XVI ECPD International Conference GLOBAL CRISES WITH IMPACTS FOR GENERATIONS: IT’S TIME FOR URGENT MULTILATERAL ACTION - Belgrade City Hall, 23 October 2020

 

XVI ECPD International Conference 

GLOBAL CRISES WITH IMPACTS
FOR GENERATIONS:

IT’S TIME FOR URGENT MULTILATERAL ACTION

(Belgrade City Hall, 23 October 2020)

 

CONCEPT NOTE

The European Center for Peace and Development (ECPD), established by the United Nations University for Peace, has organized its recent annual international conferences in a new thematic framework on the Future of the World between Globalization and Regionalization, with a focus at previous conferences on human security and on the UN Agenda 2030. We start a new decade with global trends that are largely negative. The year opened with a global pandemic, a catastrophic risk that had long seemed probable but unpredictable. It demonstrated that the world is teetering on the edge of an abyss of existential risks and catastrophes that threaten civilization as we know it, with potentially irreversible consequences. Youth are striking and marching in the streets, highlighting the fracture between generations as their elders pursue short-term interests while leaving the consequences to future generations. Democracy is eroded with the rise of nativist, populist and autocratic regimes defending the vested interests of the rich, powerful and corrupt. The paradigm of national sovereignty underlying the present world order prevents any effective response to problems that are now truly global. Only urgent multilateral action might save us from the severe crises that are already unfolding, or at least reduce their impact. This is the theme to be explored in this conference, from various perspectives, in the search for ways forward to build resilience in the region and to support its contributions to global transformation.

 

Global trends that threaten our immediate future

Threats to human security have seldom been greater. The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was advanced this year to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been in warning of a coming apocalypse. After the historic refusal of proposals for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons in 1986, nuclear states are abandoning arms control agreements and rearming, while others are pursuing nuclear ambitions, heightening a renewed threat of nuclear conflict. Areas of tension around the world are increasing as leaders pursue personal ambitions. New forms of conflict, from cyberwarfare to autonomous weapons to arms in space are being developed rapidly. All these make it only too easy to stumble into a military disaster with global consequences.

Environmental catastrophe is even more threatening, including in the Balkans. Climate change is accelerating and accompanying disasters impacting large numbers are increasing, yet mitigation measures have fallen far short, major powers are encouraging fossil fuel production and deforestation, oil companies plan major increases in exploration and production, and greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere continue to rise. Sea level rise linked to the climate crisis will displace an estimated 600 million people in coming decades, forcing migration at a scale that will dwarf current problems. The science calls for a rapid abandonment of fossil fuel use and a complete transformation of our economy, agriculture, infrastructure, transportation and lifestyles, bringing with it great advantages over the present system. While the cost would be high, the costs of inaction will be much higher. In a moment of hope in 2015, following the lead of the scientific community, governments adopted the 2030 Agenda to transform the world, and the Paris Agreement on climate change, but this has not yet been sufficient to change our destructive course. Now, as countries try to restart their economies after the pandemic, we again have an opportunity to use the necessary massive investments to accelerate the transition towards a more just and sustainable economy, resisting the pressures of vested interests to return to business as usual.

Equally critical is the coming biodiversity crisis, as habitat destruction from unwise development, changing land use, overfishing and climate change decimate our rich natural heritage, with an estimated 1 million species expected to go extinct in the near future, a loss that cannot be reversed. We have taken for granted ecosystem services from freshwater management to soil restoration, pollination and pest control, assigning them insufficient economic value, yet their loss will destabilize all natural systems and threaten our food supply and well-being in general.

A globalized world with a growing and ever more dense and mobile population has shown how vulnerable it is to pandemic diseases. Health security has become a top priority, and the related economic and social impacts are significant. Even a virus like COVID-19, with a relatively small percentage of mortality, could still precipitate a near-collapse in global civilisation, first as travel and world trade were shut down to slow the spread of the infection, and now with further possible waves of infection, the threat of famine in many countries, and unmanageable burdens of government debt, unemployment and the worst depression in a hundred years.

Another underappreciated threat is from the new technologies of information and communications, which have connected the world into a neighbourhood. While they have accelerated the spread of knowledge and advanced civilization around the world, they are also subject to manipulation with grave threats to the proper functioning of our society. Any kind of information or propaganda can be fabricated as false news or alternative truths, science is denied or denigrated, expertise rejected, and confidence in the reliability of news and the responsibility of government, journalism, and the other institutions of society discredited. Trust is easy to destroy and difficult to restore. The masses can be manipulated for partisan or ideological ends, elections distorted, governments undermined, and power thus seized for nefarious objectives.

A major destabilizing factor made more evident by the pandemic is the rise in economic inequality. Despite ever-increasing wealth in our present material civilization, the benefits have gone increasingly to the rich and powerful. After some improvement in extreme poverty, the number going hungry each day is again increasing. Unemployment is high in most of the world, especially among the young, as the present economic paradigm favours return on capital rather than employment creation or wealth redistribution. Austerity measure increase precariousness, with job insecurity and growth of the working poor. Even the middle classes have seen no increase in real income for several decades. Regions with an expanding population due to excessive poverty are unable to create economic opportunities for all. Meanwhile, a tiny number of super-rich at the top increase their share of wealth, equivalent to that of a majority of the world population. Growing inequality inevitably leads to social conflict.

As if this were not enough, the present world economy is sustained by a growing debt bubble, made significantly worse by the pandemic. Governments have had to borrow and spend without limit to keep their economies on life support during shutdowns, and then are pressured to let workers return to work prematurely to boost their economy before the next election. Assets are wasted on unproductive military expenditure. In the United States, the interest on the national debt was already set to pass defence spending as the largest item in the national budget by 2022. Most other countries, including Japan and China, are also heavily indebted, as are most corporations and many consumers. Climate change could bring down the banking system, as most banks are overextended in lending to fossil fuel companies, and these loans are threatened by stranded assets. In the next financial crisis, there is no mechanism adequate to bail out the system.

Each of the above problems is itself complex, involving the interaction of many systems. They are also do not exist in isolation, and are interrelated, as the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have demonstrated. In our globalized, interconnected world, any one crisis may precipitate many others in a complex systems collapse. We have become so dependent on everything working correctly, from smartphones to digital banking to fully-stocked supermarkets, that we are increasingly vulnerable to a system breakdown. Science is developing tools in complexity theory to help to anticipate and prepare for these global challenges. Yet little thought has been given to building resilience, despite the common admission that crises are increasingly likely. Not everything would necessarily be negative. A rapid economic collapse that shut down global trade would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and forest destruction if it lasted long enough, saving us from a climate crisis.

These catastrophic risks would already be difficult to face with enlightened leadership and massive public support. Unfortunately, we also face a crisis of leadership, with an increasing number of governments controlled by those with narrow self-serving objectives, rather than the common interest. Corruption is rampant, falsehood becomes public information, greed and violence have commercial value, in what seems to be a moral and ethical vacuum. A public of passive consumers buys what they are told to buy, and vote for the best entertainment or whoever supports their confirmation bias. Great masses struggle to survive and have no time for anything else. An economic transition would produce losers as well as winners, leaving many in search of alternative employment, whose needs will have to be considered. These are not the conditions that will favour a fundamental transformation in society.

This situation has obvious intergenerational consequences. We are already rapidly degrading the human carrying capacity of the planet, with climate change, biodiversity loss, excessive fertilizer use, and land use change already overshooting planetary boundaries. We are now experiencing how a major crisis with even a temporary disruption of planetary and human systems on which we now depend produces untold suffering and seriously marks the generations that live through it. Those who inherit the mess we are making of Earth today will have to go to great efforts to restore our land and seas, without ever being able to replace much of what has been lost, especially extinct species.

 

The need for multilateral action

A common feature to all of the threats summarized above is that they are all global in character. While national governments can try to reduce their vulnerability and increase their resilience in the face of such challenges, these problems can only be truly addressed through multilateral action. Global heating and pandemics do not respect borders. A major conflict will inevitably spill over beyond those who started it, if not precipitating a nuclear winter that would kill off most of the world population. The world economy is so integrated that any contagion spreads around the world, as it did in the 2008 financial crisis and again this year.

The approaches and ways of thinking we have used in the past are inadequate to these global challenges. Linear thinking cannot deal with such complexity, and must be replaced by an openness to many perspectives and their creative interactions. We need to encourage complex adaptive systems that can self-organize in new ways and create whole new possibilities for alternative ways forward. We must learn to consult by sharing our multiple perspectives in creative dialogues as we search for more complete approaches that unite us.

Since the end of World War II, we have built a range of international organizations, including the United Nations and its specialized agencies, the International Court of Justice, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, many international conventions, and other global and regional multilateral bodies such as the World Trade Organization. However the present system is founded on the principle of national sovereignty, which means that countries can opt in or opt out. Participation is voluntary. The World Health Organization has regularly updated its recommendations for pandemic preparedness, but countries failed to implement them. There are few mechanisms for enforcement, and the most important, the UN Security Council, is hamstrung by five Permanent Members with a veto, which places their national sovereignty before any common global interest. We consider it normal to have national governments with legislative, executive and judicial functions that apply to everyone, but we do not yet have that at the global level.

This year is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and it is undertaking a wide global consultation, among governments and with civil society and all stakeholders, as to the kind of UN they would like to see emerge in the next 25 years. A summit on this issue is planned the month before the ECPD conference, which will provide an opportunity to consider at the conference what the implications are for the region and how to carry forward the process of UN renewal. There are proposals for fundamental reform of the UN on the table, to give it the capacity to address all of the critical global problems facing the world today. A new concept of human security is needed, together with economic security and work for all. The governments of the region could take up some of these issues and work with other like-minded countries around the world to take a reform agenda forward. With the Anthropocene, it it time to implement “We, the peoples” in the first phrase of the UN Charter, starting a new era of global collaboration for our common good.

While fundamental UN reform may not happen quickly unless precipitated by a crisis, much can already be done to improve existing multilateral processes, given the urgency of the threats. The Convention on Biological Diversity will be adopting its next 5-year strategy in 2021. In November 2021, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP 26 in Glasgow will be trying to ratchet up commitments to greenhouse gas reductions under the Paris Agreement. What is really needed is to give the UNFCCC the capacity to adopt binding global legislation on emission limits in accordance with the best science available, and to allocate reductions equitably among countries and multinational corporations, with penalties for failure to comply. Refusal to accept the multilateral rules should lead to a global reaction.

The Balkans region should not wait for the international community to act. There is already much that can be done within the region, with governments collaborating closely where they have shared interests in transportation infrastructure, protected areas and biodiversity management, innovative energy systems, coordinated health systems, food security, and many other ways they can build resilience in the region. Joint research programmes can be developed, and experience with innovations can be shared. This is not the time to be dwelling on the problems, but to look for solutions. Everyone can be learning together in difficult times. Cooperation will be much more effective than competition.

Given the fundamental transformation required in all aspects of society and the economy, and the urgency of acting immediately, national governments cannot be expected to do everything. Efforts are needed from local governments, businesses, civil society organizations, educational institutions, and individual citizens. The conference should consider how to mobilize all these efforts in a coherent fashion. Its discussions should focus on realistic regional action, both political and technological, to address these challenges, as well as the region’s role in global multilateral efforts to reduce these risks.

June 2020

 

 

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