NEW YORK, New York – In a remarkably candid and clear-sighted speech, UNDP administrator Helen Clark warned of poverty sectionalism and the false sense of security among middle- and high-income countries. She further highlighted that major, moderate institutions like the International Energy Agency are predicting catastrophic environmental collapse within the coming decades. With many high-income countries and their leaders seeming to live in what Clark called a “parallel reality,” the UNDP’s statements give hope that at least one major institution is aware of the precipitous point to which human activity has brought the planet and our species.
Consider the case of India. Comprising a whole seventh of the human species, the country was recently rated by the World Bank as the least prepared country (Africa excluded) to deal with natural disasters. October’s Cyclone Phailin alone displaced 6.5 million people, and the government projects as many as 12 million will be directly affected by the storm and the resulting exodus; to India’s credit, the massive evacuation they executed reduced fatalities to only 21. Indian air quality is among the worst in the world. The poverty rate is among the highest. Agricultural productivity is declining as water scarcity and pollution, and soil pollution, take their toll – an estimated $80 billion annually. It is safe to say that the Indian ecosystems are among the most taxed in the world, and with such a large portion of the population unable to purchase imported food and water, famine is a fast-approaching reality. Given India’s over-burdened government, the death toll could conceivably be among the worst in human history.
Neither is India an exception to the rule. Ms. Clark cited a statistic that is becoming the standard for climate change researchers: present pollution trends indicate an increase in global temperatures by 7.2° Fahrenheit by 2060, and 10.8° by 2100. As an average, this number will not be applicable to all regions equally – some will experience less change; some will experience more. The effects will hit all countries, and especially those deepest in poverty. Countries like India, already unequipped to combat natural disaster, will be assaulted even more commonly, and with more strength. Indeed, the summary of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research states that there is “no certainty that adaptation to a 4° C world is possible.”
If there is hope in this situation, it is manifest in figures like Ms. Clark. The New Zealander has had a long career in politics which lead her from a family farm, to the government in her native country, to the apex of the UN. She claims to have conquered fear, and her biography backs her up. Fearlessness and an obsession with results are the attributes necessary to accomplish the daunting tasks staring humanity down. Short-sighted economic agendas, selfish politics, corruption, institutional inefficacy or irrelevance, and, indeed, simple base obstacles like greed, spite, and stupidity stand between the UN and the enactment of legislation which can whittle down the poverty gap, boost sustainable development, provide necessary funding to scientists, and unify the disparate intentions of the over 200 independent nations on the planet. Currently, only the UN has the scope to act as the unifying institution, and historically, their record has been less than perfect. However, if leaders like Clark continue to gain the prominence they deserve, this may be a new greatest generation.
– Alex Pusateri