitive work on all the issues.

The Brundtland Report enunciated a set of principles of sustainability, equity, aand accountability that give us a very solid platform with which to work. Decision-making sectors will have to be accountable to the body politic for their actions with regard to resource use and economic activity. The equity issue was also addressed – as you know, poverty possesses an environmentally damaging capability. Whether it’s in terms of land use patterns, over-exploitation of marginal resources, or deforestation, the poverty component of the equation is a very big one, and we need to address it very actively. And then there is the question of what I like to call "universal harm" – again a dimension of accountability – which asks whether economic sectors, industrial groups, or even states should be able to inflict harm on the environment that is pervasive and enduring, and yet not be liable for that harm.

Bill: You’re talking about the rights of the Earth.

Noel: Absolutely. Not only the rights of the Earth, but the rights of future generations, because intergenerational equity is at stake here. Creating a condition that would deny future generations access to resources, or even access to a healthy environment, is something that we have to ask very serious questions about. From that point of view, I think there’s a new movement in thinking about the way we use resources and the way we order economic society.

The Brundtland Report is a major contribution here. Unlike The Limits to Growth, which came out fifteen years ago, this is an advocate of quality growth – growth that can be maintained over time, that will not inflict harm, that will enhance environmental quality and productivity. We have the science with which to do this – it’s just that we haven’t had the care level. We have the frontier mentality: plunder now and pay later. That will have to change.

Bill: Last year the Soviet Foreign Minister, Edvard Schevardnadze, proposed a structural change in the UN which might affect UNEP. Can you discuss it?

Noel: Schevardnadze gave perhaps the best statement outlining the state of the Earth that I heard in the 43rd General Assembly. He took a very hard look at what was happening and called it "an aggression against nature." He spoke of the need to rethink the way we utilize the Earth’s resources and treasures. He also looked at the growing maturity of the human species, its ability to face problems on a planetary scale and offer solutions. It was a brilliant statement.

Then he asked whether the institutions we have created to deal with environmental problems are adequate to the task. He suggested that we begin exploring at once the idea of creating an "ecological council" that would have status comparable to the Security Council. That has very important implications for the UNEP, because we are a program of the UN, not an organ of it. I understand Mr. Schevardnadze to mean that it may be possible to elevate the status of UNEP to the same status as the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council, etc.

Now, many people think that this is a tall order that requires a Charter review. I don’t know, I am not an expert on the Charter. Others feel that we could use an existing organ like the Trusteeship Council [made up of representatives of the non-self-governing Trustee nations and of those permanent Security Council members who do not govern Trust Territories], which may very well be given a new mandate for us as trustees of the Earth – a metaphor which is very timely. It might be possible to transform it into a major policy-making organ at United Nations to deal rapidly with the problem.

The French, the Dutch, and the Norwegians, who convened a conference in the Hague last March, also talked about some kind of authority structure on the issue of climate change. Because we can’t pussyfoot with the subject. We have got to create some capacity to act. Something of the status of a Security Council for the Earth is not only timely, but necessary, and anyone who would challenge this in terms of legal niceties would either be stupid or inattentive.

Bill: Many environmentalists are excited by the prospect of a change in UNEP status. They see global climate change as a paramount issue, and the only way to deal with it is to change the structure of international programs like yours.

Noel: Well, UNEP is not angling for this. Governments will have to create mechanisms that are up to the task. The environment issue has exploded globally, and we [UNEP] have approximately 340 people tucked away in Nairobi to deal with all the problems of the Earth, with a budget of approximately $40 million a year. That’s almost laughable even if it were a manageable problem. Governments cannot expect this program to operate at a bargain.

UNEP’s Executive Director, Mustafa Tolba, convened an informal meeting of ministers in January to help him think through the implications of explosive change for UNEP, and to look at what the world may want to do to create the capacity necessary to act. In 1972 we were created as a catalytic and coordinating organization, and we’ve done that brilliantly. But is that enough?

When you deal with the Earth, you only have one time around. We’ve now got to act on that premise. So where do we go from here? In 1992 a major UN conference is expected to be convened, and I think the process that will lead up to that conference is likely to address the Schevardnadze proposal, as well as other new issues the world has begun to experience as we have suddenly become globalized. We need to create global mechanisms that can deal with the job, and give them the authority and the resources to do it.

I am relatively optimistic. The seriousness with which this is being viewed – not only within UN circles, but in the number of initiatives taking place in various quarters – gives me the impression that suddenly we’re ready to act on behalf of the Earth.

Bill: One final question. What can an individual do to help?

Noel: The individual has to look at his or her own lifestyle and see what he or she is able to undertake at a personal level, because that’s where values are given vitality. We in UNEP have prepared a "Personal Action Guide For The Earth" [available from The Transmissions Project, United Nations Environment Programme, 730 Arizona Ave. #329, Santa Monica, CA 90401]. It’s a simple set of suggestions that individuals might want to consider as they go about the business of consuming various resources, generating waste, and being unconscious of the fact that the Earth is a closed system.

Everything has to be someplace at all times. And that someplace is a closed Earth system of which we’re a part. We need to teach ourselves, our fellows, and our children a greater respect for the Earth, for all life, and for the Earth’s life-sustaining capabilities. We’ve got to move away from the urban mentality that sees us as cut off from nature, that sees water as coming from a tap.

I was astonished by two items in The New York Times recently, a quite interesting juxtaposition. One was about a farmer in Kansas who was lamenting the drought. He had lost his crop for this year, and he would have to try to protect the land. He prayed that the rains or the snow would come so that he would have moisture. He has now reconnected with nature, and with his dependence on nature.

On the same page was an article about the swallows returning to Capistrano in California, and how the homeowners there were so upset because they were such messy birds. They can’t kill them, but they were using garden hoses to destroy their nests. They didn’t see the connection between themselves and another life form. They didn’t ask themselves why these birds make that long flight from Argentina on the precise first day of Spring, or feel the magic of their flight and return. We’ve got to teach those homeowners sensitivity. In the end, they can move. You give them the money and they can buy another home. But if you destroy the orientation of these life forms, there’s not enough money in the world to replace it.

So I would like to educate my friends in Capistrano that the mess is washable. But the life is not renewable. You can’t restore it once you destroy it. Individuals will have to educate themselves and be more sensitive to the fact that all life is connected. If you develop that fundamental respect for life, then the life-supporting Earth will also be respected at a much higher level. That’s the greatest thing the individual can do, and that will translate upward into the political process.

The Greenhouse Opportunity

by Joel Swisher

Every problem is an opporunity, even the greenhouse effect. One silver lining behind this dark cloud concerns its potential impact on international trade, development, and security.

There are several approaches to mitigating global warming, but none can be successful unless CO2 emissions are reduced worldwide. Improving energy efficiency is crucial in the short run, and since 1973 the U.S. has increased the amount of economic activity derived from each unit of energy by 35%, mostly through efficiency improvements in buildings, vehicles, and industry.

But unlike Japan and Western Europe, the U.S. has done little to foster exports of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. These are technologies that the U.S. either invented or, until recently, nearly monopolized. In some cases the technical advantage remains, but the market lead is being lost to more aggressive foreign competitors. This may prove to be a costly error, for these technologies represent a potentially huge export market.

Those exports also promise "win-win" results. The U.S. and other Western economies benefit from the foreign trade, importing nations reduce their energy costs – and the global environment is spared additional carbon emissions.

Furthermore, climate change is a security issue as well, as hard-hit nations may become desperate to replace lost agricultural or industrial resources. International discussion of environmental problems is thus becoming increasingly necessary. At the same time, this discussion provides an opportunity to expand and improve both East-West and North-South relations.

The recent improvement in East-West relations makes possible new agreements regarding climate protection. Such agreements could improve international security by reducing global environmental risks and by facilitating international communication, cooperation, and peace-keeping. By bringing nations together to discuss problems of the global commons, climate change could become a catalyst for improving international trust and security.

Exporting energy efficiency and renewable energy technology to the Eastern Bloc would increase the market for these products, improve these nations’ energy efficiency, and reduce the vast amounts of coal they would otherwise burn. Soviet planners have also recognized that efficiency can satisfy their energy demands at one-third to one-half the price of new power plants. Improving Eastern Bloc energy efficiency is thus in the best interests of both West and East.

Reversing tropical deforestation and beginning a global effort of reforestation is also crucial. Like energy efficiency, worldwide reforestation promises multiple benefits to the global environment and economy. And just as the world energy future depends on East-West cooperation, saving tropical forests will require a great deal of North-South partnership, including financial support to protect forest resources and find ways for local populations to use them sustainably.

One possibility for addressing both climate protection and North-South financial issues is the creation of an international market for climate protection services, such as reforestation and renewable energy projects. If industrialized nations commit to reducing carbon emissions, they will create a demand for such services. By recognizing international transactions that implement these projects as a means of complying with their own climate protection measures, industrialized nations could also transfer cash and/or debt relief to the developing ones. Developing nations would then profit from the use of clean energy technologies and the protection of rain forests.

The bright side of today’s dire environmental situation is that environmental protection is a "win-win" situation. Furthermore, by giving traditional enemies a common adversary, global environmental problems can become an important vehicle for greater international communication and cooperation.


Joel Swisher works with the Sierra Club in Stanford, CA.

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