A new President for the United States: We have a dream

27 January 2009 | News story

by Ashok Khosla, IUCN President

With all the fanfare and show business skills they possess, Americans last week welcomed their new President with an unprecedented display of support and joy. The remarkable resonance President Obama has evoked with his fellow citizens should also encourage a new hope beyond their nation -- and indeed throughout the world.

 A rejuvenated America, with a renewed purpose, commitment and energy to make its contribution once again towards a better world could well be the turning point that can reverse the current decline in the state of the global economy, the health of its life support systems and the morale of people everywhere. This extraordinary change in regime brings with it the promise of a deep change in attitudes and aspirations of Americans, a change that will lead, hopefully, to new directions in their nation’s policies and action. In particular, we can hope that from being a very reluctant partner in global discussions, especially on issues relating to environment and sustainable development, the United States will become an active leader in international efforts to address the Millennial threats now confronting civilization and even the survival of the human species.

For the conservation of biodiversity, so essential to maintaining life on Earth, this promise of change has come not a moment too soon.

Photo: Philippe Tous
"The environmental challenges the world is facing cannot be addressed by one country, let alone by one man."

It would be a mistake to put all of our hopes on the shoulder of one young man, however capable he might be. The environmental challenges the world is facing cannot be addressed by one country, let alone by one man. At the same time, an inspired US President guided by competent people, who does not shy away from exercising the true responsibilities and leadership his country is capable of, could do a lot to spur the international community into action. To paraphrase one of his illustrious predecessors, “the world asks for action and action now.” What was true in President Roosevelt’s America 77 years ago is even more appropriate today.

From IUCN’s perspective, the first signals are encouraging. The US has seriously begun to discuss constructive engagement in climate change debates. With Copenhagen a mere 11 months away, this commitment is long overdue and certainly very welcome. Many governments still worry that if they set tough standards to control carbon emissions, their industry and agriculture will become uncompetitive, a fear that leads to a foot-dragging “you go first” attitude that is blocking progress. A positive intervention by the United States could provide the vital catalyst that moves the basis of the present negotiations beyond the narrowly defined national interests that lie at the heart of the current impasse.

The logjam in international negotiations on climate change should not be difficult to break if the US were to lead the industrialized countries to agree that much of their wealth has been acquired at the expense of the environment (in this case greenhouse gases emitted over the past two hundred years) and that with the some of the benefits that this wealth has brought, comes the obligation to deal with the problems that have resulted as side-effects. With equitable entitlement to the common resources of the planet, an agreement that is fair and acceptable to all nations should be easy enough to achieve. Caps on emissions and sharing of energy efficient technologies are simply in the interest of everyone, rich or poor. And both rich and poor must now be ready to adopt less destructive technologies – based on renewables, efficiency and sustainability – both as a goal with intrinsic merit and also as an example to others.

Photo: Nadine McCormick
"Caps on emissions and sharing of energy efficient technologies are simply in the interest of everyone, rich or poor."

But climate is not the only critical global environmental issue that this new administration will have to deal with. Conservation of biodiversity, a crucial prerequisite for the wellbeing of all humanity, no less America, needs as much attention, and just as urgently. The United States’ self-interest in conserving living natural resources strongly converges with the global common good in every sphere: in the oceans, by arresting the precipitate decline of fish stocks and the alarming rise of acidification; on land, by regenerating the health of our soils, forests and rivers; and in the atmosphere by reducing the massive emission of pollutants from our wasteful industries, construction, agriculture and transport systems.

Historically, American consumers have acquired highly inefficient habits in the way they use natural resources – energy, materials, water. And these consumers produce enough wastes, particularly greenhouse gases, to overwhelm nature’s capacity to absorb them. US corporations have invented remarkable products that have been the source of material wellbeing for hundreds of millions around the world, but have used production systems whose unintended fallout threatens the very viability of life on our planet. These consumption patterns and production methods must change, but that does not mean going back to the Stone Age. An average citizen of Switzerland, whose per capita GDP is higher than USA’s emits one third as much CO2 as an American. And in other societies and cultures, a full and happy life can be had for one third of what the Swiss consume. Doing more with less is possible – usually by doing it differently -- and now it has become essential, an issue of planetary survival.

Today, our self-worth seems largely to be measured by what we have, what we use and what we possess. Both nature and the economy are telling us that we have to identify ourselves with what we are, what we save and what we contribute – human beings living in harmony with each other and with nature. Judging from his inauguration address, President Obama has clearly understood this. Can we hope that the citizens of his great nation can also do so? The fact that they elected him suggests, hopefully, that they have affirmed with a resounding “Yes, we can!”

And surely they and the rest of us have no longer a choice: just as clearly, we must.