Economists, scientists warn that world crises require new order of international cooperation and enforcement

/ Jeremy Hance

A group of environmental scientists and economists warn that under current governing models the number and scale of human-caused crises are "outrunning our ability to deal with them".

A group of environmental scientists and economists warn that under current governing models the number and scale of human-caused crises are “outrunning our ability to deal with them”.

The researchers, writing in Science, say that “energy, food and water crises, climate disruption, declining fisheries, ocean acidification, emerging diseases and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity,” have proven beyond national governments and institutions to deal with adequately.

Since these crises are planet-wide, they require a much more cooperative, i.e. global, response, according the group of economists and scientists, who themselves represent an international front coming from Australia, Sweden, the United States, India, Greece and The Netherlands.

The crises “are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects,” write the researchers. “The core of the problem is inducing cooperation in situations where individuals and nations will collectively gain if all cooperate, but each faces the temptation to free-ride on the cooperation of others.”

To deal with this problem they suggest a new order of global institutions that not only have the capacity to deal with an issue as large as climate change, but also have the ability to enforce compliance from individual nations when necessary.

“We are not advocating that countries give up their sovereignty,” explains co-author Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. “We are instead proposing a much stronger focus on regional and worldwide cooperation, helped by better-designed multi-national institutions. The threat of climate change to coral reefs, for example, has to be tackled at a global scale. Local and national efforts are already failing.”

Lead author Dr. Brian Walker of Australia’s CSIRO warns that currently there are few institutional structures capable of achieving the scale of global cooperation necessary to tackle the problems facing humanity.

“Knowing what to do is not enough,” says Dr Walker, “institutional reforms are needed to bring about changes in human behaviour, to increase local appreciation of shared global concerns and to correct the sort of failures of collective action that cause global-scale problems.”

The researchers recognize that the hurdles facing this new order would be two-fold: convincing nations to join-up against a multitude of global problems and then to follow through and do their part. They suggest that ‘major powers’ should be the enforcement engine, but that standards of behavior must be drawn up by all nations.

“The major powers must be willing to enforce an agreement – but legitimacy will depend on acceptance by numerous and diverse countries, and non-governmental actors such as civil society and business,” they write, adding that: “Plainly, agreements must be designed such that countries are better off participating than not participating.”

While nations have agreed in the past on tackling crises from climate change to biodiversity loss to poverty, by all accounts these global problems have worsened rather than improved.

Citation: Walker, B., S. Polasky, V. Galaz, C. Folke, G. Engstrom, F. Ackerman, K. Arrow, S. Carpenter, K. Chopra, G. Daily, P. Erhlich, T. Hughes, N. Kautsky, S. Levon, K. Maler, J. Shogren, J. Vincent, T. Xepapadeas, A. de Zeeuw. Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions. Science, 2009; 325 (5946): 1345 DOI: 10.1126/science.1175325

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