Ultimately, resolving the collective-action dilemma of preserving a liveable planet will require a UN ‘constitution of the Earth’.
From September 28th to 30th, Milan will be hosting Youth4Climate: Driving Ambition, and from September 30th to October 2nd it will be the turn in the city of Pre-COP26, an initiative designed to enable young people to express their ideas in the run-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow (November 1st to 12th). It’s an important opportunity to discuss long-term strategies to face the environmental challenges of what scientists have called the Anthropocene—humanity being responsible for the ecological crisis which could lead to the collapse of the biosphere.
For decades national governments, particularly the great powers, have ignored scientists’ warnings, despite the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Rio de Janeiro conference in 1992. One consequence of their inactivity has been a gradual change in the meaning of the public good ‘security’. People can now be killed not only by atomic or conventional bombs, as hitherto, but also by a forest fire, a flood or a prolonged heatwave—and indeed more and more are dying as a direct result of the environmental crisis.
Nation-states originally came into being with the aim of safeguarding the lives and guaranteeing the security of their citizens. Yet they are now spending more on weapons and the battle for planetary political supremacy than would be needed to fund an effective UN plan to combat climate change and the loss of biodiversity.
Global green deal
The Glasgow conference could represent a turning point. There is reason to believe that the United States, China and the European Union will reach an agreement on a global ‘green deal’. Together, these three powers are responsible for 48 per cent of the greenhouse gases (GHG) pumped into the atmosphere. An agreement among them would create momentum capable of pulling other countries along.
We cannot however yet know whether such an agreement would be adequate and what institutional mechanisms would be activated to prevent each country, once the conference is over, returning to business as usual. This is what happened after the Paris Agreement of 2015, which did nothing to halt the increase of atmospheric GHG.
So it is useful to look beyond the impending deadlines to explore a political approach which could consolidate, and if possible extend, any unity of intent forged in Glasgow. This is based on the idea of planetary justice, a notion which embraces all the major socio-political issues of the Anthropocene.
The idea has to be translated into concrete projects to make sure justice equates to fairness between individuals and communities. Justice as equity never arises spontaneously in civil society among the citizens of a state. To achieve it there have to be institutions of solidarity, as the history of the welfare state proves.
On a planetary level it is therefore necessary to create global institutions—a global governance—to implement projects which transform the idea of justice into solidarity. The objectives can be grouped under sustainable development and international justice.
Sustainable development means that all human activities concerning the production of public and private goods, including the exploitation of natural resources, have to be compatible with planetary boundaries—a set of parameters, based on Earth System Science, defining a safe zone for human action. On climate, for example, the outer limit has been set at 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and there are other parameters concerning use of fresh water, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and so on.
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Such boundaries do not represent policies but the limits within which humanity must operate to safeguard life on the planet. Sustainable development thus indicates what needs to be done to guarantee intergenerational solidarity, ending what the philosopher Stephen Gardiner calls the ‘tyranny of the contemporary’, where ploughing resources into satisfying excessive current demands makes it harder for future generations to fulfil their needs. For example, the planetary boundaries include a threshold—one we have already far exceeded—to prevent further loss of biodiversity.
International justice is the second key aspect. The costs involved in the ecological transition of our industrial economy must not be borne equally by the inhabitants of rich, already industrialised countries and those in the developing world. The former have polluted the environment for centuries, while the latter can avoid doing so only if helped. Nor should the costs of renewal in industrialised countries be borne by workers or the industrial sectors forced to cut down on or abandon environmentally harmful products, such as coal or certain chemicals.
In short, social tensions within and among states could intensify in the coming years, sparking serious political crises, if governments do not strike a global green deal which includes sufficient domestic and international financial support to alleviate the costs of the transition. Marginal reforms of the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund will not be enough.
The acceleration of the global environmental crisis requires a leap forward in international relations. The EU has shown that different national publics can coexist peacefully if they agree to share certain powers—national independence is compatible with international co-operation. The principle of unity in diversity must become the moral basis for a peaceful, prosperous world which respects the natural environment.
A report by the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, in 2018 reviewed gaps in international environmental law and instruments. ‘There is no single overarching normative framework in the area of international environmental law that sets out what might be characterized as rules and principles of general application,’ it concluded.
Guterres warned: ‘The proliferation of multilateral environmental agreements and the resultant distinct and separate mandates ignore the unity, interconnectedness and interdependence of the Earth’s ecosystem … Institutional fragmentation and a lack of coordination are key challenges with regard to the current international environmental governance.’ And he said: ‘Gaps relating to the implementation and effectiveness of international environmental law have appeared in several aspects of inter-state dispute settlement, in the absence of an international environmental court.’
‘Constitution of the Earth’
The UN General Assembly should thus nominate a commission to formulate a proposal for global environmental governance. This ‘constitution of the Earth’ would set out the principles, political objectives and institutions involved.
The constitution of the Earth would become the North Star for planetary justice. It would not only specify the duties of governments and citizens but would also enable the world’s citizens to claim their rights for environmental protection in an international environmental court. Without the active co-operation of the world’s citizens and their representatives, the UN’s goals will not be achieved.
Of course, in other policy areas the UN would continue to operate on existing rules. But perhaps the spirit of international co-operation made possible by this initiative might extend over time to other domains.