Will environmental threats result in new world cooperation?
A study reported last week in the journal Science detailed dramatic ecosystem changes in the rapidly warming Arctic.Skip to next paragraph
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The Arctic has warmed by 1 degree C over the past 150 years, more than double the global mean temperature increase of 0.4 degrees C. In the past three decades, summer sea ice has decreased by 45,000 square kilometers per year (17,400 square miles).
And various species that need ice are showing the strain. The authors note a decline in Pacific walruses, hooded seals, and narwhals, among others. Spring rains arrive earlier than they once did. The rain melts the snow earlier, causing lairs of polar bears and ringed seals to collapse. Both species, say the authors, lose many pups in this fashion to the earlier spring rains.
More southerly species, meanwhile, are moving in. The red fox now lives in territory formerly occupied exclusively by the Arctic fox. And a winter moth has extended its range northward as well.
Some populations are benefiting from the changing weather: In Norway's Svalbard Archipelago, nonmigratory reindeer contend with less snow in the winter and more plants during the summer. That population is growing.
But in Greenland, migratory caribou are finding themselves out of sync with the natural cycles. Spring comes earlier and the caribou now arrive, calves in tow, late — after the most nutritious growth has already occurred. That population is declining.
In the same issue, a different team of scientists warns that the intertwined crises now facing humankind — energy, food, water, climate, fisheries, ocean acidification, the growing number of emerging diseases, and the problem of antibiotic resistance — are outpacing our ability to effectively deal with them.
These issues are simply too large and too mutually reinforcing for any one nation to deal with them alone, they say, and for any one problem to be approached in isolation
To solve the problems at hand, a new level of international cooperation is necessary. That implies new — or perhaps the overhauling of existing — global institutions:
"To address common threats and harness common opportunities, we need greater interaction amongst existing institutions, and new institutions, to help construct and maintain a global-scale social contract," the authors say.
But even in the endeavor of saving the world as we know it, they add, the age-old problem of freeloading rears its head:
"The core of the problem is inducing cooperation in situations where individuals and nations will collectively gain if all cooperate, but each faces the temptation to free-ride on the cooperation of others."
That's another reason for global institutions. Talk of global governance gives many a bad case of the heebie-jeebies, of course. They imagine an Orwellian future where personal freedoms have vanished, and society is managed from the top down.
But there's another, more instructive take on how it might work:
In his book "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny," author Robert Wright uses game theory to explain how and why governance contributes to the collective good, and to argue that global governance of some kind is a near inevitability.