Richard Ponzio, Director of the Just Security 2020 Program at the Stimson Center
Interview TranscriptTranscribed by Otter AIKimberly WhiteHello and welcome to Common Home Conversations. Today we are joined by Richard Ponzio, Director of the Just Security 2020 Program and a Senior Fellow at the Stimson Center. Previously, Richard directed the Global Governance Program at The Hague Institute for Global Justice, where he served as Director for the Albright-Gambari Commission on Global Security, Justice, and Governance.Thank you for joining us today, Richard! Richard PonzioThank you, Kimberly.Kimberly WhiteCan you tell us more about your role at Stimson and what you're working on?Richard PonzioI am a Senior Fellow and Director of the Just Security 2020 program. The program is focused on UN and broader global governance, innovation, strengthening, making the international system more inclusive, voices of civil society, of course, but non-state actors working with governments, and of course, international organizations like the United Nations to address the 21st-century challenges. From climate change to rising violence in parts of the world to, of course, the pandemic, which is on everybody's mind today.Kimberly WhiteVery interesting! And speaking of the pandemic, we're currently going through a global health crisis, a climate crisis, and a biodiversity crisis. Can these become the common ground that we need to find new multilateral solutions, such as the Global Pact for the Environment, to our shared problems?Richard PonzioIf these issues don't, I don't know what will, in terms of rethinking our multilateral system, how the 193 member states come together. But as I said in my introduction, we're looking very much at solutions. But also capabilities, ideas, networks coming from non-state actors, global civil society is a terminology often used in this context. But it means a lot of things social media, social movements, actually. And religious organizations, to academics, think tanks, like the institution I'm a part of, but all the way down to the grassroots and community level organizing, at the same time, either part of civil society or working in its own right. The private sector, the business community, incredibly rich with talent, technical ingenuity, financial resources, of course, but you know, we look to them for leadership as well and working with governments and international organizations, which I presume we'll be talking a bit about because that's what my own research, scholarly work has focused on for years. And these two or three intertwined crises that you mentioned, the climate crisis biodiversity, and of course, the health crisis was really prominently featured in the COVID-19 pandemic that we're all experiencing. You know, never has there been such a maelstrom of forces that have forced the international community to rethink how we're organizing ourselves, how we're looking at these issues. Through global fora, such as the United Nations, the World Bank is very much on the frontlines of these issues. Major informal groupings of states such as the G20, they all have a contribution to make. But I think as a starting point, you refer to the Global Pact for the Environment. I think it's critical that as the Global Pact, in its early days of being discussed and negotiated, it really makes the point that, hey, we have all of these international agreements out there; there's principles associated with many of them. What are some of the common threads, common foundational principles between the major conventions on climate change on biodiversity, but again, hundreds of other agreements that deal with the global environment. I think if we have more coherence, and a sense of vision and a roadmap through this new instrument, called a Global Pact for the Environment, this will really, I think, build on the solidarity that we're seeing worldwide as a result of the global pandemic. And then we channel the sense of a common global identity, global citizenship, to then work on common global problem solving. And that's at the heart, again, of what the Global Pact for the Environment and its particular concerns with issues such as the biodiversity and climate crisis, I think they're just critical. And as we see today, health issues are intimately related to environmental concerns. And it's so important that we then look in an interdisciplinary fashion to address these problems simultaneously. But it's going to require a rethink both of our institutional framework and instruments that take our normative framework from previous years and upgrade them. And that's, in a sense, what the Global Pact for the Environment is all about.Kimberly WhiteSo essentially, at this point, we need all hands on deck.Richard PonzioAbsolutely. Hundred percent. And that's why it's great to see whether it's the annual meetings of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and all the work that's gone into the massive 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Using technologies to have online consultations, it's really pushed the frontiers on how inclusive these UN policymaking processes can be. And the same thing needs to happen now for the Global Pact for the Environment. The ideas cannot come from within a small UN Secretariat or within the private sector alone; it's really got to be voices from different parts of humanity.Kimberly WhiteAbsolutely. As an expert in politics, governance, and international relations, what do you see as the biggest challenges of establishing this Global Pact for the Environment?Richard PonzioThe biggest challenge is not understanding and diagnosing the problems related to a whole host of environmental challenges. Not just climate, the big one, or, you know, if we let science guide us, we're going to get the vaccine, as we've been seeing in recent weeks, and fighting the pandemic. We even, I think, have a lot of tools in the toolbox for conflict resolution and pushing back against violent extremism, at the heart of all these issues. You mentioned my background and issues of governance and politics, especially at the global level. It's the fear that we are eroding and ripping apart the very foundations of the international system of governance that was created in the aftermath of a major cataclysmic World War, the second world war in the early 1940s. And so, this past year has been monumental, not just because of the pandemic, but the 75th anniversary, a chance to review and reflect on the UN system. But what we're seeing at the same time is rising nationalism, an exclusive form of nationalism that really works against the core principles, the spirit of global cooperation on any issue, including, I think, the environmental themes that we'll be talking about today. And unless we realize how corrosive, how negative and deleterious it is to these institutions, their basic functioning, the signals that members of the Secretariat that starting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations get when they hear lack of cooperation. You've heard a term called vaccine nationalism arise.Even with the hope that is provided by solving the pandemic, now there's going to be questions about which countries and who within those countries will get access to the vaccine first, and that there needs to be a treatment of an issue of such critical magnitude at the global level. Like a vaccine to help us restore normalcy in societies. We're going to get, I think, to the economic dimensions, the knock-on effects, including the environmental effects from the pandemic crisis. But first things first, the health crisis needs a level of global cooperation. First of all, the World Health Organization has been crippled and politicized and has a lot to do with the rise of a combination of even democratic countries that are building artificial walls, so to speak, and sometimes literal walls in their country to protect them from spillover effects. And it's just quite short-sighted to believe that whether it's the pandemic, these environmental themes we'll be exploring today, a whole host of global security questions that you can isolate yourself in this world. But many countries believe, I mean, the populist leaders are whipping up fear and whipping up confusion about the role of global institutions. And until we get a basic understanding of why these institutions were created, and why they, in fact, do need to be upgraded, modernize, made even more inclusive, certainly adopting principles of sustainability and justice at their core, they only then can they function effectively, and then deliver global public goods and address global public bads that countries are understandably afraid of. So it's absolutely critical, and I hope we can get into some of the specific ways those changes could occur in the not so distant future. It's not like these are long term, Don Quixoteesque plans that will take hundreds of years to implement. No, we have ideas under discussion now in connection with the Global Pact for the Environment that can lead to rather ambitious changes even in the next three to five years; and they're going to be critical for addressing the biggest challenges of the present era.Kimberly WhiteAnd one of the biggest challenges is climate change. Climate change is creating cascading detrimental effects on our societies, such as inequality, migration, conflicts, health issues, security issues, and international relations, not to mention the impacts on our economies. Yet, we're only talking about climate change as an isolated problem of carbon dioxide emissions. How can we get past treating these challenges as separate issues? Richard PonzioYeah, each of the issues are important in their own right and could be unpacked and part of an entire discussion. But it's so important that climate not be looked at just in terms of CO2 emissions, not to think that there's an easy technical fix. Although some talk about geoengineering and shooting sulfates into the atmosphere, that's going to somehow cool the earth off. And it's interesting to explore a whole host of technological fixes, especially related to green technologies. Things we can use in our everyday lives and rethink how industry is doing and green infrastructure, especially as it is again connected to the mentioned health issues and the pandemic, we have this huge opportunity as we recover economically, but also to invest in the type of infrastructure. That was not the case a decade ago when the world faced another monumental financial crisis. And it took several years to dig out of, and there are statistics being tossed around that we spent for every $6 of infrastructure stimulus investments back in 2009, 2010, 2011. Only $1 can be considered green infrastructures, such as retrofitting your buildings, and, of course, public transportation, and even electrical grids done in a different way that are more energy-efficient and would reduce emissions. So that's on the economic side, there's a huge body of work. And that's where we came up with sustainable development, through Gro Harlem Brundtland’s World Commission on Environment Development back in 1987, leading to the Earth Summit, leading to the Framework Convention on Climate Change. But where the debate is today, you know, a lot being discussed about the connection between environment and security issues. Two or three years ago, there was a Marrakech the World Summit on migration issues, and certainly, the environmental and climate dimensions of that set of issues was unpacked. So we absolutely, in an interdisciplinary fashion, need to understand the only way we're going to deal with easily the biggest challenge of our time- Climate change is a far more complex, dangerous, ominous set of issues linked to it than the pandemic, which we're going to get a handle on things sooner than later. But hopefully, we can learn the right lessons of how international communities organize and how we chip away at a project as big, complex, and multidimensional as climate change. And that means looking at the economic dimensions, the health dimensions, the security, even issues of migration and refugees. We think that they're all being driven by things like conflict or economic needs. That's true. But the overwhelming evidence is showing that climate change is now, but in the future will more so be the major push factor of refugee movements, even migration to countries that are maybe suffering less. So the whole debate around learning to live with climate change in the short term and adapting. But we need to be still having these discussions hand in hand with mitigation debates and really slowing the pace of climate change. Otherwise, the world in many parts of the world becomes uninhabitable. So that's why going back to the basics and what the Global Pact for the Environment represents in terms of core principles, a guiding vision, and understanding the need for a multidimensional approach and moving beyond just a focus on CO2 emissions. That's absolutely critical if we're going to get a strong handle on this fundamental challenge of our time, climate change.Kimberly WhiteI would love to get your thoughts on the calls for a green recovery. We're starting to see them all across the world. Do you think we’re beginning to see a shift towards governments recognizing that these issues are tied together, they are not separate, and we cannot work on them in silo?Richard PonzioThis is the big question on all of our minds, and we'll see the evidence even within, I'd say 6 to 12 months, how much people put their money investments and real effort where their mouth is on talking about a green recovery. That before the green recovery, we had in the US Green New Deal set of proposals, at least for one of the two political parties. But many other countries of the EU as a whole, Korea, many countries have picked up the nomenclature. And now they're combining that with another common phrase linked to the pandemic; build back better. We hear it in the United States context, but it's actually been picked up and integrated into the recent declaration for the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. So signed on by 193 member states and their world leaders who met, of course, virtually, but did so in the last few weeks at the annual high-level segment of the General Assembly. And not only are they saying, you know, we need to build back better, and they're focused on, of course, getting their economies going and jobs, and greener, so green recovery. This creates such a fortuitous situation because a year ago at the UN Climate Summit, the previous UN General Assembly high-level segment in New York, September of 2019, it was well known that we are off pace, and starting with the biggest countries, the biggest emitters, the biggest economies those associated with the G20 were, in particular falling behind on their own nationally determined commitments. You know, some of the questions we need to ask ourselves is the voluntary approach, which is at the heart of the Paris Climate Agreement. Why it's different than the Kyoto Protocol, a binding, enforceable international legal instrument? You know, everybody says this revolutionary new model, global governance, is going to be the future because it's about outcomes and results and impact that matter more. And I agree, if it's delivering results, then we should all be 100% behind the Paris Climate Agreement. But when the biggest countries are not even following their own adopted commitments, in part because of questions of enforcement and verification. What are the consequences, the penalties when they don't follow through? Of course, the US did pull itself out and made the initial step towards pulling out in 2017. And it just happened two days after the US election. We fully expect on the first day of the new Biden administration for the US to resign and recommit itself. But back to your question on green recovery. It has so many meanings and dimensions to it. But this is, you know, the fundamental opportunity to wean ourselves off of fossil fuel producing engines of our economy to you know, all kinds of green infrastructure investments, as I noted, in response to the previous question, to, you know, government action, incentives, regulatory environment, to really incentivize the private sector to become the chief engine for the green technologies, which I think are going to be at the heart of a green recovery. But yeah, it's not going to be done by any one country, it's not going to be done by government or the private sector, it's going to be a combination of these actors. And of course, we're going to have partners and ideas coming out of civil society, think tanks, universities, that are going to be, you know, central to not only pushing the debate in terms of what green recovery could mean, and be realized in a practical sense. But they're also going to be the watchdogs. And they're going to be the ones analyzing and showing, hey, you use all this wonderful rhetoric about moving towards renewables and getting the Paris Agreement action plan on course. But the reality is, and I fully expect some good analysis to come even within the first six months of 2021.Kimberly WhiteWell, I'm looking forward to seeing how everything plays out for sure. I'm excited to see all these new commitments, and the time for action is now, so hopefully, we start to see that happen. So let's move on to my next question. The tensions resulting from our global interdependence confront us with the need to redefine the global commons. Do you agree that we need a new legal and political theory based on the commons to make it possible to explain and harmonize these tensions?Richard PonzioYou know, global commons, it's been around I believe, if I'm not mistaken, it's the Law of the Sea treaty, debated throughout the 1970s adopted treaty signed in 1982. And even today, not all countries are adhering to it or even fully ratified members. But the terminology continues, and it's at the heart of the recognition that we have interdependence. Among first and foremost states is the major actor in global governance today and how issues are being addressed. But for redefining the global commons today, it's going to have a lot to do with getting it into an instrument like the Global Pact for the Environment. But I think having non-state actors, having corporations of various kinds, not just the multinational but small and medium-sized enterprises that at the national level, those even operating at the local have some degree of appreciation, understanding of this concept of a global commons. Introducing it then, in an instrument, like the Global Pact for the Environment, absolutely will have all kinds of legal and political implications. And maybe in a practical sense, it will be then translated in ways that people then can connect local thinking and certainly local action to the notion of global commons, which needs to translate, of course, into global action. And in terms of environmental issues, sustainability, linkages, with all of the issues we noted earlier today. The health crisis that we're facing at the present moment, issues of peace and security that, you know, everybody thinks it's conflicts that are driving refugee movements and migration today. It's very much environmental factors that are also at the forefront, and of course, it can lead to a vicious circle where these issues are all interdependent just as countries. Consequently, countries are interdependent because the issues that consume their nation's populace, consume political leaders, are all issues that have an often certainly regional and many times global dimension. And until we start to refine concepts such as a global commons, we're not going to, I think, be able to upgrade our political institutions and regional and global levels to be more effective on essentially collective action, problem solving. So these are absolutely fundamental steps that will have a strong basis in legal and political theory. If, you know, they're both to be understood first and foremost by scholars and academics who care about legal and political theory. But then to translate it into practical tools and applications and things that will affect everyday people's lives will be front and center, and how political leaders look at these issues. I think we're talking about something that will take time. But it will be nothing less than a transformation in how we analyze, and then the types of recommendations we put forward for addressing fundamental challenges such as the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and even in the near term issues of great concern related to recovery from the pandemic.Kimberly WhiteA very much needed transformation. We've talked a lot about the crises facing our global community today. How would the framework proposed by the Common Home of Humanity help us to tackle these challenges?Richard PonzioI think it is designed as a community of great thinkers from across different disciplines, who really are starting to see that working in their individual silos and specific areas of expertise has great limitations and to combine the intellectual power of this community to policymaking processes, beginning with the Global Pact for the Environment, it's just fortuitous that there was an initiative within certain countries. And I believe the Office of the Secretary-General, countries such as Portugal, where the Secretary-General is from, playing a leading role in advancing the notion of the pact for the global environment. It's absolutely critical that these ideas are not kept in a parallel divorced channel that is not engaging governments and senior International Civil Servants working on the same energy issues. We need to bridge the gap marry these two communities and ensure that the Common Home of Humanity to realize its full potential is at the forefront of shaping this particular instrument, the Global Pact for the Environment, in the near term. And then there will be a considerable amount of work after its adoption. Many of us hope that the historic 50th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, coming up in 2022, one would hope the Swedish government, champion on many of these issues will be hosting a meeting in its capital Stockholm to celebrate, but more importantly, talk about the next phase in the agenda that was started way back in 1972 in Stockholm. So a natural follow on and a new generation of action could follow from not only what we've been discussing in terms of the upgrade and central importance of taking the Paris Climate Agreement to the next level. But I would say a parallel track but intersecting in many ways will be this instrument, the Global Pact for the Environment, which then touches upon the other major convention starting with biodiversity, action plans on desertification, all kinds of other pollution-related issues. We need to look holistically at a whole range of environmental concerns and not just fixate on the climate crisis alone. We can't solve one without the other. And then the same thing can be said, of getting beyond the environmental challenges and dealing with, of course, the governance framework and how the UN and governments are consumed with many other challenges on a daily basis besides climate or a host of other environmental concerns. And we need to be not only cognizant of that, but make the case that the security challenges of the future, the human rights agenda, which is front and center of what the United Nations is all about.Continuing to reduce extreme poverty, especially in light of the pandemic, which has led to huge economic dislocation and upending the sustenance of millions, if not billions, of people worldwide. Informal economies and the regulated economies of the world, they absolutely need government leaders, decision-makers, especially in policy bodies, such as the United Nations need to see the connections because this is what's going to consume governments and leaders and diplomats for the coming years, dealing with these fundamental day to day survival challenges. And just like, if you're in the middle of something on the scale of a World War, you're going to just focus on that and addressing that and everything else put to the wayside. No, we need to be able to focus on climate and other environmental concerns. The pace of biodiversity loss is just staggering, and it's going to have untold consequences. So the way to address those is, again, getting back to first principles. Things like the Global Pact for the Environment can contribute significantly. And really rethink then how we want our international institutions and then the governments that are part of that, to behave and to act and to deliver on the most crucial challenges of our time. They need to look in an interdisciplinary way across the whole set of environmental concerns. But then the connections, as I noted, with other major baskets of issues, in the security, economic, human rights, even cultural domain, they all have an effect on whether or not we succeed in combating the climate crisis, arguably the biggest challenge the UN has seen since its creation in 1945.Kimberly WhiteThe legal framework proposed by the Common Home of Humanity can really help create a system of accountancy to support agreements like the Paris Agreement, a global deal for nature, and much more, as you mentioned earlier.Richard PonzioI think it gets to the heart of what I feel is missing. I subscribe to the arguments that the founders of the United Nations had in 1945 when they were trying to build a system that responded to the Second World War, but really the failure of international governance in the form of the League of Nations, which was of course created in the immediate aftermath of another world war, the Great War 1914 to 1918. And they really made everything based on the consensus of all the member states at that time, of course, dominated by colonial powers. But the reality is, it created paralysis, and nothing could get done if everybody had veto. And so it's definitely criticized today, the Security Council with the dominance of the permanent five powers of Russia, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, questions about whether or not they deserve to have not only the permanent seat on the Security Council, which is again, the only body that allows for binding, enforceable international law through its decisions, but the use of veto power. That compromise was absolutely fundamental to create the UN back in 1945. There are some important lessons we have to balance, pragmatic, real politic with more progressive notions of how international governance should be organized. But applying that to the climate crisis, the environmental crisis, I know that there's incredible thinking and innovation in the Paris Climate Agreement, I'm not at all wishing to denigrate the progress, and I do celebrate the achievement that it represented back in 2015. But the jury is still very much out whether or not governments will ratchet up their commitments as expected, and most importantly, the verification procedures; there's talk that that itself would be enforceable, somehow, someway over time.Well, that gets to the heart of how we empower our international governance system. And there's nothing akin to what I was discussing in the Security Council domain—and being able to, as an international community, take action collectively to enforce binding international laws. There's no parallel now to the biggest challenge of our time, the climate crisis. So while we're not going to create a global climate security type council and have just a few major countries dominated, that's not what we're proposing. But we need to see, what was the thinking even from 75 years ago, or even more recent times, the conventions on political, civil, cultural, economic, social rights of the 1970s. There's lessons in recent years, the Law of the Sea treaty, and the type of tribunal that they set up for dispute settlement mechanism. There probably are some really strong arguments that we need similar types of institutional innovations. But first things first, we need to get common principles to be revisited, updating the global commons notion, and really begin to take forward this notion of the common concern of humankind and making sure that its legal status is upgraded. And that's where initiatives like the Common Home for Humanity can really make a significant and timely contribution.Kimberly WhiteExcellent. Thank you, Richard. Before we go, is there anything else you would like to share with our audience?Richard PonzioYes, I'll conclude by saying alongside the opportunity presented by the 50th anniversary of the Stockholm conference on the human environment, so that would be in 2022. We're hoping that an outcome of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations when I say we, my research program at the Stimson Center think tank, of course. But we're working with many other partners and civil society, the Together First campaign, UN 2020, all of which are familiar with and supportive of what the Common Home of Humanity is all about. But these groups are going to get behind a very important report of the Secretary-General that was mandated by member states this past September. And it is on the follow through to the 12 commitments at the heart of the UN 75 declaration. Protecting Mother Earth is the second major commitment, ensuring no country, no people are left behind I think is the exact formulation, but it's the first commitment. But that's not only speaking to the pandemic and recovery but how the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement are critical to recovery and to the issues that we discussed today, beginning with the climate and biodiversity crisis. So the opportunity presented by this initiative is something that I hope your listeners will follow closely. The report of the Secretary-General is expected to be out by September, and many of us are already hoping for a more ambitious and more serious intergovernmental process than the UN75 declaration. It was a very important first step. It was catalytic, and it was during very difficult times of rising nationalism, not to mention the pandemic. So we applaud what was achieved, and we were pleased to be part of that process. But we believe it needs to kick off a much more serious intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder process of global governance innovation. And we'll see what form it takes and how long will we need it, certainly before the 80th anniversary of the United Nations in 2025. We would like to see some significant changes which, over time, can be even labeled transformative. But first things first, many of these institutional machinery changes of the international system and not just the UN, but the linkages to the G20, the World Trade Organization, the Bretton Woods institutions, it's absolutely fundamental that we look at the system as a whole. And perhaps alongside the work on the Global Pact for the Environment and the Stockholm plus 50 Review Conference, we might be seeing a parallel institutional change process coming off of the Secretary General's mandated UN75 follow through report. So keep our eye on that process and try to get involved and know that we could be turning the corner to creating the institutions that are fundamental for today's 21st-century challenges, rather than, you know, a 20th-century structure of global governance, which is very much about diplomats and states running the show. I think the new model of global governance, a multi-stakeholder one, something that I believe is at the heart of the Common Home of Humanity project; it's absolutely critical. We are long overdue and need these kinds of important changes to create a more inclusive system of global governance that really delivers results for all people and especially the most vulnerable.Kimberly WhiteAll right, and there you have it. Globally, we are going through a climate emergency, devastating biodiversity loss, and a health crisis. Evidence shows us how interconnected these issues are, showcasing the need for global solidarity and action to solve these shared challenges. The Global Pact for the Environment can be the necessary instrument that leads to ambitious changes critical to addressing our planet's greatest challenges. That is all for today, and thank you for joining us for this episode of Common Home Conversations Beyond UN75. Please subscribe, share, and be sure to tune in next week to continue the conversation with our special guest, Klaus Bosselmann, Director of the New Zealand Centre for Environmental Law at the University of Auckland. And visit us at www.ThePlanetaryPress.com for more episodes and the latest news in sustainability, climate change, and the environment.