The governance of Planet Earth

How fundamental reforms of environmental governance are urgently needed.

I must admit that as Post titles go, the one above is about as ‘weighty’ as it comes!  But then again, one might argue as Ronald Firbank, a British novelist, was reputedly to have quoted, “The world is so dreadfully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain!

One of the great assets of the part of the world where Jean and I live, namely Arizona, is the state university or to give it it’s proper title Arizona State University.  The university has an important School of Sustainability and I subscribe to their regular newsletter.  But it was Rob I. here in Payson who spotted a recent item and forwarded same to me.  Thank goodness because it covered something of supreme relevance to the future.

I’m taking the liberty of reproducing it in full, as follows;

Fundamental steps needed now in global redesign of Earth system governance

Leading experts from around the world, 4 from Pac-12 colleges, argue for immediate ambitious reforms

Some 32 social scientists and researchers from around the world, including Kenneth W. Abbott, a professor of international relations in ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and a Senior Sustainability Scholar in the Global Institute of Sustainability a Senior, are calling for fundamental reforms of global environmental governance to avoid dangerous changes in the Earth system.

Some 32 social scientists and researchers from around the world, including a senior sustainability scholar at Arizona State University, have concluded that fundamental reforms of global environmental governance are needed to avoid dangerous changes in the Earth system. The scientists argued in the March 16 edition of the journal Science that the time is now for a “constitutional moment” in world politics.

Research now indicates that the world is nearing critical tipping points in the Earth system, including on climate and biodiversity, which if not addressed through a new framework of governance could lead to rapid and irreversible change.

“Science assessments indicate that human activities are moving several of Earth’s sub-systems outside the range of natural variability typical for the previous 500,000 years,” wrote the authors in the opening of “Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance.”

Reducing the risk of potential global environmental disaster requires the development of “a clear and ambitious roadmap for institutional change and effective sustainability governance within the next decade,” comparable in scale and importance to the reform of international governance that followed World War II, they wrote.

In particular, the group argued for the creation of a Sustainable Development Council that would better integrate sustainability concerns across the United Nations system. Giving a leading role to the 20 largest economies (G20) would help the council act effectively. The authors also suggested an upgrade of the UN Environment Program to a full-fledged international organization, a move that would give it greater authority and more secure funding

To keep these institutions accountable to the public, the scientists called for stronger consultative rights for representatives of civil society, including representatives from developing countries, NGOs, consumers and indigenous peoples.

“We should seek input from people closest to the ground, not just from the elites, not just at the 30,000-feet level,” noted Kenneth W. Abbott, a professor of international relations in ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “Consultations should not take place only at the global scale, where the broadest policies are created, but also at local scales, smaller scales, all scales,” he said.

To improve the speed of decision-making in international negotiations, the authors called for stronger reliance on qualified majority voting. “There has to be a change in international negotiating procedures from the current situation, in which no action can be taken unless consensus is reached among all participating governments,” Abbott said.

The authors also called for governments “to close remaining regulatory gaps at the global level,” including the treatment of emerging technologies.

“A great deal of attention has been given to issues such as climate change, yet nanotechnology and other emerging technologies, which may bring significant benefits, also carry potential risks for sustainable development,” Abbott said.

Relying on research by Abbott and his colleagues at ASU’s College of Law, the authors wrote that emerging technologies “need an international institutional arrangement – such as one or several multilateral framework conventions” to support forecasting and transparency, and to ensure that environmental risks are taken into account.

“Working to make the world economy more green and to create an effective institutional framework for sustainable development will be the two main focal points at this summer’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro,” Abbott said. “This article was written to bring urgency to those discussions and to outline specific ‘building blocks’ for a more effective and sustainable Earth system governance system.”

The authors also argued for increased financial support for poorer nations. “More substantial financial resources could be made available through novel financial mechanisms, such as global emissions markets or air transportation levies for sustainability purposes,” they wrote.

Lead author Frank Biermann, of Free University Amsterdam and Lund University, Sweden, said, “Societies must change course to steer away from critical tipping points in the Earth system that could lead to rapid and irreversible change. Incremental change is no longer sufficient to bring about societal change at the level and with the speed needed to stop Earth system transformation.

“Structural change in global governance is needed, both inside and outside the UN system and involving both public and private actors,” said Biermann, who also is chair of the scientific steering committee of the Earth System Governance Project.

All 32 authors of the Science article are affiliated with the Earth System Governance Project, a global alliance of researchers and leading research institutions, specializing in the scientific study of international and national environmental governance. ASU’s Abbott is one of some 50 lead faculty of the Earth System Governance Project. Lead faculty are scientists of high international reputation who share responsibility for research on earth system governance. Additional information is at

Among the other authors of “Navigating the Anthropocene” are: S. Andresen, Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway; K. Bäckstrand, Lund University, Sweden; S. Bernstein, University of Toronto, Canada; M. M. Betsill, Colorado State University; H. Bulkeley, Durham University, U.K.; B. Cashore, Yale University; J. Clapp, University of Waterloo, Canada; C. Folke, Stockholm Resilience Centre Stockholm University and Beijer Institute, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Sweden; A. Gupta, Wageningen University and Research Centre, Netherlands; J. Gupta, Free University Amsterdam and UNESCO-International Institute for Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering Institute for Water Education, Netherlands; P. M. Haas, University of Massachusetts at Amherst; A. Jordan, Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia, U.K.; N. Kanie, Tokyo Institute of Technology and United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, Japan; T. Kluvánková-Oravská, CETIP, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Slovakia; L. Lebel, Chiang Mai University, Thailand;

And, D. Liverman, University of Arizona and Oxford University, U.K.; J. Meadowcroft, Carleton University, Canada; R. B. Mitchell, University of Oregon; P. Newell, University of Sussex, U.K.; S. Oberthür, Vrije University, Belgium; L. Olsson, Lund University, Sweden; P. Pattberg, Free University Amsterdam; R. Sánchez-Rodríguez, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Mexico, and University of California, Riverside; H. Schroeder, Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia, U.K.; A. Underdal, University of Oslo, Norway; S. Camargo Vieira, Universidade de Itaúna, Brazil; C. Vogel, independent scholar, South Africa; O. R. Young, University of California, Santa Barbara; A. Brock, Free University Amsterdam; and R. Zondervan Lund University, Sweden.

Abbott is also a senior sustainability scholar in the Global Institute of Sustainability, a transdisciplinary unit in ASU’sOffice of Knowledge Enterprise Development that advances research, entrepreneurship, innovation and economic development, and a professor of global studies in the School of Politics and Global Studies at ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Carol Hughes,

In that first paragraph, it was reported that the March 16 edition of the journal Science carried the argument put forward by the scientists.  Here the link to that argument which also includes a link to the full text from which I quote the abstract,

Policy Forum

Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance

Science assessments indicate that human activities are moving several of Earth’s sub-systems outside the range of natural variability typical for the previous 500,000 years (12). Human societies must now change course and steer away from critical tipping points in the Earth system that might lead to rapid and irreversible change (3). This requires fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions toward more effective Earth system governance and planetary stewardship.

The full list of references including the author’s email address can be seen here.

20 thoughts on “The governance of Planet Earth

  1. The trouble with all of this is that it plays into the hands of those that argue environmentalism is a trojan horse intended to legitimise attempts to subvert national Capitalist hegemony with globalised Socialism via the UN.

    Fortunately, this is a facile and completely spurious line of argument. Unfortunately, although not Socialist in nature (e.g. because socialists are in favour of big government, whereas environmentalism will only work when implemented from the ground-up; hence the Transition Towns network), as a species, it may well require some degree of force to be applied if we are to avoid a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ outcome: In 1968, Garrett Hardin suggested that this would require “mutual coercion… mutually agreed upon”

    In essence, at each and every level of government (i.e. from local right up to international), we need a system that enfranchises the Earth (i.e. non-humans and non-living resources) and future generations of humans… Quite how this should best be achieved is something that has exercised scholars for some time, as is evidenced by the following:
    Goodin, R. E. (1996), ‘Enfranchising the Earth, and its Alternatives’. Political Studies, Vol.44, pp.835–849. Free PDF downloadable here.
    Dobson, A. and Bell, D. (2005), Environmental Citizenship, MIT Press.
    Dobson, A (2006), ‘Citizenship’, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R. (2006), Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge, Cambridge University Press (pp.216-231).
    Melo-Escrihuela, Carme (2008), ‘Promoting Ecological Citizenship:
    Rights, Duties and Political Agency’
    See also this summary by a fellow WordPress blogger:
    Ecological citizenship: the basis of a sustainable society (22 September 2009).

    It really is a fascinating and challenging subject when you get into it…


  2. “There has to be a change in international negotiating procedures from the current situation, in which no action can be taken unless consensus is reached among all participating governments,” Abbott said.

    Indubitabubbly. And equally indubitable is that there’s one nation that must be involved in this but will only continue to pay lip service to any serious international efforts. No prizes for guessing which.

    Conclusion: we’re screwed.


    1. Let me see now, is it Afghanistan, Brazil, Canada… [some time later]… Venezuela, USA, Western Sahara, Xanadu, (the former) Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, or Zimbabwe?

      Answers on a postcard please to:
      [insert your nearest despotic leader here]
      Country of your choice,
      Third rock from the Sun.


      1. May be I did, but not in the way it might initially appear… I think I confused Donald as well because, towards the end, I say this:

        “Whoever we are and wherever we are, there are a number of things we cannot afford to do any longer: These include (1) blame the problem on someone else; (2) wait for someone else to take action first; (3) and/or complain that unilateral action is futile…


  3. “Giving a leading role to the 20 largest economies (G20) ” is the way to go? … whatever happened to EQUAL REPRESENTATION for all the nations of this world?

    Why does he believe that the G20 need to have “leadership” in fixing the world when in fact it was the G20 who has almost destroyed it? If anything they need to be pushed to one side so that the rest of the world can also have an equal say.

    Questions, questions 😦


      1. It’s only another form of news media at the moment, as a computer scientist I can tell you that it will be another 50 years before it ceases to be another form of printing press and becomes in any way useful as a tool for political decisions. Good for spreading propaganda but not much more at the moment.

        Consider this … how easy would it be to write a “Referendum Program” that would, by the simple method of gaining 75% of a vote on any issue, give the people more power than any democratic government ever?

        Imagine that … a citizen writes down that he wants a new park built on an empty parking lot near his house, the computer checks the finances, finds it is financially possible and puts it to a referendum … the people vote and the park gets built, that’s great!.

        By the same token … a citizen writes down that he wants a vote of no confidence on the political party in power and all hell breaks loose.

        Yet it has never been done or allowed, why? because those of us who can write such software know very well it is not a healthy thing to do at the moment 😦

        It is way too early to give the internet such powers, the majority of the people are not yet educated enough to be given such rights, they are too easily seduced by those who understand psychology and propaganda. Think of what Hitler did with just his voice, imagine him with the power of the internet giving him the ability to control the will/say of the people.


      2. 🙂 In fact, I’m going to pick up from your thoughts about the new interconnected world and make it a separate Post for next week. So thanks for the idea! P.


      3. Good stuff, you’ll be getting that other blog from me soon as well, almost finished it, the hardest blog I ever written, meanwhile here’s something to awaken some thoughts in you

        The above is a silly thing that actually means quite a lot when you think about it but the link below is very good in understanding just how the internet could be used as a tool against democracy, in fact, that is exactly what is being done with it right now by the right-wing groups who believe in destroying democracy for the sake of republicanism by using “climate warming as a hoax” as their main weapon of seduction.
        I could fill books with examples of how they do it, I spent 4 years monitoring the stuff.

        And of course, our governments use the net to do the same things against other governments they feel should be brought down .


      4. Lots more sleeping on words required! 😉 Seriously, thank you so much for taking the time to comment in the very thoughtful way that you did.


  4. I seem to agree with all what was said above. Yet a point:
    Before governance, what is needed is cognizance. And it does not matter what the world thinks, as long as the USA and the EU are at each others’ throats.

    World democracy is an illusion. There are UN Security Council permanent members, they pack up more than 95% of the world military capability, and another name for that is global peace.

    It is certainly better than global war.

    The big problem right now is that a loose alliance of world plutocrats (and I include Chinese and Russian leaders in that) led by their main headquarters in Wall Street is fighting the better angels of the European leadership. So democracy which is pretty much reduced to North America, Europe and a few colonies thereof, is split.

    The USA keeps believing in its exploitative mentality, thanks to colossal propaganda from the fossil fuel, health, military-industrial, banking and academic plutocracies. The EU itself is under American plutocratic assault (OK, it’s its fault, but…).

    Before governance, what is needed is cognizance means that the history, and even economic history, and the philosophy thereof, the last 2,000 years needs to be dissected. Professor Diamond did a bit of that, much more needs to be done, hence my labors on:


    1. Patrice, I can’t put it better than how you started your reply, “I seem to agree with all what was said above.” Thank you so much for offering that perceptive summary. I must include some of Prof. Diamond’s talks and lectures in future Posts on Learning from Dogs. Best wishes, Paul


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