Amidst the current environmental, socioeconomic, and health crises, a lot has been said in regard to humanity’s existential threats. COVID-19 has exposed us. The pandemic has revealed the fragility of our societies, and how inevitable and indispensable the interdependency among one another is. As it has been said: ‘No one is safe until everyone is safe!’
As a multilateral practitioner, I have extensively dealt with environmental and climate change issues. More recently, I have worked in the disarmament, arms control, and non-proliferation agenda, and in matters of digital governance. That multidisciplinary exercise has allowed me to identify clear connections between these different realms.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently published an index of the greatest threats the world faces in 2021. The analysis shows that environmental threats such as biodiversity loss, natural resources crisis, and extreme weather events are some of the most pressing matters of our time. Notwithstanding, there are other risks with greater potential impact, such as infectious diseases, climate action failure, and weapons of mass destruction. This panorama reinforces the concerns expressed by many, and the reflection around society’s values and priorities, in particular the need to focus our energy and investments on ensuring a more sustainable and peaceful path forward.
Against this background, I remain optimistic that countries will find a way to effectively address their national and global challenges. I imagine a world where states will accelerate the implementation of science-based and nature-inspired solutions, promote low-carbon economies, and depart from the illusion that their security is directly correlated with the level of sophistication of their armaments.
Scientists have alerted that human beings are rapidly reaching certain tipping points, and that there is no going back to the world as we knew it. This conjunction in human history may create real opportunities for transformative change and the strengthening of international cooperation.
In this line of thought, there are concrete areas in which governments, industry, civil society, and academic institutions, could collaborate to enhance our collective security. They are as follows:
- Climate adaptation and resilience: There is a bursting need to act with a greater sense of urgency to green our production models and to lower our consumerism. Our definition of well-being can no longer rely on the same consumption patterns that brought us to where we are today. Global companies, as well as small and medium enterprises, must embrace their social responsibility practices, notably in regard to the traceability of their supply chains. Governments must provide the incentives and the appropriate policy framework to encourage this transformation. The roots of climate change and global warming should be addressed at all levels, while implementing holistic approaches.
- Biodiversity loss: Natural resources are not inexhaustible. Moreover, the delicate balance of ecosystems and the services they provide us with, have been dramatically altered by decades of aggressive industrialisation. The equilibrium of terrestrial and maritime environments – or lack thereof – is intrinsically linked to the health and survival of all living organisms on Earth. People must realise their connection to nature and apply this knowledge to their daily choices.
- The arms race: Major military powers continue to increase their ‘investments’ in the modernisation of their armed forces and capabilities. Their reasoning is based on the false premise that by developing more sophisticated means and methods of war, their fellow citizens will be ‘safe’. The humanitarian impact of the use of small and light weapons, or weapons of mass destruction alike, is enormous. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), global military expenditures reached US$1,917 billion in 2019, which is equivalent to 2.2% of the global gross domestic product (GDP). Personally, I find it hard to believe that by allocating this amount of financial resources to the development of all sorts of weapons, including autonomous killer systems and nuclear weapons, people will be better off. Furthermore, we have witnessed with COVID-19 that evidently this is not the case. We can only imagine what a fraction of those resources could do to the betterment of public health-care systems. Conflicts elsewhere also trigger environmental, social, and economic loss, and increase inequalities, particularly in the poorest countries.
- Digital divide: Twenty-one years into the twenty-first century, only over half of households worldwide have access to the internet, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Women are even more negatively impacted by the lack of infrastructure, connectivity, and digital skills. There is still a long way to go before we reach global connectivity, despite internet advancements brought about by 5G networks. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, and with confinement measures still in place in many parts of the world, the affectation to the livelihoods of billions of people across the globe is exponential. From economic hardship and lack of access to health-care online services, to the exclusion of millions of children and youth from the possibility of participating in virtual classrooms, and securing a better future for themselves. There is a huge space for post-pandemic recovery to make use of frontier technologies and to decisively create opportunities so that we leave no one behind.
The aforementioned aspects do not constitute an exhaustive list, but may contribute to us re-evaluating our appreciation of risk, from economic devastation to threats posed by climate change and weapons of mass destruction. We cannot afford not to take action – we need to adapt and address the current crises on a systemic basis. The Paris Agreement and the sustainable development goals (SDGs) remain a critical route for the green transformation of our industrialised society. The decarbonisation of our economies will create green jobs and accelerate our transition out of our current predicament. The allocation of capital and financial investments into sustainable markets and inclusive development models, will produce the necessary returns to support a virtuous circular economy. Our common aspiration shall always be a prosperous, resilient, safe, and peaceful world – a place in which our natural capital is safeguarded, and kept for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations, and where the concept of international security is formulated on the basis of human well-being and dignity.
This article reflects the personal views of the author.
Ms Maricela Muñoz is minister counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica to the United Nations in Geneva. She has more than 20 years of experience as a multilateral practitioner, working with governments, international and civil society organisations and businesses, in the advancement of more inclusive, greener, and peaceful societies. Muñoz is particularly interested in areas such as digital diplomacy, information and communications technologies (ICTs), frontier technologies, including the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). She has actively engaged on the environmental agenda, the promotion of nature-based solutions, and blended finance and regenerative development, among others.