Environmental UNity

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Earlier this week, my sister texted me with a question about the Electoral College. I got so excited: My sister’s always been more of a “Bachelor in Paradise” kind of person, but I think politics is better and more drama-packed than any reality TV show. My little sister wants to talk politics? Let me whip out my pocket-sized Constitution, and we can dive in. 

We ended up talking about whether this system was democratic or not for over an hour (the best kind of sister bonding is over democratic systems don’t @ me). At some point, I started comparing the United States government to other international systems. My sister stopped me in my tracks. “I barely understand America,” she said. “I don’t know if I can even care about other countries at this point.”

I ceded that point to her, and our conversation moved to preregistering to vote, but I kept thinking about international systems. The bulk of Americans aren’t educated about politics in general, let alone international politics. And who can blame them? These days, it’s hard enough to stay up to date on the crazy happenings in the U.S., let alone the rest of the world.

But it’s impossible to isolate the United States from the rest of the world. We are all more connected than ever, hastened by the advent of the internet and accompanied by the planes that cross oceans, bringing people and ideas with them. Our society is hurtling toward globalization. And as we edge nearer to an international community, issues such as the environment will cross borders. 

But how will our global community organize itself? This transitional period from a set of separate countries to one joined together by common causes will be crucial — it’ll set precedents for future global collaborations. And, unfortunately, our precedent isn’t looking too hot. 

The idea of an international community working to solve global issues isn’t new. In 1972, the United Nations created its leading environmental authority, the United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP, which is the center of an enormous system of international environmental progress. It is funded voluntarily by member states — in 2018, out of 193 members, 90 contributed funds to UNEP — and by earmarked contributions. These big bucks make up 79% of UNEP’s budget and come from other large environmental funds, such as the Global Environment Facility, or countries that desire special environmental attention. Denmark in 2018, for instance, gave an additional earmarked $16.7 million to UNEP to specifically create “research-based advisory services” in developing countries. 

In this way, earmarks guide UNEP’s attention toward big environmental projects on a country-by-country basis. As a result, by looking at where UNEP is focused, citizens of countries across the globe can glean information about the most prominent environmental issues in their communities, as well as internationally.

At the same time, however, its authority is confusingly split. Other UN environmental organizations exist that also somehow have overlapping jurisdiction — UN Climate Change, the Green Climate Fund, the UN Development Programme and other conglomerations of sister organizations all have a stake in environmental conversation. UNEP wasn’t even the sponsor of the landmark UN environmental agreements, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement (that was UN Climate Change).

Moreover, UNEP has a huge enforcement issue. UNEP has no way to ensure that the treaties and agreements it advocates for and convinces member states to sign will actually have any effect. The UN has no army, no tax it can levy against the international community. These agreements are just that: agreements. Signers can choose to exit them willy-nilly, as demonstrated by the United States’ inability to stick to any climate agreement (former president George W. Bush backed out of the Kyoto Protocol, and President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement). 

Domestic and international politics are unfailingly intertwined. Across the globe, governments have varying ideas about what mankind should be doing about the environment. Sweden is gung-ho, all in, completely devoted to combating climate change on every front. China, on the other hand, has focused its efforts on economic expansion instead of environmental protection. The environmental policy of the U.S. is incredibly wishy-washy (it changes depending on which party is in control and which one the president belongs to). And yet all three countries are a part of the UN and voluntarily contribute to fund UNEP. 

But their fundings vary spectacularly in amounts, and it’s not entirely clear what their money does or where it goes. Sweden posted up over $15 million. The U.S. came up with $6.1 million. And China threw $1.5 million into the pot. At the same time, China has a confusing project with UNEP in which it contributes $2 million a year for “strategic cooperation” in developing countries. The project’s framework is so vague that after wholeheartedly attempting to dig up more information, I left UNEP’s China Trust Fund website more confused than before. 

UNEP’s administrative system guided by earmarks is inherently flawed. It represents the split interests of countries entirely devoted to helping the environment, as well as those that would rather be pumping oil for the next 50 years. Environmental projects are directed by the countries that care the most about the environment and have no reach in places, often developing countries, that are in more dire need of funding to establish sustainable systems. 

Environmental politics are a contentious topic of conversation within every government — conversations that UNEP has no way into. Sadly, UNEP represents a sort of environmental League of Nations. It’s a great idea in theory, but in implementation it falls short. An international environmental organization should be able to engage in productive conversation with its member states. We have to think bigger than just contributing a few bucks — that doesn’t make any country or our international community environmentally conscious. 

Seeing domestic and international politics as separate is easier. But we must understand that our actions at home do have international impacts. When we’re thinking about climate change, we have to think globally. To take both localized and generalized action, our global political and environmental systems must be integrated.

Katherine Shok writes the Wednesday column on environmental politics and justice. Contact her at [email protected].