Science and Global Governance

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 19. November 2019 - 20:54

Science and Global Governance

Arthur Lyon Dahl*

One of the significant failures of governance in the modern era is the inadequacy of arrangements to ensure that scientific advice is properly considered in policy-making. Few politicians have scientific or technical training, scientific reports are often not in the most accessible language or easiest to access, and for most decision-makers, scientific information, if available, is just one factor to be weighed against other political, economic or ideological interests which usually take precedence. Even the concepts of expertise, objective scientific knowledge and truthfulness are increasingly questioned. Determining what is true or correct becomes a matter of political expediency.

Reforming global governance

These failings at the national level are even more apparent internationally, where governments jockey for power and influence, if not dominance, in the political and economic anarchy of sovereign nations and multinational corporations. This is not to deny the important roles of science internationally, with global research programmes, international scientific assessments including the IPCC and IPBES, scientific advisory mechanisms under various multilateral agreements, and many scientific and technical organizations accredited to the United Nations (UN) as a major group. The problem is more the disconnect between the available scientific information and the actions taken by governments, businesses and other actors. For example, despite more than 30 years of increasingly pressing warnings about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and commitments by governments to take action through the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, among others, emissions are still rising, fossil fuel companies plan major increases in exploration and production, and the damaging results of global heating are accelerating. Voluntary agreements and the good will of some actors are outweighed by those profiting from business as usual.

The only solution, in a globalized world and economy hitting if not overshooting planetary boundaries, is more effective global governance. Yet the UN is increasingly seen as ineffective, multilateralism is often denigrated, and many countries are retreating within their borders under populist and nativist pressures and a rise of autocratic if not despotic rulers. The forces of disintegration, coupled with the climate crisis, represent existential threats to human society. The countervailing forces of integration are not yet sufficient to power the necessary fundamental transformation in human society called for in the UN 2030 Agenda.

To address this challenge and to stimulate widespread discussion of the ways forward, Augusto Lopez-Claros, Arthur L. Dahl and Maja Groff have written “Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century”, to be published by Cambridge University Press in January 2020. They consider the deficiencies in the UN going back to its creation 75 years ago, and propose the reforms necessary to make it fit to address not only peace and security, but also all the problems that have emerged since its founding, many of which are best understood from a scientific perspective. The proposals extend to the global level those elements of governance that are generally taken for granted at the national level, with legislative, executive and judicial functions and means of enforcement.

In brief, the General Assembly would have proportional representation, and the capacity to adopt binding legislation on global issues including peace, security and the global environment. An Executive Council with a management function for the UN system would replace the Security Council, and oversee an International Peace Force. The International Court of Justice would have binding jurisdiction, complemented by the International Criminal Court, an Anti-corruption Court, and a Human Rights Tribunal. Various scenarios are discussed for ways forward. If some present Permanent Members block UN Charter revision, then a Charter replacement conference could be held to establish a new and more effective organization, which could then merge with those parts of the present system worth preserving. Once an international legislative process is in place, the way would be open to adopt coherent legislation for environmental issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, chemical management, and protection and management of the global commons.

Scientific advisory processes

The book makes several proposals to formalize scientific inputs to drafting legislation and other elements of global governance. Scientific advisory processes would be strengthened and made more coherent, building on the present IPCC, IPBES and scientific advisory bodies under the various conventions, with direct links to the General Assembly. A science office in the UN would provide authoritative advice on the state of the planet, and monitor trends, planetary boundaries, and system interactions.

A strong technology assessment process would be added to consider issues such as geoengineering, genetic modifications and new creations, nanotechnologies, access to and security of information and communications technologies, the damaging manipulation of public opinion, and uses of artificial intelligence, among others. It would assess their risks, and propose legislation to the General Assembly that would be required to minimize risks and encourage beneficial uses. For example, a neutral science-based global mechanism is needed to review research in the field of genetic modification, to screen proposals to release GMOs into the environment, to authorize those that meet essential criteria of safety and usefulness, and to monitor releases for unexpected side effects, just as is done with medicines.

A second Chamber for Civil Society would be created, advisory to the General Assembly, building on the present major groups and stakeholders, and formalizing their role in considering the global common good and the views of multiple stakeholders as inputs to the legislative process. In this chamber, the scientific and technological community would be able to interact with other groups and explore innovative solutions to problems as they arise.

These science-based reforms would give the UN the capacity to identify and hopefully manage global catastrophic risks. A global consultative process operating on the basis of scientific evidence and driven by considerations of the public global interest (rather than allegiance to narrower priorities based on national sovereignty) would change the current dynamic of large-scale inertia on the part of governments and help them to rise to confront the critical problems that we face.

Science and the environment

Global environmental challenges demonstrate the need for a strengthened global capacity for environmental governance, whether in one or several specialized agencies, supported by international scientific advisory and technology assessment processes designed to be protected from partisan national interests and industrial lobbying. This should cover climate change and ocean acidification, energy, atmospheric pollution, dangerous chemicals, wastes such as plastics impacting the environment and human health, biodiversity and ecosystem services, and the global dimension of natural resources management. Some flexibility will be needed to take on new environmental risks that may be identified in the future. The many existing environmental programs, conventions and other bodies should be gradually integrated into this framework, retaining their competences and successes while reducing fragmentation and overlap. There will be a growing need for environmental restoration, requiring a global agency for knowledge sharing, technical assistance, and financial support to repair the damage done to our life support systems by the pillage of our planet by past and present economic activities.

One requirement of environmental governance is ensuring that the scientific input to policy-making is adequate and objective, that the risks and uncertainties are presented correctly, and that sufficient attention is devoted to long-term as well as short-term priorities. This requires coordinated and sustained research, monitoring and scientific advisory procedures appropriate to each environmental process, with structures for multilevel governance at the scales most relevant to each characteristic or problem. Decision-makers also need to be scientifically literate to be able to understand scientific advice.

Climate change is a complex and diffuse risk that has long seemed somehow to lie outside short-term priorities. Because of its political sensitivity and economic implications, scientists have tended to make conservative evaluations of the scientific data, while there have been unanticipated accelerations in various scientifically-monitored processes. It is not easy to assess the probability of tipping points beyond which runaway processes become uncontrollable but with timing that is uncertain. For climate change, science will need to determine the planetary limits for greenhouse gas concentrations as the basis for negotiations on the allocations for each country to respect those limits, as only objective science can provide a sufficient basis for the difficult sharing of responsibilities to return within those limits. The book also discusses climate-induced migration, adaptation, ocean acidification, and the energy transition.

Similar scientific assessment processes will be needed for other global risks, such as global pollution risks from chemicals and nuclear radiation, the management of plastics and other persistent wastes, and the need to remain within other planetary environmental boundaries such as for biogeochemical cycles. The atmosphere, its composition and contaminants need to be monitored. Global governance of dangerous chemicals will be an obvious area to develop, producing considerable economies in overlapping national testing and regulatory processes, and filling gaps where countries do not have the technical means to manage such dangerous products.

Science needs to guide the management and equitable distribution of the planet’s natural resources and sources of energy. Global dimensions of land use, freshwater supplies, the atmosphere and the oceans will eventually need to be covered. Accounting systems need to include natural resources, assets and processes as global natural capital to be maintained for planetary sustainability, with only the interest on that capital considered an available economic resource. This will require groups of experts of the greatest knowledge and confidence, similar to those making up the IPCC, in all the relevant domains.

Another issue treated is biosphere integrity, and the need for a coherent approach to the protection and ultimately restoration of the biological heritage of the planet and the integrity of the biosphere on which we all depend for survival. This includes both the functional diversity of ecosystems and life support systems, and genetic diversity represented by species or genetic resources. Saving what is left and eventually trying to restore essential ecosystems will require international efforts beyond the national capacity of many countries. Global levels of coordination, scientific research and advice, and often financial support, will be necessary to assist countries to preserve what is left of their natural heritage.

Another chapter covers the challenges presented by population growth, carrying capacity, age distribution and migration. A scientific foundation is needed for the larger issues of the human carrying capacity of the planet, the relationship of population to resources, and questions of population concentration and movement.

Education for transformation

Any effective approach to governance needs to consider the role of education. Formal educational systems should teach a proper understanding of science, complex systems and integrated approaches, and ethical values that favour solidarity, cooperation and service to the common good.

One foundation of science is the basic principle of access to knowledge for everyone. Education both conveys knowledge and teaches how to access it. Global governance must ensure that every person on the planet can acquire the knowledge needed to be a constructive and informed member of society. Every community should be invited to collect, preserve and transmit the knowledge of its history, culture, arts, science, agriculture and industries, and every nation has its own rich heritage. The advancement of science depends on the free exchange of knowledge, in which everyone, everywhere should participate. An evolving global civilization will increasingly reflect the knowledge required to live peacefully and sustainably on this planet.

The book highlights the misuse today of intellectual property rights, captured by corporate actors focused too narrowly on profit. One salient example is scientific knowledge. If scientists want to publish their findings in reputable journals or books, they must sign away their intellectual property rights to the publisher while receiving no remuneration, only the recognition that comes from having their work read by others. In some cases, they must pay high page charges for open access. Peer reviewers also contribute their knowledge and judgment without any personal benefit as part of the open culture of science. Currently the major scientific publishers have bought up the journals of scientific societies and consolidated into a few large multinationals. Expensive books and journal subscriptions go only to the best-endowed university libraries. Individual scientists outside such institutions, or in economically disadvantaged countries that cannot afford to buy the literature, can access the scientific literature online, but only by paying a high fee to read each article, even those that they have authored, which is generally beyond their means. This recent privatization of the commons of scientific knowledge effectively restricts cutting-edge science to only the wealthiest countries and researchers in institutions. A new kind of scientific poverty is thus spreading around the world; this trend must be actively countered and reversed at the international level to ensure the steady advancement of science, knowledge generally and innovation at the global level. There is a counter-movement toward open access, but it still covers only a fraction of the scientific literature, and not the most significant part.

* Based largely on Augusto Lopez-Claros, Arthur L. Dahl and Maja Groff. In press. Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century. Cambridge University Press. January 2020.

Last updated 19 November 2019

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