The United Nations recently brokered two historic agreements, applicable to every person on this planet: In September, the UN launched the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide the UN's work over the next 15 years, and, in December, the UN created a roadmap in Paris for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and responding to their devastating impacts.
The world in 2030 will look very different if we get these goals right. We'll have avoided and averted some of the world's worst crises.
But that's only if we get it right. There's a chance we won't. Some people will see, and have seen, these efforts as separate agendas with separate organizations and separate funding streams. It is not uncommon, inside and outside the UN, to hear climate action pigeonholed to only a handful of the 17 SDGs, for example. Development and climate experts alike do this.
This is a mistake. The SDGs and the Paris climate agreement are clearly interconnected and any effort to tackle one without immediate consideration of the other will do serious disservice to both. (It's not unlike the lack of coordination between the UN's Security Council and the UN's Economic and Social Council when dealing with global violence; the former body, which is predominantly reactive to conflict, would do well to prioritize preventive approaches in direct conversation with the latter body.)
Both SDG and climate commitments bring with them unimaginably hefty, but necessary, workloads. Hefty in that we're still over-reliant on unsustainable systems and must transition to something more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. Necessary in that we must do it now in order to survive. Done together, however, we might actually have a shot at this. But that means that the myriad communities committed to the SDGs - e.g. poverty, hunger, health, education, gender, etc. - will need to be in direct and daily conversation with climate organizations. This isn't a groundbreaking proposition. Many of my colleagues are already pounding this pavement. But it definitely bears repeating as this is going to require an entirely new modus operandi, unlike anything that's been orchestrated before. There's some discussion now, but it must increase tenfold.
If we are to efficiently and effectively tackle what's in store, we'll need to come out of the gate strong this year. There's no room to wait around, which is why some cities in the US - such as New York City, Baltimore and San Jose - are already adopting urban SDG agendas on top of their climate commitments. They didn't want to wait, nor should we. The agenda begins now, and a first step in that process is ticking through the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and enumerating their climate connection clearly, lest anyone still doubts that these agendas are interrelated.
Poverty and hunger, which are the first two on the SDG list (eradicating both), are perhaps the most obvious in their connection to climate, yet funding streams and workflows are still siloed or marginalized. The anti-poverty and anti-hunger camps, for example, have yet to fully integrate the climate narrative. And yet, climate change is one of the UN's biggest obstacles in its 15-year goal setting on these two fronts. Not only will extreme weather force more people into poverty, disease and malnutrition, it'll destabilize everyone and everything that's already vulnerable. Putting poor populations at the fore of any climate fix will be essential, as will difficult decisions regarding diet. Increasing food production 70 percent by 2050, to feed the nearly 10 billion people that will live on this planet, is going to require a massive uptick in plant-based diets given the carbon intensity of the animal industry. There's no easy way around this and it'd behoove both camps to get on board this train sooner than later, something they have yet to do.
Health is a no-brainer as dirty fossil fuels are killing us. Air pollution alone kills 3.3 million people a year, a deathly figure set to double in 35 years if we don't change course. Hotter temperatures, and the heat records we continue to break, bring all sorts of harmful health impacts. Simply put, that means more strokes and heart attacks and more mosquitoes and ticks. Thankfully, the highly reputed Lancet Commission is already all over this issue but more needs to be done to engage health practitioners in the telling of the climate story, whether in mobile clinics, emergency rooms or hospital boardrooms. The climate-health connection needs to be as commonplace in the public's mind as prep for cold season and flu shots are at your local Walgreens and CVS stores.
As you can see from the first three SDGs above, there's an obvious trend developing. The gaps should be self-evident. Much of it has to do with communication but also with improved education, which will have a better chance of succeeding if people are out of poverty, healthy, and well fed. Kids can be what they should be - i.e. students - when poverty, which will worsen with global warming, isn't forcing them to work the fields or the sweatshops. Additionally, any climate change curricula has a much better chance of landing on less-distracted ears if basic human needs - like shelter and food - aren't so out of reach.
Gender is another obvious one despite the fact that many women's rights organizations are not yet fully on board the climate train. With every possible climate impact, women are, without question, the most vulnerable. In most countries, they're still the ones primarily handling the water, the food, the firewood, and maintenance of household infrastructure - all of which becomes more onerous and arduous as the planet warms and extreme weather worsens. They're also more likely to die from, and be exploited during, disaster situations. Worse, the unequal distribution of the climate burden undermines every other gender equality target. This fact alone should make this SDG deserving of both camps' attention.
The next goal related to water is arguably the most important, yet, for some unknown reason, it remains one of the least urgent among advocates. Despite the devastating climate-induced droughts and floods on every continent - from California to the UK, from Sao Paolo to Syria - we haven't yet woken up to the reality that freshwater, as we know it, won't be around for the taking much longer. Billions of people are already living in physical water scarcity or water shortages, and these numbers are set to grow substantially with global warming. While talk of water conflict and water wars is rightly on the rise, much more will be needed, including a complete rethink on water-intensive industries, from food and fashion to tech and trade.
Energy is obvious. No need to spend much time talking about this as both camps are already on board, talking about 100 percent (renewable energy) for 100 percent (of the world's population). What's great about the clean energy revolution, if done right, is that it'll help accomplish other UN goals: It's good for health, it's good for economic growth, it's good for gender and income equality, and it's good for democracy. In fact, the democratization of energy, enabling and empowering people anywhere and everywhere to harness the sun and the wind, should be front and center for international financial institutions. Mirror what the Internet and mobile technology did for the majority, globally, and similarly free up renewable energy and make it easy for the taking. It's no wonder that Tea Party libertarians in America are already all over this issue. So should every other party.
The next one is tough. On sustainable economic growth, while we do have businesses and economists talking about climate impacts and risks to markets and supply chains, and plenty of talking points when it comes to green jobs and green growth, we're short on re-evaluating and ultimately replacing the models and measurements inherent to the economic system. Hurricane Sandy, for example, was good for America's economy. Extreme weather, and the damage it wreaks, is ultimately, and perversely, good for the GDP because it increases the transaction of goods and services. This is a problem, a result of faulty frameworks for measuring progress, and one of the many reasons why the GDP must be completely revamped. Additionally, if we're serious about just jobs and a just transition, we're going to have to value people as much as we value the planet. Treating either as discardable or dispensable, which our economic system has done for too long, and we'll fall short on both SDG and climate deals.
We're getting there slowly, but surely, on industry, infrastructure and innovation. Narratively speaking, this fits nicely with most countries' cultural frameworks. No one wants to miss the cutting edge of whatever is being innovated, and no one wants to miss out on the market share. Smarts grids, and the efficiencies they guarantee, make common sense. Resilient infrastructure that can withstand the next storm makes sense. Products that are less reliant on petro-chemicals, since we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, make sense. All of this is common sense. Even energy efficiency makes bipartisan sense in a very politically divided US Congress. To ignore the opportunities relegates one to a Luddite legacy and comes with a clear economic cost. Innovators who understand the transformative market signal that emanated from Paris are already outperforming the industries that remain intransigent.
We all know the gap between the rich and the poor, within and among nations, is growing and reaching record levels. Policymakers who are fluent when it comes to income inequality stats and data trends, however, have yet to layer on carbon use and climate change. That growth gap invariably came at someone's expense. In almost every case, for every rich person and rich country, you can find the poor person or poor country, exhausted and extracted and poorly remunerated, which made those riches possible. America's rich world fascination with the latest smart phone, for example, is only made possible through poor working and environmental conditions in China and elsewhere. Similarly, fossil fuel facilities are consistently located within poor, minority communities, and, remarkably, coal is still advocated as a fix for poor populations in developing countries. Making climate solutions clean, renewable, accessible and affordable will help bridge this gap. It obviously won't fix the financial system, which skews the gap further, but it's a start.
Now on to cities, which is where some of the most exciting sustainability and climate actions are occurring - due, in part, to cities' ability to move policy more quickly and engage citizens more readily than state or federal counterparts. It's also happening in cities because it has to: Cities are the biggest contributors of global greenhouse gas emissions (over 70 percent); cities are where the majority of the world's population will reside in the coming decades (70 percent by 2050); and cities are on the front lines of climate impacts. Most major cities now have resiliency offices. Most major cities also have sustainability directors. And there are organizations set up to support them, such as the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. The key now, post-Paris (where many cities signed up to various pledges, targets and timelines), is for mayors and city councils to get voters involved in the move towards more mass transit, less pollution and waste, better pedestrian and bike policies, and more. That way it sticks the next time another mayor moves in and wants to rethink past precedent.
Here's the real rub for both sustainability and climate communities: consumption and production. We need a very different kind of American dream (or insert any other country and their corresponding aspiration). Per capita emissions are way too high (which is why the Under 2 MOU work is so important, getting us to 2 tons of carbon emitted annually per person), especially in the rich world, and they're only going to get higher as commercial pressures to consume and discard increase. Fast fashion - one of the heaviest users of oil-based products, energy and toxins - is a fine example, as most clothes are worn but a few times before being discarded. Technology is another as many users unnecessarily upgrade, and consequently discard, every imaginable device on a near annual basis. Food is yet another as the world wastes one-third (40 percent in the US) of what we produce. This has got to stop, especially as the global population adds another 2 billion tech users, food eaters and clothing-wearers in the next few decades. And we haven't even discussed cars, houses and all the other pressures to consume. There simply aren't enough resources for this kind of profligate consumption and wasted production. We're all going to have to be a lot leaner going forward, and the rich world - and its extraordinary media and advertising machine - will have to lead the way.
On climate, we've now got a plan out of Paris. There's global consensus that we have to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial temperatures) and aim for even lower, at 1.5. We've already warmed 1 degree, leaving little wiggle room and forcing remaining fossil fuels to stay below ground. A carbon-free economy is now a goal for the latter half of this century. All of this is good, but it must stick and get stickier, moving from aspiration to reality. Nations will meet regularly to ratchet up the voluntary climate-related commitments they've offered over the last year in the run-up to Paris. That's also good. Hopefully peer pressure will result in more aggressive goal setting. There's finally some money on the table for poorer nations to adapt to climate change and recover from the loss and damage from extreme weather and global warming-related effects. In short, the world is on board. That's huge. Going forward, anyone who is pro-fossil fuels will be sitting on the margins of history, an outlier in what is an overwhelming overture to save the world from warming.
The immediate Paris-related business now, however, will be in saving the oceans and the forests before they're completely wrecked. We've over-harvested and over-exploited both, over-fishing the oceans and over-clear-cutting the forests. Ocean's capacity to store carbon and heat from the atmosphere has acidified and warmed the seas, making much of marine life unsustainable. Forests' and soil's capacity to store carbon has meant that global deforestation, as a result of animal but also palm oil production, and, more recently, drought-induced wildfires have released billions of tons of carbon into the air. Keep in mind new trees won't be able to capture that CO2 quickly. Old-growth forests, peat bogs and tropical rainforests, which take decades to grow, are especially efficient and effective at storing large amounts of carbon. This brings us back to the interconnected nature of these SDGs and climate action. Saving the seas and the trees will require more sustainable agriculture, more sustainable consumption and more sustainable water use. It's all related, as our oceans and forests know well.
Failure to fix any or all of the above puts the world in a seriously unstable and insecure situation. Peace and justice, and the institutions that enable them to prosper, will be all but non-existent if we don't preempt resource, water and food scarcity. As the US and UK defense departments have already intoned countless times, climate change is a threat multiplier and will prey on unstable environments, exacerbating poverty, terrorism and migration trends. Water wars, food wars, and resource wars are all part of a future full of climate conflict if we don't get this right. This is why climate change must be a part of the UN Security Council's mandate, which it currently is not. The council's parameters are old ones and must be updated to reflect current risks and threats.
Lastly, this needs to be done with all hands on deck. All partnerships possible must be pursued. No one is exempt. No business, no policymaker, no academic, no civil society group, no lawyer, no marketing professional, no educator, no builder, no designer, no engineer, no doctor, no landscaper...no one. And it's going to require some unusual allies and unprecedented partnerships - including pairing up committees and councils within the UN to ensure preventive and preemptive approaches.
That means that the Security Council is coordinating directly with the Economic and Social Council, as the issues are increasingly inseparable. That means that the UN's climate team, what's left of it post-Paris since it's being downsized, is consulting on every part of the SDG agenda. That means that governments, such as the US, are integrating climate and sustainability thinking into every department, whether housing, health, or homeland security. Since climate and sustainability impact almost every aspect of social, economic and environmental decision-making, it's got to have a seat at the table.
Managing those partnerships alone, at the institutional level, would significantly improve our chances of meeting any of the goals above. Short of achieving that, however, we can immediately start, as individuals, considering climate and sustainability in every decision we make: what we consume in food and fashion, how we transport and house ourselves, the technology we use, and every other lifestyle decision we make. None of this is possible without the public's active participation - neither the SDGS nor the climate commitments. Elected leaders are only half of the equation. We are the rest. The time to start cracking on this is now. We've got 15 years to solve this thing.
Michael Shank, PhD, is adjunct faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and adjunct assistant professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs, where he is currently teaching a course on Sustainable Development. Shank writes in his personal capacity. For this article, he thanks Sandra Ruckstuhl, Allison Fajans-Turner and Julia Trezona Peek for their contributions on the climate and SDG connection.
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