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See Inside September 2010

The Deepening Crisis: When Will We Face the Planet's Environmental Problems?

Failure to act on threats to global sustainability brings the world closer to disaster



Lis Burke

With this final column I will transition Sustainable Developments from Scientific American to the home page of the Earth Institute (www.earth.columbia.edu). Although I will continue to contribute occasional essays to the magazine, I will use this last regular column to say thank you and take stock of the deepening crisis of sustainable development.

During the four years of this column, the world’s inability to face up to the reality of the growing environmental crisis has become even more palpable. Every major goal that international bodies have established for global environmental policy as of 2010 has been postponed, ignored or defeated. Sadly, this year will quite possibly become the warmest on record, yet another testimony to human-induced environmental catastrophes running out of control.

This was to be the year of biodiversity. In 2002 nations pledged, under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, to slow significantly the planetary loss of biodiversity by 2010. This goal was not even remotely achieved. Indeed, it was barely even noticed by Americans: the U.S. signed the convention in 1992 but never ratified it. Ratifi­cation fell victim to the uniquely American delusion that virtually all of nature should be subdivided into parcels of private property, within which owners should have their way.

This year was also to be the start of a new post-Kyoto treaty, but that effort was stillborn by the continuing paralysis of U.S. policy making. President Barack Obama came empty-handed to the Copenhagen climate change negotiations, and the U.S., China and other powers settled for a nonbinding declaration of sentiments and goals rather than an operational strategy and process of implementation.

According to Obama’s 2008 election campaign, this was to be the first year of a new climate and energy policy for the U.S., too, and the second year of a “green recovery.” We’ve had neither. The recovery has sputtered: Obama bet on “stimulating” exhausted consumers rather than on a long-term program of public investments in sustainable infrastructure. The Senate, true to form, sustained its 18th year of inaction on global warming since ratifying the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.

This year was ushered in by the phony “Climategate” controversy, which involved leaked e-mails of a British climate research unit; the political right wing depicted some ill-considered language in the messages as proof of a vast global plot. Independent reviews have since rejected the charges of scientific conspiracy, but the damage is done: the U.S. public once again swings toward disbelief in the basic science of human-induced climate change.

We are losing not just time but the margin of planetary safety, as the world approaches or trespasses on various thresholds of environmental risk. With the human population continuing to rise by 75 million or more per year and with torrid economic growth in much of the developing world, the burdens of deforestation, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, species extinction, ocean acidification and other massive threats intensify.

What deep features of our national and global socioeconomic processes cause these repeated failures? First, the risks to sustainability are truly unprecedented in their global scale and have come upon society rather suddenly in the past two generations. Second, the problems are scientifically complex and involve enormous uncertainties. Not only must public opinion catch up with reality, but key sciences must also scramble to measure, assess and address the new challenges.

Third, although the problems are global, politics is notoriously local, which impairs timely, coordinated international action. Fourth, the problems are unfolding over decades, whereas politicians’ attention spans reach only to the next election and much of the public’s to the next meal or paycheck. Fifth, vested corporate interests have mastered the dark arts of propaganda, and they can use their deep pockets to purchase a sea of deliberate misinformation to deceive the public.

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