Even good things won’t make 2015 a good year

Mark Leon Goldberg wrote just before Christmas that 2015 might be one of those rare years that shakes up the international system, he thought for the better. His hopes are based on

  1. adoption next September of the Sustainable Development Goals and
  2. conclusion of a treaty on climate change before the end of the year.

I’m not optimistic, even if both these hopes are realized.

Mark is correct that the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015, have been a significant success. But unfortunately that is unlikely to be repeated with the follow-on Sustainable Development Goals. Success has encouraged overreach. The MDGs were restrained and reachable. There were only eight of them:

Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty
Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education
Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
Goal 4: Reduce Child Mortality
Goal 5: Improve Maternal Health
Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases
Goal 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability
Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

The current draft of the SDGs is ridiculously over-ambitious and unrealistic. They start with “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” They repeat that sweeping over-ambition for hunger, health, education, gender equality, water, energy, economic growth, employment, infrastructure, inequality (within and between countries), cities, oceans, terrestrial ecosystems, justice and sustainable development. Seventeen goals in all. This is a catalog of the developed world’s current concerns, not a set of achievable goals for countries and organizations with limited capacity and even more limited resources.

Unless a real effort is made to prune and prioritize, the SDGs risk irrelevance or worse. There is certainly no risk they will be achieved if they remain in their current formulation. A real effort should be made in the next few months to pare them back, both in number and ambition. A tighter and shorter set of goals would bode much better for implementation.

I too am optimistic about a climate change treaty concluded in 2015. But unfortunately there is no hope it will be strong enough to avoid truly serious impacts of global warming. We are well on our way to breaching the 2 degrees centigrade rise over pre-industrial levels that is generally regarded as a benchmark, albeit an arbitrary one, signalling serious problems due to irreversible melting of major ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. The way I read this World Bank report, we are likely to double that figure before the end of the century. You have to believe that countries will all meet their current pledges and tight new ones will be made in order to avoid it.

I’m not a climate disaster monger. But I do have a long memory. What I remember is that the “greenhouse effect” (which is what causes the fossil fuel contribution to global warming) was already an issue at the 1972 (first) UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. I was a young staffer on the secretariat and amazed that human activity could affect the entire planet. Our collective failure to do anything serious about it in the more than forty years since suggests that we will need some real disasters before acting. New York City is building up its coastal defenses, in response to the massive flooding that occurred due to Hurricane Sandy, and other big cities have invested heavily (London has floodgates, Venice is getting them). The Netherlands has its dikes. But much of Asia is at serious risk, as are lots of islands. Bangladesh, Mauritius and Vietnam can’t afford the defenses that New York and the Dutch build.

We’ve likely already seen some of the disasters and their consequences. Climate variation caused heightened conflict between pastoralists and agriculturalists in Darfur and drought in Syria, where an influx of farmers into urban areas was contributed to the rebellion against Bashar al Assad. We are going to see a lot more such climate-induced violent conflicts as competition for resources–especially water–grows and productive land area shrinks. The United Arab Emirates can afford to desalinate sea water. Egypt much less so, but its needs will soon exceed what the Nile will provide.

So no, I am not sanguine. Even good things won’t make 2015 a good year.


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