UN report shows how we can safeguard the health of the planet

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Wind turbines in field at sunset. Image credit: Karsten Würth/Unsplash

"Making peace with nature is the defining task of the coming decades," writes António Guterres, UN secretary general, in his introduction to a landmark UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report, "Making Peace With Nature," released February 18.

The UNEP report identifies climate, biodiversity and pollution as "the three interconnected planetary crises facing humanity." It points to the overconsumption of resources and the overproduction of waste as the cause. Drawing on a comprehensive review of scientific evidence, the report outlines what the "repair" of our planet entails.

"Accumulated scientific evidence can be turned into concrete and far-reaching actions by a broad range of actors across society in order to transform humankind's relationship with nature," write the lead authors Ivar A. Baste and Robert T. Watson in the preface.

UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen insists the environmental emergencies and the long-standing UN concern for human well-being need to be addressed simultaneously. When eco-collapse and climate change destroy food supplies and limit access to clean water, how can the 1.6 billion poor and the 700 million hungry aspire to a better life?

In bold terms that are unlikely to find favour in the corporate board rooms of the world, the report states: "The economic, financial and productive systems can and should be transformed to lead and power the shift to sustainability."

In practical terms this means ending subsidies to fossil fuels and investing "trillions" in nature-positive agriculture, clean energy and water.

Over the 50 years from 1970 to 2020, while the world population increased to 7.8 billion, the economy grew five times and trade 10 times. Compared to 1970, the world uses three times the amount of resources while greenhouse gas emissions have doubled.

The very ingenuity, technological savvy, organizational muscle, and financial investment that humanity has marshalled to exploit nature must now be "redeployed" to making peace with nature, "empowering people to express themselves and act environmentally responsibly without undue difficulty or self-sacrifice."

The UNEP created a broad scientific advisory panel and mobilized a wide selection of researchers to deliver "a blueprint for decision-makers."

The report will no doubt serve as a rallying point for the thousands of NGOs around the world defending the environment. The enormous task is to awaken world public opinion to what needs to be done to protect ourselves.

The capitalist market economy chugs along organizing human effort while "the essential benefits of nature currently have no financial market value despite being the underpinning of current and future prosperity."

Widespread citizen engagement will be needed before decision-makers take the concrete recommendations in part two of the report seriously.

While the report documents carefully the nature of the three crises facing humanity and how to prepare a future where the health of people, animals and the environment are protected, the political roadmap is left to governments.

This year the UN plans summits on climate, biodiversity, and land degradation. Creating a climate of government opinion favourable to action is not going to be easy.

As Michael E. Mann explains, the campaign to deny climate change amounted to the largest, best-funded PR operation in history. His recent book The New Climate War identifies "doomism" as the latest ploy to keep things going in the same old way.

The climatologist argues that buying into a "there is nothing we can do to preserve our planet" line of thinking leads to demobilization of the citizen ecological army that began taking out blue boxes to recycle waste decades ago.

Mann points to the climate-change denial campaign "weaponizing" climate activists conveying dire messages. These messages of doom inciting people to act also disengage too many citizens.

The traditional approach of major corporations is to deflect attention away from themselves. Acting as "ecologists," oil companies call on citizens to measure their individual climate footprint. The idea is that people will limit their vision to acting responsibly as individuals and ignore the massive footprint of the companies -- and the political action required to shrink it to zero.

This deflect-attention approach leads to favouring policies such as consumer carbon taxes -- where the victims of climate change pay -- and burying the idea polluters should be forced to pay for destroying nature.

What the UN report does not do is lay out the responsibility of global capitalism for the three crises. In practice, ignoring the destruction wrought by the maximization of profits as the organizing principle for economic activity leaves political leaders shadow-boxing as they pretend to improve the health of the planet.

The democratic take-over of the "rigged"-by-corporations economy needs to be on the agenda at upcoming UN summits, General Assemblies, and Security Council meetings.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Image credit: Karsten Würth/Unsplash

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