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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 12, Number 1, 1989 (UNU, 1989, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentSustaining the Earth
View the documentAnticipating global trends: Aspects of UNU work for the period 1990-1995
View the document'An uncontrolled global experiment...'
View the document'A little breathing space': Report from the Budapest
View the documentEnergy savings: Sooner much better than later
View the document'The rich get richer...'
View the documentOld wine in new bottles?
View the documentTectonics of the desert cities
View the documentMan in the mangroves
View the documentDiverting the Nile
View the documentLosing the soils of Africa
View the documentIn fairness to the future

'An uncontrolled global experiment...'

By Ian Burton

Human beings, as Ian Burton points out, have been disrupting the environment for centuries. But the enormous, unprecedented scale of change triggered by human activities in recent decades has set off what he calls 'an uncontrolled global experiment. ' One of the main thrusts of the Tokyo symposium on the Human Response to Global Change, which led to the establishment of a programme on human dimensions of global change (HDGC), was to somehow get a handle on all of this: to develop a priority agenda and a rational research structure to address such vast permutations.

To be sure, the issues the programme is addressing are not new. Scientific analysis of these problems are already engaging scholars, scientists and other concerned individuals in various places around the world. The programme is not intended to approve of or contest such activities. Its main goal, stresses Professor Burton, should be an attempt at creating a "common language" of concern - within the human sciences - about the enormous peril that human misuse of the environment now poses to our survival, and to that of future generations. In his keynote address to the Tokyo symposium, from which the following selection is excerpted, he put the question in the context of what he called a "new global contract. " Dr. Burton is Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto, Canada, and currently Director of the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study (IFIAS). - Editor

Human modification of the environment has occurred for millennia. A new fact of profound importance is that these modifications are now beginning to have significant consequences on a global scale - and, if continued, may be incompatible with sustained global economic development, and, indeed, the long-run habitability of the planet. How humanity responds to these challenges will have far-reaching consequences for the capacity of the Earth to accommodate life and to support future populations.

Fortunately, inherent in these serious dangers are also opportunities for charting a course to a sustainable future for the world's peoples - and species. One fundamental purpose of the human dimensions of global change programme is to identify such opportunities, and ways and means of seizing them.

Ordinary human interactions with the environment are entering a new stage that calls for extraordinary response. The phrase "global change" (with which we describe our programme) is used as a convenient short way of referring to the fact that the scale and character of human activities is now having an impact upon the great systems of the geosphere and the biosphere at a global level. The functioning of the total Earth environment is being changed at a rate that far exceed anything in recorded human experience.

New Responsibility for the Planet

On practical as well as moral grounds, to change these systems to the extent that they are now being changed is to take a new responsibility for the planet. Failure to accept that responsibility will, no doubt, lead to serious adverse consequences for the material security of humankind, and a possible collapse of the fragile moral solidarity upon which the international order ultimately rests.

Responsibility: Downwind, Downstream

As long as the consequences of environmental change are limited in space and changes are slow on a human time scale, it is possible to avoid or postpone the taking of responsibility. Problems created by human impacts upon the environment could be, and often have been, pushed off to another place - downwind, downstream, over the fence, or across the border. Responsibility has also been pushed to a later time, on to the shoulders of succeeding generations.

With the emergence of environmental problems that are global, in the sense of the world-wide processes of the geosphere and the biosphere, it no longer makes practical or moral sense to wait before attempting to begin prudent response.

Change in the global atmosphere, for example, cannot be displaced. Climate warming, ozone layer depletion, acid precipitation and the like affect all peoples and nations - directly as well as indirectly through the biosphere and through economic processes.

Since the release of greenhouse gases would also be linked to economic development, and the technology required for national economic growth and prosperity, the question of equity between peoples and nations, now and in the future, can no longer be safely avoided. There is indeed a threat not only to the environment but also to international security.

Atmospheric change is the most dramatic example of global change. An awesome change, that cannot be avoided, was spelled out in the 1988 report of Canada's Atmospheric Environment Service: "Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war. The Earth's atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate by pollutants resulting from human activities, inefficient and wasteful fossil fuel use, and the effects of rapid population growth in many regions. These changes represent a major threat to international security and are already having consequences over many parts of the world."

Already in Warming Trend

Indeed there has already been an increase in globally averaged temperature of 0.7°C. over the past century consistent with the theoretical greenhouse gas predictions. On the basis of present evidence, it seems probable that the Earth faces a rise in mean surface temperature of 1.5°C. to 4.5°C. before the middle of the next century if present trends in accelerating increases in concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue. Average increases may well be twice as large in high latitudes and extremes will become more frequent. Past emissions have already committed the planet to a significant warming and climate change will continue so long as the greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere.

In addition to the major changes in terrestrial, atmospheric and hydrological systems, climate warming will accelerate the present sea level rise, probably in the order of 30 centimetres, but possibly by as much as 1.5 metres by the middle of the next century. Flooding of low lying islands and coastal regions, including densely populated deltas, will be a major consequence. Problems of salt water intrusion, and tropical cyclones and other extreme weather events will be greatly increased.

The scientific basis for these predictions falls just short of certainty. The degree of reliability, however, far exceeds that on which many financial, economic and social policy choices are made. Prompt action to anticipate and prevent global climate warming falls well within the realm of prudent rational behaviour.

Greenhouse gases, ozone layer depletion, and widespread acidification are but three of the more prominent global changes that are now occurring. Their proximate causes are intimately interlinked at one level to the processes of desertification, deforestation, industrial development and the use of fossil fuels. More fundamentally, these processes in turn are linked to world trade, world debt, the arms race, and the global macro-economic situation. Going further, these issues in turn are linked to issues of equity between peoples and nations, now and between generations, and to the potential of science and technology to change the pattern of industrial development.

Global Management Needed

It is clear that humankind is faced with a new environmental situation. For the first time, global environmental systems as a whole are being visibly changed by human action. All nations and all peoples find that they share responsibility for the change, in various ways to be sure and in differing degrees. If it is not to be civilization's downfall, global change needs management - and global management means collective international action. Such action seems likely to happen to the extent that the nations share a common understanding, and develop a common will. But it is becoming steadily more evident that such understanding and such will are still much too weak.


Problems created by human impacts have often been pushed downwind, downstream. (United Nations)

Response to global change by one nation acting alone, or even by a few of the more powerful nations acting in concert, will not suffice. To deal with global change, the global community must become involved. Certainly it is reasonable to suppose that those nations that have done most to bring about global change will bear the major responsibility for action. The common welfare and moral solidarity of humankind is at stake - so it is also reasonable to suppose that those best able to bear the costs should be prepared to help those least able.

Because a great deal more economic growth and development is needed to support expanding populations, especially in the developing countries, it is also clear that a react-and-cure approach will not suffice. Future economic growth will increasingly conform to the notion of sustainability as proposed in the recent report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission).

New Global Contract

As we enter this era of global change, a new relationship has to be forged between human society and environment which will be economically and ecologically sustainable. Ultimately, this new relationship will have to be, at least in part, negotiated and made subject to a series of explicit and implicit agreements. A new global contract - in the spirit of Locke, Rousseau, and Lenin - is needed.

Such a global contract must be concerned not only with relationships between governments and peoples - a contract of government - but also with and prior to it, a contract of society. In effect, our emerging global society is already developing its own sense of a contract - in the commonly agreed upon and understood norms of behaviour within the global community.