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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March/April 2008

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Editorial - Getting Our Priorities Straight

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, leaned into the microphone at a press conference the day before the 13th Conference of Parties began in the tropical resort area of Nusa Dua. Sporting a casual shirt, he proposed that the dress code for participants adapt to the warm and humid conditions in Bali.

Few suits and ties were seen over the next 11 days, in radical departure from convention. Otherwise, standard posturing and national self-interest prevailed. Negotiating positions did not adapt to the climate crises affecting human livelihoods and species’ habitats beyond the palm trees and beaches of Nusa Dua. Perhaps de Boer made a mistake in allowing the delegates to be comfortable. Perhaps if they sweated under jackets and buttoned-up shirts, the discomfort might have spurred more courageous and non-conventional willingness to put collective action above individual interests.

Adaptation to climate change was high on the agenda at Bali. Gina Ziervogel and Anna Taylor, in their article “Feeling Stressed: Integrating Climate Adaptation with Other Priorities in South Africa,” take on difficult questions about adaptation in areas that face other challenges. Should adaptation to climate change take precedence over daily development needs for access to food, water, and jobs? How might climate change place additional stress on these goals? And who decides on the priorities?

Water is another study in conflicting priorities, as Malin Falkenmark emphasizes in “Water and Sustainability: A Reappraisal,” part of Environment’s continuing series on the twentieth anniversary of Our Common Future. Chair Gro Harlem Brundtland’s World Commission on Environment and Development paid little attention to water. Today, availability of water to support development goals tops the list of impending crises. Even without climate change, burgeoning demands on water and increasing volumes of pollution make freshwater one of the biggest issues facing many countries and the world at large. Who will take decisive action on these issues?  Can international conferences on water lead to action? In “Strengthening Global Water Initiatives,” Robert Varady and colleagues ask whether global water initiatives—massive gatherings to debate global water governance—are effective strategies for steering the world away from water shortages and inevitable conflicts for a scarce resource.

Water is only one of the many ecosystem services that nature provides free of charge, as Susan Mainka, Jeffrey McNeely, and William Jackson discuss in their article “Depending on Nature: Ecosystem Services for Human Livelihoods.” Biodiversity is at the core, providing the foundation for food, water, and other services that support human well-being. The notion that sustainable management of ecosystem services and development goals go hand in hand has become the new lexicon. But is this always the case? Does catching a fish for today’s dinner take precedence over preserving tomorrow’s fish stock?

The articles in this issue illustrate that climate change adds to the already-existing challenge of reducing poverty and improving livelihoods for millions of people. In Nusa Dua, developing countries voiced strong words that meeting development needs is at the forefront of the agenda. A post-Kyoto strategy emerged in the final hours of the conference, but tough hurdles remain for simultaneously improving livelihoods for the world’s poor, adapting to climate change, and stemming the stream of greenhouse gases. Suits and ties back in place, the discussion continues in Poland at next year’s Conference of Parties. Difficult discussions lie ahead on steering a course toward prosperity and a healthy climate.
—Ruth DeFries

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