Reducing the risk of potential global environmental change requires a "constitutional moment" comparable in scale and importance to the reform of international governance that followed World War II, according to an international team of researchers that includes a University of Arizona geography professor.
"Humanity is now placing unprecedented pressures on the planet that are changing the climate, destroying biodiversity, and polluting the oceans. These pressures are undermining the security of food and water supplies and may be approaching irreversible changes in life support systems," said Diana Liverman, who also co-directs the UA's Institute of the Environment. "We need to make some fundamental changes to how we govern the environment at local to global scales."
Liverman was one of 32 authors to put forth recommendations for achieving that goal in a paper that will publish in the journal Science on March 16. Their proposals focus on the United Nations but are also relevant to national policies and to Arizona.
"A lot of the changes happening globally are affecting us locally, especially in dry regions with growing populations like Arizona," Liverman said. "Responding to water problems, air pollution, high temperatures and conflicts between land use, energy development and conservation are all issues that citizens and decision makers in the state and around the world are struggling with every day."
The paper calls for the creation of a UN Sustainable Development Council to better integrate sustainable development concerns across the UN system, with a strong role for the world's 20 largest economies, including the U.S. The authors also recommend elevating the UN Environment Program to a full-fledged UN agency like the World Health Organization-a step that would give it greater authority and more secure funding and improve response to emerging environmental crises.
In addition, the authors call for stronger reliance on qualified majority voting in international negotiations, as opposed to consensus, to improve the speed of decision making; stronger consultative rights for representatives of civil society in global governance; new agreements to manage technologies such as geoengineering, and increased financial support for environmental management in poorer nations.
Liverman and the paper's other authors are affiliated with the Earth System Governance Project, a global research alliance of researchers and leading research institutions specializing in the scientific study of international and national environmental governance.
The paper will be presented at "Planet under Pressure," a major international conference focusing on solutions to the global sustainability challenge and a new vision for global-change research. Several thousand scientists from around the world are participating in the conference, which will be held March 26-29 in London.
Both the paper and the conference are aimed at informing decision makers involved in June's international summit, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, also known as Rio+20.
Liverman will give the first scientific talk at the conference, discussing humans' role in changing the planet, how this varies across the world, and some of the positive signs that societies are starting to face the challenges of sustainable development.
"I am excited about the opportunity to address the amazing group of researchers who will gather in London and to emphasize the role of social science research in explaining and solving the challenges of global environmental change," she said.
During the conference, Liverman also will be involved in the official announcement of a new scientific effort to seek Earth system sustainability. Called Future Earth, the 10-year initiative is designed to deliver knowledge that will help societies meet their sustainable development goals. Liverman co-chairs the Future Earth transition team, an international group that is leading the design phase and the early implementation of the initiative.
"Some of the world's most significant scientific research organizations have come together to create Future Earth and coordinate their programs and projects to be more effective in responding to decision makers, supporting new scholars, and identifying innovative ways to reduce environmental risks and human suffering," Liverman said.
UA research is already at the cutting edge of what Future Earth seeks to achieve, she added, because the University has a strong track record of collaboration between natural and social sciences, working in international networks, and responding to stakeholders.
The UA has several degree programs that take an interdisciplinary approach to sustainable development and recently recruited a new campus-wide cohort of environmental scholars interested in working together to solve environmental challenges.