Against All Odds: A Case for Hope on Sustainability

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Angel Versetti's picture

While an army of thousands of pundits are busy predicting, in their entirety, pretty much every conceivable outcome of the international affairs for the year to come, placing their bets on a wide variety of “big” global events of 2015: either economy-related (red) or security-related (black), which after spinning the roulette some of those pundits will inevitably guess correctly – after all, when all 37 pockets in a roulette each has dozens of bets on, someone’s bound to win – I will instead warn the casino that most tables are broken and roof is about to collapse and all players as well as casino managers need to get together to sort it out, or else there will be nowhere else to play the silly games of placing bets on IMF versus BRICS bank, Russia versus NATO, austerity versus spending, Shiites versus Sunnis, oil versus dollar and oppressive dictators versus fundamentalist liberators.

Let me deconstruct this convoluted metaphor. The casino is our planet, the players are governments, the playing chips are kindly provided by banks and corporations and we are all ultimately the owners (with varying degree of ownership and voting rights, but in a more or less equal balance between the top 1% and the rest of the world) – and the broken tables is the chronic poverty in which, by the most modest and optimistic estimates[i] at least one billion people (that’s 1’000’000’000, feel the number!) live worldwide, while the roof about to collapse is our climate and environment.

This year, we are finally going to talk seriously and at the highest level about the dangerously poor state of our planet’s climate and will also finalise the largest ever umbrella development programme in human history, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Thus, for all my personal deploration of the performance of the world’s largest bureaucratic behemoth, the United Nations, I place my hope in the trio of summits that will take place within its framework this year: Addis Abeba, New York and Paris.

The challenges are here: mass poverty and climate change. The three big meetings are the opportunities to solve them.

The first, and wrongly the least talked-about of the three, is the International Conference on Financing for Development[ii] that will take in July in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. While it does not promise any flashy-sounding outcomes, it will talk about money (financing commitments for sustainable development, if you want the official term). And that’s of course a pretty good reason to closely follow these negotiations, because unlike many other high-level UN meetings and other intergovernmental summits, at which lofty statements and grandiose proclamations are the only two choices for the main dish, in Addis Abeba we will finally be served a dessert – discussion of the actual numbers. We should finally be able to see which countries (and big businesses, who will also be there[iii]) are actually true to their own pretty words. This meeting will thus tackle possibly the most fundamental question when it comes to sustainable development: “who’s funding it?”

Just as the British sociologist Anthony Giddens posited that climate change today is a purely political problem, rather than a scientific or economic one[iv], I would claim the same for sustainable development: there is already a big enough pool of data, case-studies and innovative solutions to usher in a new, fairer and cleaner system that could be economically viable. The problem is the good old finger-pointing: “Who’s responsible for the mess we have? And who’s gonna pay to get rid of it, and how much?” This is why discussions about funding – public-private partnerships, sovereign debt, trade framework, financing social enterprises, taxing and investment mechanisms for sustainable development – deserve closer scrutiny and wider media coverage. If this conference does not come out with a solid financing framework, then for all the fanfares they’ll have in New York for the inauguration of the SDGs, there would be little to celebrate.

In turn, New York Summit in September will be more of a press release of an executive summary of the last several years of intense bargaining and even more intense verbiage on the subject of post-2015 development agenda. All substantive points will have been agreed well in advance[v] and the “adoption” procedure will be a mere formality. Specific topics were discussed during the 13 sessions on SDGs that took place in 2013-2014 and their outcomes are openly available[vi]. There are 17 broad goals with 169 somewhat more specific targets between them[vii], and what the public and the media need to do is to carefully compare the compatibility of national statements with these targets. Public international law is a devious thing: careful placement of words can create loopholes big enough to make the whole initiative impotent[viii].

When a head of state makes a statement during such meetings, he or she makes an official interpretation of a broader concept discussed. Later, should a country depart in their actions from their official stance presented at the Summit, there will be at least some legitimacy for others to pressure it into compliance[ix]. With the Sustainable Development Goals being broad and ambiguous enough to permit pretty much anyone openly pledge to them without making tangible commitments, the Devil will hide in the details – and those details will be the official country statements. After all, the UN’s global objectives is largely the total sum of all forces acting on the sphere (i.e. the total of all countries’ interests acting on our planet), with the magnitude of the force given to each vector reflecting each country’s power (economic and/or military). Careful scrutiny of the proceedings and outcomes of such high-level profile meetings is one little step the global citizenry could take on the way towards its own empowerment and increased participation in shaping the global agenda.

Finally, Paris. Finally, climate change. Finally, binding (or at least we should hope so). While climate change has, fortunately, been taken increasingly seriously by governments over the recent years[x], the last 15 of which were the warmest in recorded history[xi]; while the scientific consensus has become universal about the responsibility of the greenhouse gas emissions for the global warming, with more and more scientists-deniers being exposed as being on the pay-roll of fossil-fuel corporations (the most recent notorious example is Dr. Wei-Hock Soon of Harvard University[xii]); while all these developments are welcome, the clock is mercilessly ticking and this year, unlike any other since 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, governments will not only talk about climate change, but will (hopefully) agree on the first legally and universally binding agreement on the climate change in over 20 years, and given the scope and urgency of the issue at hand, unmatched by any other past agreements in the history of mankind[xiii].

Once again, the hype is big, but so is the public misinformation, with the opponents of climate change action (above all fossil-fuel and extracting industries, resource-intensive corporations and other entities with vested economic interests) either convincing people that the climate change is not man-made[xiv] or scaring them with all the economic sacrifice the society will have to make in order to save the climate[xv].

Both are false.

The alleged economic sacrifice people need to make in order to avoid climate change is an outdated argument. Today, there are many economies worldwide that have managed to grow economically without damaging the environment and increasing their carbon footprint – it is called decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation[xvi] – some examples include the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the UK in Europe and the state of California in the US, while Costa Rica is a notable champion in the developing world[xvii]. More countries are on track to successfully decouple as well[xviii].

As for the deniers of human responsibility for climate change, let me agree with them for the argument’s sake and ask the following: Even if climate change is not man-made, can it not be man-prevented? With a poisonous cocktail of water scarcity, food shortage and desertification on one side[xix] and rising sea levels and deadly floodings on the other[xx] – lives of billions of people are under threat and instead of seeking solutions we are busy asking the most idiotic question: “who is to blame?” Imagine an ambulance arriving to a call about a heart attack of a grandmother and instead of treating the woman, the doctors walk into house and start interrogating family members trying to find out who could have possibly caused the heart attack. And in the meantime the grandmother is dying.

It is high time we became doctors and saved our patient, instead of trying to play detectives.

Thus, between placing my bet on red or black, I choose green. I suspect in this roulette my oods of winning are way lower than 1-in-37, but the stakes are too high and time is running out. Let’s hope that at the trio of UN summits this year we’ll agree to rig the roulette wheel into sustainability’s favour and will finally stop gambling with our future.