The planet is in the midst of an environmental emergency, and the world is only tinkering at the margins. Humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels and voracious appetite for natural resources are accelerating climate change and degrading ecosystems on land and sea, threatening the integrity of the biosphere and thus the survival of our own species. Given these risks, it is shocking that the multilateral system has failed to respond more forcefully. Belatedly, the United States, the EU, the UK, and some other advanced market democracies have adopted more aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets, but their ability to deliver is suspect, while critical emerging economies like China and India have resisted accelerating their own decarbonization.1 Even more concerning, existing multilateral commitments, including on climate change, fail to address the other half of the planet’s ecological crisis: collapsing biodiversity, which the leaders of the Group of 7 nations rightly call an “equally important existential threat.”2
“It is time to govern the world as if the Earth mattered.”
Preserving the natural world on which our well-being depends requires more than lofty rhetoric from national leaders. It demands bold breakthroughs in international environmental cooperation that can bridge the chasm between a global political system divided into nearly 200 independent countries and a unitary biosphere that obeys no sovereign boundaries. It is time to govern the world as if the Earth mattered.3
What is needed is a paradigm shift in foreign policy and international relations, which one might term “planetary politics.”4 The cornerstone of this new worldview is ecological realism: recognition that the integrity of the biosphere is the fundamental precondition for all that humanity hopes to accomplish.5 This new mindset will require governments to expand traditional definitions of national interest and international security, broaden conventional conceptions of sovereign obligations, and adopt a new approach to measuring national wealth that accounts for and values Earth’s natural capital assets.
To put this new mindset into action, the world’s governments must overhaul and strengthen the institutional and legal foundations of international environmental cooperation. Priorities include investing in nature-based solutions to climate change; bringing global trade rules into line with ecological imperatives; adopting a new approach to development that is truly sustainable; strengthening the Convention on Biological Diversity; finalizing agreement on the High Seas Biodiversity Treaty; and negotiating a comprehensive Global Pact for the Environment.
Summary for Policymakers
Climate change is just part of the global environmental emergency. Biological diversity is also imperiled. Human activity is driving unprecedented declines in ecosystems and species, threatening the health and integrity of the biosphere and the innumerable benefits that we obtain from the natural world.
Unfortunately, existing national policies and multilateral institutions have proven totally inadequate to address this potentially existential risk. Restoring balance between humanity and nature requires a paradigm shift toward “planetary politics,” accompanied by dramatic innovations in global environmental governance.
A New Mindset
The point of departure for planetary politics is recognition that everything humanity seeks to accomplish ultimately depends on the stability and health of a unitary biosphere that does not recognize national borders. Three priorities for governments flow from this:
- Designate the survival and stewardship of the biosphere as a core national interest and a central objective of international cooperation.
- Bring traditional concepts of sovereignty into line with the imperatives of planetary ecological stewardship, including by endorsing a new state responsibility to protect the global environment.
- Work with corporations and communities to account for, invest in, and safeguard natural capital and ecosystem services, rather than taking them for granted and exploiting them to exhaustion.
New Multilateral Institutions and Policies
Planetary politics will require strengthening existing and creating new multilateral institutions and treaties to address the crisis of the biosphere—and backing these commitments with adequate resources.
- Expand nature-based climate solutions. Given the intertwined natures of the climate and biodiversity crises, parties to the UNFCCC should redouble their efforts to capture and permanently store CO2 in natural carbon sinks.
- Make international trade nature friendly. To make global trade “green,” nations should adopt border carbon adjustments to penalize polluters, eliminate nature-destroying subsidies, liberalize trade in environmental goods, and crack down on illicit trafficking in wild species.
- Make global development truly sustainable. To reconcile the needs of humanity and the viability of nature, the international community must rein in destructive extractive industries and redesign and mobilize development financing to encourage environmental stewardship.
- Strengthen the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). At their Fifteenth Conference of Parties in December 2022, parties to the CBD must ratify a robust new global biodiversity framework, including a credible commitment to protect 30 percent of Earth’s land and ocean by 2030.
- Bring the United States into the CBD. Joe Biden’s administration should promptly seek the U.S. Senate’s advice and consent for ratification of the CBD, which is fully consistent with U.S. national sovereignty and U.S. national interests.
- Conclude a High Seas Biodiversity Treaty. UN member states should restart and conclude negotiations on this convention, to establish multilateral rules governing the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
- Negotiate a Global Pact for the Environment. Finally, the nations of the world should promptly begin negotiations on a comprehensive global convention to bring coherence to the fragmented landscape of international environmental organizations, treaties, and law.
The Human Assault on Nature: Welcome to the Anthropocene
So great is our species’ collective impact on the planet that some scientists advocate designating an entirely new era, the Anthropocene (the Age of Humans), to describe the current moment.6 Since 1950, globalization has delivered remarkable progress, including an eleven-fold increase in global gross domestic product (GDP), adjusted for inflation.7 Many average citizens now enjoy material comforts unimaginable to monarchs in previous centuries.8 Such abundance has come at grievous cost to nature, however, fundamentally altering our relationship to the living planet.9 The global population has more than tripled from 2.5 billion to 8 billion over the same seventy years, and our ravenous material desires are jeopardizing the innumerable benefits we obtain from healthy ecosystems, ranging from breathable air and fertile soils to clean water and pollinated crops. Humanity has become the most powerful force shaping the Earth system.10
“Humanity has become the most powerful force shaping the Earth system.”
The scope and costs of this assault can no longer be ignored. They have been documented in a succession of stark reports from the United Nations and private groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature.11 On nearly all indicators, the trajectory is dismal. Global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would need to drop 45 percent by 2030 to hold the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5°C, the objective to which nations agreed in Paris in 2015. Instead, they are on track to decline only 3 percent by the end of the decade, portending a future of searing heat, raging wildfires, acidifying oceans, violent storms, rising seas, and mass migration.12 In the latest Emissions Gap Report, issued shortly before the twenty-seventh Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) admitted that there is “no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place.” Indeed, current policies point to a world where temperatures rise 2.8°C, and national commitments (even if fulfilled) would only reduce this to 2.4–2.6°C.13 “We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over,” warns Inger Andersen, UNEP’s executive director. “Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.”14
Climate change, moreover, is just part of Earth’s environmental plight. Biological diversity is also imperiled, and global warming is not even the primary culprit.15 Around the world, ecosystems and species are at risk of collapsing as humans degrade and despoil landscapes and seascapes, dump pollutants and toxins into the environment, introduce invasive species, and harvest timber, fish, wildlife, and other living resources unsustainably.
The figures are sobering.16 Three-quarters of the planet’s ice-free terrestrial surfaces and two-thirds of its marine environment have already been severely altered, including by agriculture, ranching, logging, mining, urbanization, and industrial fishing.17 Ninety-three percent of global fisheries are overexploited or exploited to capacity, and fleets have reduced large ocean fish to 10 percent of their preindustrial numbers.18 Every year, the world discharges another 300–400 million tons of toxic sludge, heavy metals, and industrial poisons directly into the water, as well as 14.3 million tons of plastic into the oceans.19 Globally, fertilizer runoff has created more than 400 hypoxic (low oxygen) coastal “dead zones,” with a combined area larger than that of the United Kingdom.20
One million animal and plant species face near-term extinction.21 Since 1970, populations of wild vertebrates have declined by 69 percent and insects by 45 percent worldwide, and 3 billion birds have vanished from North America.22 Humans and our domesticates now account for 96 percent of the planet’s mammalian biomass; 70 percent of all birds are poultry.23 Half of all tropical forests have been destroyed since 1960, and each year the world loses another 3.36 million hectares (8.3 million acres)—an area the size of Belgium.24 Globally, more than 85 percent of wetlands and 35 percent of mangroves have already been lost.25
There have been five mass extinctions in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. Mounting evidence suggests we are on the cusp of a sixth.26 This risk is particularly acute in the world’s oceans, which are warmer than they have been in recorded history and 30 percent more acidic than they were just 200 years ago—the fastest change in ocean chemistry in 50 million years.27 Half of all coral reefs have disappeared since 1990, and 90 percent of those that remain are likely to die by 2050 as average sea temperatures exceed those ever recorded.28 Acidic waters, meanwhile, threaten the survival of zooplankton and invertebrates and the collapse of entire food chains. Without swift and dramatic steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, two Princeton University scientists warned earlier this year, the loss of ocean biodiversity over the next three centuries could rival the Permian Extinction, which saw the disappearance of 90 percent of ocean life.29
Our own species is suffering, too, on this degraded and crowded planet. Hundreds of millions face food insecurity, and agricultural production must rise 50 percent by midcentury to meet growing demands.30 Freshwater resources are under similar strain as snowpack melts and aquifers are drained faster than they are replenished. By 2050, 40 percent of humanity could confront severe water stress.31
Human health is also at risk. Since 1970, some 200 pathogens have leapt from wild animals to people, often through intermediate hosts. They include among others HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, Nipah, West Nile, MERS, H5N1, monkeypox, and of course SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 and that came from horseshoe bats.32 While epidemiologists debate the pandemic’s proximate origins (natural transmission versus laboratory leak), they agree that we have entered a new era of infectious disease—and that our unsustainable approach to nature is partly to blame.33 As humans and livestock encroach upon and disrupt biodiverse ecosystems, they encounter once-isolated species, exposing themselves to new viruses that can quickly spread globally.34 The average annual cost of emerging zoonoses is more than $1 trillion worldwide, with periodic pandemics capable of inflicting severe damage (in the case of COVID-19, as much as $28 trillion in lost global growth through 2025).35
Two and a half centuries after the much-maligned Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population, the good reverend merits another hearing, albeit with a twist.36 While Malthus may have erred in arguing that food production could never keep pace with human fecundity, overconsumption is definitely an ecological problem. According to the Global Footprint Network, it would take almost five Earths’ worth of resources for the world’s 8 billion inhabitants to achieve the same living standard average Americans enjoy today.37 And things are poised to get worse before they get better. Despite declining fertility, the human population will not plateau until at least 2060, and the aspirations of a rising global middle class will exacerbate ecological strains.38 Contrary to the beguiling claims of techno-utopians, there is scant evidence that societies get “more from less” as they become wealthier.39 Rather, the newly prosperous tend to outsource their natural resource demands to developing countries.40
In seeking to satisfy these appetites, we risk breaching several planetary boundaries—including those related to atmospheric CO2 concentrations, ocean acidification, species extinction, and nitrogen fixation—that define what scientists call a “safe operating space for humanity.”41 Indeed, evidence is mounting that important subcomponents of the Earth system could be approaching critical thresholds that, when crossed, bring about massive, nonlinear shifts that will themselves accelerate climate change, with disastrous and potentially irreversible consequences for nature and humanity.42 Such potential discontinuities include a rapid die-back of the Amazon rainforest, abrupt melting of boreal permafrost, and the sudden collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, an oceanic conveyor belt that keeps Europe’s climate temperate.43
Short of an alien invasion from outer space, it is hard to imagine any threat warranting more global solidarity and collective action than the prospect of rendering the sole planet we have uninhabitable. Our circumstance cries out for a “present at the creation” moment, akin to the flurry of international institution-building that followed World War II.44
“Short of an alien invasion from outer space, it is hard to imagine any threat warranting more global solidarity and collective action than the prospect of rendering the sole planet we have uninhabitable.”
Instead, multilateral environmental cooperation is flailing. Most nations continue to treat ecological challenges as second-tier foreign policy priorities best managed by environmental ministries, leaving their foreign, defense, finance, and trade counterparts to focus on (presumably weightier) matters like geopolitical competition, alliance politics, arms control, macroeconomic coordination, and international commerce. The results are predictable. What passes for multilateral environmental governance is a patchwork of weak, sector-specific agreements, overseen by underpowered implementing bodies unable to enforce compliance with ostensible commitments. The annual COPs provide a case in point. The Earth may be on fire, but the planet’s fate continues to depend on a hodgepodge of uncoordinated national pledges driven by short-term domestic political and economic considerations.
A New Mindset
The advent of the Anthropocene demands something more. It warrants a paradigm shift in foreign policy and international relations, in which cooperation on the shared environmental threats of climate change and collapsing biodiversity move to center stage. Planetary politics begins with the recognition that our traditional approaches to foreign policy, international security, and world order are incapable of addressing the most pressing ecological threats to human lives and livelihoods. As an initial step, all governments must designate the survival of the biosphere as a core national interest and a central objective of national security—and organize and invest accordingly.
Embracing Ecological Realism
The global environmental emergency, like the COVID-19 pandemic, has exposed the limitations of traditional political realism as a guide to statecraft in an age of planetary threats. That venerable perspective, elaborated by Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as well as more recent thinkers and practitioners like Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, still dominates the study and practice of foreign policy, not least in the United States.45 It depicts the international system as a fundamentally anarchic, cutthroat realm in which nations must be ever vigilant of the prospect of violence and nurture military capabilities to defend themselves. Alas, any step that one state takes to enhance its power inevitably makes others feel vulnerable, producing the well-known security dilemma.46 International institutions and alliances can dampen but never eliminate these dynamics, which are rooted in the human desire to dominate and the absence of world government.
“Political realists are fond of describing world politics as a Hobbesian ‘state of nature.’ But they seldom pause to consider the state of nature itself.”
Political realism has its uses. It helps explain Sino-American geopolitical rivalry and regional tensions among Persian Gulf nations, for instance. But it offers little insight on how to think about—much less respond to—threats without a threatener, like climate change or pandemic disease, that arise from human interactions with the environment.47 Its blind spot is in assuming that humanity and nature exist in a steady state, when in fact the potential collapse of the living planet as we have known it is the biggest long-term existential threat we face. There is irony here. Political realists are fond of describing world politics as a Hobbesian “state of nature.”48 But they seldom pause to consider the state of nature itself.
The global environmental crisis requires a new statecraft grounded in ecological realism: namely, recognition that the entire human enterprise depends on a healthy, stable biosphere.49 Ecological realism does not discard the national interest as a concept but broadens it to encompass the preservation of Earth’s life-support systems as an objective at least as important as the short-term pursuit of military, political, economic, or technological power. It likewise expands the definition of national security to encompass…