Green Group Gives Earth Failing Report Card

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
January 10, 2002
Worldwatch Institute has issued its annual State of the
report and the news is not good. Nearly every global
environmental indicator has worsened over the last decade, the authors
say, and the gap between rich and poor has widened.

"We're trying to remind the world that we can't afford to overlook some of these issues," said Gary Gardner, director of research for Worldwatch and a co-author of the report. "The terrorism of September 11 is more dramatic, but the slow-motion terror happening to the planet and the people in the world" is just as threatening over the long term.

The report by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy research organization takes a hard look at world accomplishments in the decade following the Rio Earth Summit. Two landmark treaties—one on climate change and the other on biodiversity—and an extensive plan for achieving sustainable development known as Agenda 21, emerged from the global meeting that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. To many, the United Nations-sponsored conference signaled a fundamental reordering of world priorities.

But ten years later, environmental degradation, Third World indebtedness, poverty, pollution, global warming, and a lack of enforcement of international treaties all continue to be issues.

"There's been a lot of progress in raising awareness of these issues since Rio," said Gardner. "But progress on the ground has been spotty at best."

The report cites advances made in organic agriculture, wind power, and zero-waste technology, and improvements in education and the fight against some infectious diseases, but in relation to the overall problem, the gains are all very small.

The September 11 terrorist attack is mentioned throughout the report as an example of what can be done quickly when governments focus on an issue. Within two days of the September 11 attack, the U.S. Congress approved U.S. $40 billion to combat terrorism; added relief and economic stimulus spending brought the total to well over $100 billion—none of which had been budgeted before the attack.

The world needs a similar concentrated global war on poverty and environmental degradation, concludes the report.

Statistics and Other Gloomy Facts

State of the World 2002 is laced with gloomy facts; more than one billion people are living on one dollar (U.S.) a day, at the same time that developed nations are enjoying an epidemic of obesity.

Deforestation proceeds apace, desertification continues to edge outward, and 27 percent of the world's coral reefs are now severely damaged, up from 9 percent in 1992. The resulting loss and degradation of habitat has meant that we are also undergoing a huge loss in biodiversity. The authors note that the Earth is currently experiencing a mass extinction event that has been equaled only four times in the last four billion years.

The report emphasizes the linkages between environmental degradation and human quality of life issues. More than 1.1 billion people on the planet lack access to safe drinking water, and nearly 3 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. In addition to the grinding poverty that this connotes, it also means that waterborne diseases claim the lives of between 14,000 to 30,000 people a day.

"That is the equivalent of several September 11th tragedies, every day, year in year out—but without the media attention," the report authors note.

A global assessment of fresh water conducted in 1997 by the U.N. concluded that one-third of the world lives in countries that find it difficult or impossible to meet their water needs. This raises the specter of an ever-increasing number of armed conflicts over water resources. In addition, since agriculture typically uses about two-thirds of a country's water, and tends to be a politically weak sector, governments hoping to conserve water look to farms first, leading inevitably to reduced food supplies in regions that are already hard hit.

Climate Change and Linkage

Climate change is probably the biggest problem facing the world today, says Gardner, and one where not a lot of improvement has been seen.

Carbon dioxide emissions, the most potent of greenhouse gases, have risen by more than 9 percent in the last decade. At the same time, the science surrounding climate change has become more certain that emissions are accelerating the pace of global warming, and that rising global temperatures can be solidly attributed to human activities.

"Climate change is global in scope, it presents a mix of environmental and social problems, and there's an equity issue, in that the nations most responsible for causing the problem are the least likely to suffer from it," said Gardner.

U.S. emissions, for instance, rose by 18 percent, yet the U.S. is likely to be affected the least by rising temperatures.

Rising sea levels threaten small island nations and coastal communities around the world with economic devastation. Warmer temperatures brought on by climate change also extend the range of mosquitoes and other insects, enabling a broader spread of malaria and animal disease. It increases algal blooms, which expands the habitat available to microbes that cause cholera. And warmer ocean water temperatures can kill coral reefs, the nurseries for many marine species.

All of these impacts will be felt most severely by Third World nations.

Gardner cites Hurricane Mitch as an example of the tightly interwoven economic and social issues brought on by climate change.

One effect of global warming is an increase in weather-triggered super-disasters; storms, floods, fires, and droughts are all becoming more frequent and more severe. When Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, more than 10,000 people were killed in Honduras and Nicaragua. Many of the lives lost were the result of flooding and mudslides. Deforestation, mining, and recently cleared agricultural fields all contributed to the mudslides and flooding; soil on hillsides that had been bound by tree roots simply slid away in the face of pounding rain and no binding.

Looking to the Future

Worldwatch hopes the State of the World 2002 report will help frame the agenda of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, set to take place in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2002. Representatives from more than 180 nations are expected to attend the United Nations-sponsored event.

"The favored development model of the 20th century is materials-intensive, driven by fossil fuels, based on mass consumption and mass disposal, and oriented primarily toward economic growth with scant regard for meeting people's needs," concludes the report.

The need for a new concept of globalization, beyond the narrow focus of trade and finance to one that takes the interaction between human populations and the natural world into consideration—and focuses on sustainable development and environmental and human needs—is imperative, the report authors say.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.