SDG 16: Institutions

Obsession redirected

Most people on the planet live in places where political dysfunctionalism impedes climate adaptation. That has to change, or billions will lose.

The Entry

Check out The Story below. You may have seen it when it came out three weeks ago. The author, renowned environment writer and Rolling Stone contributor Jeff Goodell, starts by recalling James Lovelock’s dystopian take on the Earth’s warming and tying it to this recent and much-cited analysis by the National Academy of Sciences.

Vintage Goodell, I thought. Great way to connect the dots and help us put the “hothouse” climate trend in THE perspective.

Near the end, though, is where the article screeched me to a halt, when he quotes Penn State glaciologist Richard Alley. The huge wildcard in climate change are the numerous tipping points positioned to kick each other into higher, irreversible, catastrophic gears, as the article explains.

“It’s the tipping point in human systems,” Goodell then says, “that worry Alley the most.”

Hmm. Human systems? What could he be talking about, exactly?

“[Alley] points to the recent drought in the Middle East, which was a key driver in the Syrian civil war.” And then he quotes the scientist directly:

“You can see the resilience of different political systems. During the drought, Israel was OK. But Syria was not.”

Boom. I thought immediately of Sustainable Development Goal 16, the one that calls for institutional strength in all countries. Readers of The Resilience Journal know we use the 17 SDGs to guide our editorial, but we have seldom written about 16. I just did a bit of research, and very little is written by anyone connecting 16 to climate change.

That either changes fast, or Alley’s deep worry will become the world’s definitive demise very quickly.

Not demise as in insufficient action to prevent further warming. Climate change, in fact, can no longer be prevented. Rather, demise as in not doing everything we can, imminently, to adapt to climate change and save billions of lives across the planet.

Since the Golden Age of Greece, the Second Urbanization of India, and China’s Hundred Schools of Thought, all gifts of the same ancient time, humanity has focused obsessively on the role of politics in securing stability, rights and prosperity.

Fast forward to today, and there’s SDG 16, because our obsession must now turn to the use of political systems to secure climate resilience, lest the tipping points that so concern Goodell and Alley, and must concern us all, overwhelm our politics — in fact, overwhelm pretty much every human system — and render us incapable of adapting as we must.

Here’s the beauty of it, though. It’s not that we have to add a new layer or complication to our politics. We simply have to get our politics right, for the same reason as always: to broaden people’s agency as much as possible and create the playing field where we can gain the best information, work most frictionlessly together, and make the right decisions for our families, companies, cities and organizations.

Just as that has led to magnificent results across all human endeavors, when allowed by politics, so too must it now lead to the right adaptation path forward. Where politics gets in the way — note Alley’s Syria-and-drought example, and there are oh, painfully so many — resilience has zero chance. Where it becomes an enabler — note Denmark, Costa Rica and increasingly the 100 Resilient Cities — we see the promise of survival.

Consider, then, 16. Every SDG has a set of targets. Sixteen has 12, with 6, 7 and 8 shedding the most light on today’s climate challenge:

  • 16.6 — Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.
  • 16.7 — Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.
  • 16.8 — Broaden and strengthen the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance.

Effective. Accountable. Transparent. Responsive. Inclusive. Participatory. Local. Global. A truly ancient agenda and struggle, and exactly what we find in the places getting it right.

And so our attention must now turn, obsessively, to doubling down on every conceivable effort to build political sanity in those places that do not have it. They happen to be the places where most people live — translation: where most people will die, unable to face nature’s rapidly intensifying fury. Or the places most people will flee, becoming the unthinkable 200 million to 1 billion climate migrants the UN and others forecast in the next 20-30 years.

Did you notice the featured photo above? It shows a sort of pilgrimage to the Acropolis in Athens, an adoration, if you will, at this ancient altar of democracy and political wisdom, which also, when this was taken, was being repaired, as if fortifying what those pillars stand for, staying focused on what it takes to keep them strong.


The Story

Please absorb this Rolling Stone piece…slowly. Let it sink in, particularly as it winds into Alley’s worry. I recommend listening to Imaginary Being by M-Seven as you do, perhaps imagining the political beings we must all become, and don’t forget a really good drink. You might need it.

You may also want to complement it with more on James Lovelock. The man, as Goodell tells, is wonderful. I particularly love this interview from Nature, where yes, he explains the dystopia, but tempers it with a good measure of hope and some fine British humor:

“I think the system will adapt, and there’s the possibility that humans have a huge future.”

May the good Gaia Lord hear you, and give us the strength to pursue the brand of politics that will get us there from here, everywhere on Earth.

Long-time green-economy and business journalist, sustainability analyst and communications executive, including 14 years as reporter and editor of Caribbean Business in Puerto Rico, five years as Sustainability Director at two banks on the island, general manager of a green marketing agency, and since 2014 independent strategist, blogger, consultant, freelance writer, and now Editor-Publisher of The Resilience Journal and Founder-President of COMMON Future, a climate-adaptation studio scaling game-changing Next Resilience with communications, construction and culture. Alex is also communications adviser to the American Society of Adaptation Professionals and resilience lead at the Puerto Rico chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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