VIEWERS of the “Butterfly Effect” (2004) will be amazed at how small changes can result in dramatic events beyond the wildest of one’s imagination.
Indeed, hyperconnectivity seems to have become a defining feature of our world and increasingly we find many major global issues are affected or shaped by events in faraway locations. This is the main topic of Oran R. Young’s speech, delivered recently at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.
Professor emeritus at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, Young explained the notion of hyperconnectivity is prevalent and is complicating global efforts to combat environmental and societal problems, most notably climate change.
For example, a disturbing development concerning the Arctic is the steady thinning and recession of glaciers there.
While human activity in the Arctic is often blamed for the melting glaciers, Young countered this conventional wisdom by pointing to new environmental research.
One of the research findings appears to suggest that the Arctic icebergs and glaciers are melting “because of climate change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions mostly in the middle altitudes,” said Young.
Besides, the fact that there are larger and larger dead zones in the ocean is also an indication of the impact of long-distance pollution.
Dead zones are pockets of low-oxygen areas in marine systems, caused by “excessive nutrient pollution from human activities coupled with other factors that deplete the oxygen required to support most marine life in the bottom and near-bottom of water.”
Young and many like-minded ecologists have largely attributed the expansion of dead zones to the flushing of fertilizers and pesticides down river systems and into the oceans.
In a similar vein, dramatic changes in the pattern of monsoons in the subcontinent, which Young said is highly disruptive to food production, may also be driven by forces that are far outside of India itself.
Although the world — with the exception of a few skeptics — seems to be of one opinion that climate change is behind the alarming rise in sea levels and other climatic anomalies, so far the efforts to mitigate global warming are far from united or effective.
This is due, in big part, to the changing nature of the challenges per se, he said.
In the past, policy-makers around the world have crafted their responses to global warming on the assumption that this is more or less a linear development. Not any more.
Young explained that we are increasingly confronted with thresholds and tipping points beyond which relatively small changes in biophysical action can produce dramatic and systemic changes.
In a word, “it’s non-linear, not incremental,” said the famed ecologist and author.
He added that the hyperconnectivity and non-linearity of today’s environmental challenges means that we need to take a larger perspective in what is widely known as global governance.
As such, conservationists who care about biodiversity in the Arctic will have to worry not just about acidification and solve problems in the Arctic itself, but think global.
Moreover, they also have to build up the governance system for it to acquire the ability to respond to non-linear changes in a swift manner, Young argued.
With decades of dedication to environmental studies, he is a keen observer on the pros and cons of the current regulatory approach to global governance. In his opinion, the regulatory strategy, or governing through rule-making, “can have shortcomings, or even be a liability, for it is often hobbled by factors like limited agility, lax enforcement of rules and over-reliance on organizational solutions.”
What he suggested instead is to “restructure our governance structure fairly quickly in order for it to be more well-matched to the new situation. It’s often very hard to change the arrangements that are highly formalized and entrenched within legal and political systems,” he said.
Young has been calling for a bigger role of goal-setting in global governance mechanisms. He believed the UN, WHO and a few other world organizations can attest that in at least certain cases governing through goals is more effective.
Under a goal-setting strategy, resources are pooled to focus on presumed priorities. And this is exactly what the WHO did back in the 1960s and ’70s, when it prioritized the elimination of smallpox above many topics on its agenda.
Since we face a lot more developmental problems today, and the competition for resources and attention is getting more intense, identifying priorities and devoting resources to high-priority targets is thus a more realistic option than developing an overarching plan to address a host of issues — and at the same time.
For this reason, Young said he sees a problem with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted by a UN General Assembly resolution in 2015.
These goals number 17 and cover almost all human aspirations ranging from food security to climate change and from poverty reduction to gender equality.
As a result, too many goals mean there is something for everyone, with various communities naturally inclined to concentrate on their own goals, sometimes to the exclusion of others’.
“So you see a fracturing of efforts,” Young observed. “The question is, can you do all the things — and at the same time?”