With climate change manifesting itself in the melting of Arctic glaciers and the drowning of small Pacific islands, in widespread species extinction, forest loss, desertification, and impending water shortages, the scope of environmental problems has changed. Long-term alteration of the earth’s climate is moving us into terra incognita that’s difficult or impossible to reverse. Recently, Hurricane Katrina provided a dreadful example of how human alterations multiply natural impacts. And this is only one of many escalating global environmental crises.
As Jared Diamond puts it, “the only question is whether” the world’s environmental problems “will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways … such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies.” Given current inaction, at least in the United States, the unpleasant options seem the likelier.
The globalization of environmental problems means that environmentalists — and economists, labor leaders, and other citizens — need to embrace a concept increasingly being touted, albeit in rarefied policy circles: a single global group with real power, a World Environment Organization.
Global problems require international strategies and coordination, particularly for such goals as maintaining biodiversity, keeping the oceans clean, and lowering carbon emissions. But all too often, national sovereignty divides the world into untenable slices. The European Union, for instance, has developed a coordinated approach to tackling greenhouse gases through conservation measures and technological development. Yet, absent cooperation from the United States, China, and other major powers, such a task might come to seem quixotic. The formation of a World Environment Organization would provide global environmental standards with real teeth. It would also provide an umbrella for environmental organizations, and counteract the problem of single-issue solutions for linked problems.
Currently, the closest we have to such an organization is the United Nations Environment Program. Begun in 1972, UNEP suffers from a lack of executive power, as well as of political and financial support. With a miserly core budget of $60 million and a staff of 300, UNEP’s influence is limited. Its fragmented and ineffective structure has led many to suggest an alternative — as Frank Biermann of the Global Governance Project sums it up, to “grant the environment what other policy areas long had: a strong international agency with a sizeable mandate, significant resources, and sufficient autonomy.” Biermann’s recommendation, that UNEP should be “upgraded” into an independent organization, would grant the agency a gravity equal to its task.
Some critics in the environmental and development communities claim that a WEO would reflect the kind of centralized structure that has failed in the past, and that only local solutions can work. These critics make the mistake of applying to globalization-as-we-know-it the lesson that globalization is, by its very nature, bad. Suspicion of a WEO may stem from fear of the World Trade Organization, which looms as a model of monolithic decision-making largely in the interests of corporations tied to the global north. Globalization as currently practiced, for instance, often leads to a reallocation of resources, labor, and waste to countries with weak environmental-protection laws. But these environmental injustices, too, must be tackled on a global scale.
In fact, a WEO could act as a strong counterpoint to the WTO. Currently, the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Environment effectively puts the burden on environmental laws to avoid disrupting trade, rather than integrating environmental standards into trade rules. The committee’s decisions run counter to much of the good environmental work being done at a variety of levels. My own state of Maryland, for instance, has been an innovator in smart growth and low-impact development, and is working to implement wind power. Yet local — and even national — solutions are no longer enough. A WEO is necessary to coordinate and guide numerous local programs, to share knowledge and technology.
Internationalizing knowledge is the easy part. Granting a WEO real authority to enforce best practices, and to punish those who most harm the environment, is the hard part. Following what the WTO says rather than what it does, a WEO must be intensely democratic, transparent, and take into consideration the needs of developing countries. It must provide for an inclusive spectrum of voices and look beyond short-term business interests. It must be run by leading environmental thinkers who occupy a place of real power. And it must have a guaranteed source of substantial funding, perhaps partly via an international tax on polluters.
Given the escalation of environmental crises, pressure for the formation of a WEO is likely to build over the next several years. Among U.S. environmentalists, a call for a coordinated global response to potential catastrophe would provide an alternative vision to the narrow nationalism of the Bush administration. It would offer a new progressive goal that views the United States as part of a community of nations, and that responds to crisis by leading us on a grand quest forward, rather than a myopic journey into a romanticized past.
The WEO vision is one of human and ecosystem interdependence. If the world fails to address its problems systemically, the consequences will be grave. Ignorance, fear, nationalism, and scapegoatism may very well rip us apart, even as we fall ill, starve, suffer agonizing thirst, fight, and die together. In an interlocked world, only a World Environment Organization would possess the unity and authority to help.