A look at the global environmental movement: what if?

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Last week, heads of state and other world leaders, including United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, gathered in Stockholm to commemorate the anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment which s was held 50 years earlier. Many historians consider this moment to be the dawn of the modern global environmental movement.

We understand today that the fundamental benefits of a healthy planet are not predestined. As I listened to the Stockholm+50 delegates discuss the significance of the 1972 conference, the question I couldn’t escape was, “What if that meeting had never happened?” What if these leaders had never come together and declared that the environment was a major international political issue? What would our world look like today if the leaders of 1972 had NOT created the United Nations Environment Programme? What if they hadn’t galvanized a global movement to save the planet?

What happened in Stockholm 50 years ago was revolutionary. Unprecedented. Visionary. It was hard. He overcame all the pressures to develop, extract and exploit the natural world. It changed the course of history and brought us to today — a time when environmental protection is seen as essential to our collective prosperity, safety and security.

Indeed, people all over the world recognize the importance of having clean air, clean water, a healthy ocean, and land that is free from pollution and toxic chemicals. The leaders of this year’s meeting acknowledged in its official summary that “a healthy planet is a prerequisite for peaceful, cohesive and prosperous societies”.

Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Monica Medina is pictured at Stockholm + 50 in Stockholm, Sweden, June 2022. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

And yet, we are again at a crossroads. A road leads to a planet even more crippled by today’s existential environmental challenges – more plastic pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions, rising temperatures and seas, and ever greater loss of biodiversity.

The other path leads to a better future where we live sustainably with nature. A world where, working with countries and companies around the world, we find a way to balance our needs for natural resources with the importance of ensuring their existence for future generations.

So again I ask, what if? What will happen if we don’t act today? What will we leave to future generations? Are we ready to relegate them to a planet whose natural systems are in crisis, despite all the progress made over the past 50 years?

We cannot leave them a world drowned in plastic pollution. We can choose a different path if we jointly develop a global agreement that takes an ambitious, innovative and country-focused approach to addressing the full plastic life cycle. In March, countries around the world unanimously agreed to work with stakeholders around the world – businesses and nonprofits, national governments and local communities – to craft a global agreement to end the scourge of plastic pollution clogging every inch of this planet.

We cannot leave future generations a world with a barren ocean. We can choose a different path if we commit together to protect new areas of the ocean, to fight illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and to end harmful fishing subsidies. In August, we hope to reach a global agreement to conserve the resources of the high seas. And, in the coming weeks, there is a chance of reaching an agreement at the World Trade Organization to end subsidies to the fisheries that currently supply fishing capacity at 250% of the level that corresponds to the maximum sustainable catch levels.

We cannot leave behind a world devoid of nature and biodiversity. We can choose a different path if countries that are party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopt a global goal of conserving 30% of land and water and 30% of the global ocean by 2030 at the next conference of parties to the CBD. . The United States will do its part. President Biden has pledged to conserve at least 30% of land and inland waters by 2030 and encouraged other countries to do the same.

Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Monica Medina and members of the State Department's Office of Oceans and Environmental and Scientific Affairs delegation are pictured at Stockholm+50 in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 2022. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Monica Medina and members of the State Department’s Office of Oceans and Environmental and Scientific Affairs delegation are pictured at Stockholm+50 in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 2022. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

We cannot leave future generations a world too hot to support life as we know it. We are not yet moving fast enough to keep global temperature rise within the 1.5 degree limit. But thanks to the Paris Agreement and global innovations, we have the solutions within reach: clean energy, more biodiversity to lock in carbon, and more financial support for the hardest hit women, youth and marginalized communities. by climate change.

What if the world had not acted collectively in 1972? What will happen if we don’t act now? Thanks to the 1972 conference, our planet is much healthier than it would have been without all the progress made over the past 50 years. We know what it’s like to have clean air and clean water – although we understand that the benefits of a healthy planet are not universally felt and that a new generation of environmental damage threatens everyone’s future.

Nor can we fail to act. Looking back on Stockholm+50, let us be inspired by those who came before us and those who came together again last week – by the voices who called for bolder action then, and by those who do. now. Our children and grandchildren rely on us. We cannot let them down.

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