Events

High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them

June 18, 2002 // 12:00am

By Robert Lalasz

18 June 2002—A tense community, an impending showdown, and time running out—the classic movie High Noon is a perfect metaphor for today's global situation, says Jean-François Rischard, World Bank vice-president for Europe.

Rischard, author of the new book High Noon: Twenty Global Problems, Twenty Years to Solve Them (Perseus Books), told a Wilson Center audience that the world faces a crucial window of opportunity to solve its most serious challenges. "The real subtitle [to the book] is the urgent need for new approaches to global problem-solving," Rischard said.

Population and Economics, Not "Globalization"
Rischard began by saying that he hates the terms "globalization" and "global governance." "There is not one marching force called ‘globalization,'" he argued. "There are actually two forces at work that will dramatically change the planet—and these two forces [population and the new world economy] are running ahead of our capacity to respond to and manage them."

Global population, Rischard noted, will be 8 billion by 2025—bad news for a planet "in which already half the population is [living] under $2 a day and a planet in which we have a lot of environmental stresses beginning to show their effects." He added that the aging of many societies and large-scale migration are also undercutting stability.

Second, Rischard said, a global economic revolution centered on markets and very inexpensive technologies has transformed societies and caused greater dislocations than any past industrialization. "Those previous revolutions had to do with transforming energy and materials," Rischard said. "This one transforms time and distance." He argued that this new economy rewards speed and flexibility, international networking, continuous learning, and absolute reliability—and that those who are not able to compete will be badly marginalized.

Twenty Issues, Twenty Failures
Population and economics have fueled or exacerbated what in High Noon Rischard calls twenty "inherently global issues" (IGIs)—"those [issues] that are really unsolvable nation-state by nation-state," said Rischard. "What follows is just a sampling of the issues," he said, "and what's terrifying about them is that they are all failures."


  • Greenhouse gas emissions. "There is a Kyoto Protocol…alive but not well," said Rischard. "But most [importantly], the U.S. isn't in it, Canada isn't in it, and what it will produce at best is that rich countries' carbon emissions will go down 3 percent. Which is a far cry from what you would need to stabilize carbon dioxide in this century."
  • Deforestation. While developed-country forest areas have stabilized, Rischard said, tropical forest area is decreasing by one percent annually. "My colleagues in Indonesia warn that the forests in Kalimantan could be gone nine years from now, mostly due to illegal logging," he said.
  • Biodiversity losses. Rischard said that the global extinction rate is between 100 and 1000 times the normal background rate. "One mammal out of five is threatened," he noted. "One bird out of eight. And 60 percent of the coral reefs are gone."
  • Fisheries depletion. "The capacity of the fishing fleets of the world is probably 100 percent above sustainable fishing levels right now," said Rischard, with cod, tuna, and other major global fish stocks being drastically reduced.
  • Water shortages. Rischard said that the World Bank forecasts that 3 billion people in 55 countries will experience acute water shortages 20 years from now. "And it's not a poor country phenomenon," he added. "You see it everywhere. The Colorado River in the summer doesn't even reach the sea anymore. Lake Chad and the Aral Sea are about gone. The Chinese are worried sick because the aquifer under Beijing goes down 40 centimeters a year and could actually hold up their development."
  • Poverty. "Big failure," said Rischard. "The two billion [additional people who will be in poverty] in the next 25 years will be 97 percent in the developing world, where there are already many stresses. And this is the moment in history the rich countries have picked to reduce official development assistance about 29 percent since 1990."


Only the depletion of the world's ozone layer has been halted, Rischard said. "But it was a smaller issue," he added. "There were few producers of ozone-depleting substances. There were technological alternatives. No country had any interest in the ozone layer becoming thinner, and so that one has been more or less solved."

Why Global Institutions Have Fallen Short
"All these problems are very hard to address and very complex," continued Rischard. "To handle them politically or technically is like turning a tanker—it takes slow and deep action."

Yet while international systems and institutions are accomplishing good things, he said, they are ill-prepared to take decisive action on any IGI.

1. Treaties and conventions. These often work well for regional affairs, said Rischard, "but their methodology is 19th century, very ritualistic, very slow."

"Some labor rights treaties signed 30 years ago aren't ratified," he said. "On September 11, there were 12 conventions on terrorism-none of them ratified." Rischard added that even the 240 environmental treaties signed since 1960 have been largely unable to stop environmental degradation because they remain unratified or have no enforcement powers.

2. Intergovernmental conferences. "Big UN conferences are very useful because they raise the awareness about an issue," said Rischard, "but there is a lot of posturing and ritual behavior, but no real crisp output. Most of the time the output of a conference [such as the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development is to decide to get together again five years from now."

3. The G-7, etc. "The G-7 reacts to issues, it doesn't proactively solve issues," said Rischard. "The methodology is so different from, say, the Bretton Woods methodology in 1944, [in which] you had 44 countries going into serious brainstorming…You have to be long-term, visionary, proactive, anticipatory, and the G-7 isn't that at all."

For example, he said, "the Genoa [G-7 conference] cost $110 million, and the discussion on the world economy was 90 minutes long. The G-7 is doing useful things on debt relief, on Kosovo, on money-laundering, but it isn't a contraption that will help solve these big global issues."

4. Multilateral institutions. Finally, Rischard said that the forty-five global multilateral institutions (such as the World Bank or the World Trade Organization (WTO) are also ill-suited to solve any of the IGIs.

"First, because they are less powerful than people believe," he said. "The WTO has a tiny little budget of $18 million. People always have this view that the IMF and the [World] Bank are these very powerful cogent institutions, but they are actually relatively weak when it comes to the size of the issues we are talking about."

"And they can't grab an issue because their shareholders behind them, their stakeholders—the countries of the world—may not let them," added Rischard.

An Alternative Approach
Rischard dismissed the idea of a world government as a solution to IGIs. "The world doesn't have fifty years to constitute a global government," he said. "We need to fix these things in the next 20 years. If [consensus is] complicated [for the European Union] at 15 members, imagine the mess at 200 member-states."

Among Rischard's alternative proposals is setting up what he termed Global Issues Networks (GINs) for each IGI. GINs would be permanent networks composed of parties that had direct knowledge and experience with the assigned issue. Their first phase would be constitutive: a small group drawn from government civil servants and international civil society (and overseen by facilitators from multilateral organizations, civil society, and business) would draw up a code of conduct on the issue.

Next, the GIN would incorporate a larger group of interested-party representatives who "would have to change their hat" within the GIN, said Rischard

"You're not there to represent Shell or IUCN or the government of Luxembourg," he said. "You're there to be a global problem-solver, for your knowledge. If you just sit there and posture and don't participate in the give-and-take required for global problem solving, you will be expelled from the network."

Rischard added that the GIN would reach decisions by "rough consensus" (agreement by 70-80 percent of members instead of 100 percent) as well as consulting through electronic town meetings with up to 100,000 people deeply interested in the issue. This process would define the problem and a vision for its solution as well as produce "detailed functional norms" on the issue that would apply to all bodies—governments, business, NGOs, and multilaterals.

"It's distributed intelligence—similar to distributed computing," said Rischard. "You're taking ideas from the network economy and then juxtaposing them with ideas of global governance."

In the third phase, the GIN would serve as a "rating agency" for thousands of new members, exposing those countries and other players who are not abiding by the norms and standards. "The business [of the GIN] then becomes reputation effects," said Rischard. "Naming and shaming. The more the outfit now looks like an activist NGO, the better."

Rischard argued that GINs would create a new, cross-border legitimacy that would capture young people's attention, be highly issues-focused, and could pressure the present "vertical" legitimacy of elected governments. "It creates a new way to judge politicians," Rischard said. "It creates another system of accountability."

"The way to go is issue by issue," concluded Rischard. "I know I will be attacked as naïve, but my main defense is that the real naïveté is to believe the existing system will deliver the goods."

Glossary


The G-7: Commonly referred to as the Group of 7, the G-7 is an informal group of the world's leading industrial democracies;the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada;whose leaders meet on an annual basis to discuss major economic and political issues affecting their societies and the international community as a whole.

Russia was given official status as a full member in 1998, creating the G-8. The G-7/G-8 provides an important occasion for busy leaders to (a) discuss major, often complex international issues; and (b) to the develop the personal relations that help them respond in effective collective fashion to sudden crises or shocks. The G-8 Summit also gives direction to the international community by setting priorities, defining new issues, and providing guidance to established international organizations. At times it arrives at decisions that address pressing problems or shape international order more generally. (See http://www.g7.utoronto.ca/g7/what_is_g7.html for more information.)

Bretton Woods: Shorthand for the international monetary regime that was developed at the end of WWII and lasted until the early 1970s. This regime was created at a major conference held at Bretton Woods, Massachusetts, and was the birthplace of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The Bretton Woods system was history's first example of a fully negotiated monetary order intended to govern currency relations among sovereign states. (See http://www.polsci.ucsb.edu/faculty/cohen/inpress/bretton.html for more information.)

Distributed computing: In general, distributed computing is any computing that involves multiple computers remote from each other that each have a role in a computation problem or information processing. More recently, distributed computing is used to refer to any large collaboration in which many individual personal computer owners allow some of their computer's processing time to be put at the service of a large problem (such as the SETI Project, which searches for signs of extraterrestrial life). See http://searchwebservices.techtarget.com/sDefinition/0,,sid26_gci760724,00.html for more information.)


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