From my perspective as the new US assistant secretary of state for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, I am struck by the challenge of the topic for this issue—global reset. I will not be so bold as to look backward and try to identify the “reset” that might have made our world different. I prefer to look at this moment in time and make some observations that may contribute to our ability to move into a brighter future.
The issues in my portfolio include a wide range of concerns, including climate change, pollution control, conservation on land and sea, global scientific cooperation, polar affairs, and pandemic influenza. It is a portfolio that demonstrates the centrality of science to these important issues. It also demonstrates the transformation and expansion of diplomacy from its initial focus on political, military, and commercial affairs to a broader focus. Now it is keenly recognized that these national concerns are really global concerns that are fundamental to foreign policy, national security, and global stability.
Progress on the global challenges we face, from environment to health to food security, will depend on international cooperation and scientific and technical advancements. Looking at these challenges as a whole, rather than as separate elements, there are three important characteristics that require recognition and attention to ensure future progress. The first observation is the complexity of these global issues; the second observation is the interrelatedness of these problems and the interdependence that potential solutions will require; and the third observation is the extraordinary role that communication will play in our ability to succeed.
The global challenges we face are linked to human behavior and our ability to understand the stresses we are imposing on the planet as populations grow and nations develop. The health of the oceans, for example, is related to national and international regulation of commercial fishing, to scientists’ understanding of biodiversity, and to our shared management of toxins that pollute the seas. None of the global challenges we face can be viewed as a single point on a linear path. Ice melting in the Arctic as a consequence of global warming is a tremendous problem, but at the same time, melting does allow for increased navigational possibilities and opens up new areas for exploration and extraction. In turn, transit and exploitation lead to potential new problems in an area of delicate ecosystems. We must be wise enough to not only follow but also to anticipate change.
These problems are interrelated, and solutions require international cooperation and agreement. The industrial pollution that is emitted from one region drifts over other regions, affecting other countries. The black carbon from urban areas comes to rest on snow-capped peaks and glaciers, leading to more rapid melting. The virus that appears in one community will move quickly through the world’s population, as we have become a global community of travelers. As President Obama stated in his UN address on September 23, 2009: “It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009—more than at any point in human history—the interests of nations and peoples are shared… What happens to the hope of a single child anywhere can enrich our world, or impoverish it.” The ability to reach and respond to global problems rests with our ability to balance our national and international roles and responsibilities. This is not easy. Each nation must define this balance point for itself and establish its position among its partners. Recognizing this reality and the inherent difficulty of finding this balancing point is essential for our national and international debates and discussions.
The solution to global problems depends significantly on scientific and technical advancement. These advances, some of which we can glimpse, while others remain unknown, will not come from any one nation but from the global science community. International scientific cooperation is becoming the new norm for scientific collaboration. The journal Science reports that more than 50 percent of its articles include authors from multiple countries.
The final observation, while a simple one, cannot be overstated. Attention must be given to communication. The global problems before us require not only conversations between heads of state from nations with various cultures and values. It also requires conversations across communities of diplomats, scientists, engineers, lawyers, teachers, and students. It requires citizen engagement. Now the voices of scientists, teachers, and others must be added to the discourse. In describing her approach to foreign policy, Secretary Clinton has recognized the importance of an expanded network of players. In a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, she emphasized this reality: “We’ll use our power to convene, our ability to connect countries around the world and sound foreign policy strategies to create partnerships aimed at solving problems. We’ll go beyond states to create opportunities for non-state actors and individuals to contribute to solutions.”
Each of these communities has an important role to play. The scientists will be needed to provide the objective data that will underpin our policies and to suggest bold ideas such as clean energy technology for addressing global needs and to offer advice on where R&D funding should be channeled. The broader voices of civil society are needed, as nearly all required solutions will have a local dimension. A broadened conversation along these outlines is certainly already under way. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a clear example of the scientific perspective coming to bear on the international policy discussions of climate change. The inclusion of more scientific, technical, and citizen-group voices in the international discussions must and will intensify as we move forward. We should recognize the challenges this diverse conversation will entail and engage with a sense of our particular expertise and with respect for the varying approaches set forth. The problem-solving paradigm varies across sectors, professions, and nations, and the discussions will need to be sensitive to this and provide the space needed. While these three characteristics of the problems we currently face are not a formula for resetting the global situation, taking them into account will enable us to seek the complex solutions and the global team effort that is required.
Kerri-Ann Jones is the US assistant secretary of state for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
Originally published December 21, 2010