The Earth's biosphere—the places in, under, on, and above the planet where life exists—has evolved over the last 3.5 billion years. Around 12,000 years ago, it arrived at "the Goldilocks era," where conditions were conducive to human civilization. Now, our manhandling of the conditions proves they are fragile. We are pushing the planet past its "safe operating spaces."
With smaller populations and less powerful technologies, our environmental footprint was mostly local in the past. Now, it's global. Political boundaries can't contain the greenhouse gas pollution that causes rising sea levels, pervasive plastic pollution, deadly heat waves, and historic fires and floods. Civilization's thoughtless degradation of the biosphere is not just disrupting the weather; it's threatening the systems necessary to support life on the planet.
Signs of distress keep coming so regularly that we’ve become calloused. Yet, 3.3 billion people rely on food from the world's oceans, but over 35 percent are over-fished, according to the United Nations. As much as 80 percent of life on the planet exists in oceans; 10 percent is endangered. Marine populations declined by nearly half between 1970 and 2012. Oceans produce more than half the oxygen in the atmosphere and influence weather patterns worldwide, but heat and acidity are changing them.
As much as 12 million metric tons of plastic end up in oceans and in the digestive systems of marine species each year. With current trends, the tons will triple in the next two decades.
Global warming threatens nearly 1.5 million species—one in six on Earth — with extinction. Two years ago, the United Nations estimated we had degraded as much as 40 percent of the world's soils. It said the degradation could rise to 90 percent by mid-century because of deforestation, overgrazing, intensive cultivation, and urbanization. This trend threatens the food security of 3.2 billion people around the world.
The world's forests are the "lungs of the Earth," inhaling and storing carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen. They help control the planet's water cycle by regulating precipitation, evaporation, and flows. But the World Resources Institute reported two years ago that forests were disappearing at a rate of 11 football fields per minute.
According to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, outdoor air pollution kills 4 million people prematurely and reduces crop yields by $18 billion. The UN reports that 2 billion people lack safe drinking water today, and the problem is getting worse. Drought, soil depletion, deforestation, population increases, and pollution are all factors.
Scientists say there are eight "safe and just" boundaries on the systems and processes necessary to sustain life, and we have already exceeded seven of them.
In short, most living things must decide where to move to adapt to and survive global warming, resource depletion, and human incursion into natural habitats. The question for virtually all species, including ours, is not where life is better but where it will be less bad.
We might expect the world's people to rise above apocalypse fatigue and nations to rise above their differences for a genuine global collaboration to back away from a dystopian future by adopting and implementing concrete, binding, measurable, and enforceable actions to mitigate humanity's damages to the biosphere. And indeed, nations have agreed to work on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Although only a few focus directly on the environment, the condition of ecosystems and natural resources affects SDG's economic and social issues, such as poverty, hunger, public health, responsible consumption, sustainable communities, and economic inequality.
But despite the concrete goals and good intentions of the SDGs, the United Nations warns, "It is time to sound the alarm. At the midpoint on our way to 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals are in deep trouble." About half the Goals' objectives are "moderately or severely off track," the UN says, and over 30 percent have seen no movement or regress.
The alarms are not new; they've been going off so long that many of us accept them as background noise. And amidst the waste of natural assets, the most tragic wasted resource is knowledge. We know what is happening and what to do about it. But we succumb to civilization's inertia and the bullying of special interests that profit handsomely from the status quo.
Consider the record. The United Nations Environment Programme launched a Freshwater Challenge in 2023 to achieve the most extensive restoration of wetlands and rivers in history. Countries observed the first International Day of Zero Waste last year to call attention to the over 2 billion tons of solid waste the world generates each year, 45 percent of which is mismanaged. World Environment Day last June highlighted the plastic pollution crisis, and several countries committed to fighting the problem.
The same month, the UN adopted an agreement that extends environmental protections to two-thirds of the world's open oceans. Nations agreed to a Global Framework on Chemicals to control chemical pollution that causes 2 million deaths each year. They also agreed to a Global Biodiversity Framework in 2022 with 23 targets for 2030 and four goals for 2050, including an end to the human-caused extinction of threatened species by mid-century. In March 2023, the world's governments concluded five years of negotiations on a United Nations Treaty for the High Seas.
And in December, while meeting at the 28th "Conference of the Parties" to discuss global climate change, 120 countries agreed to triple their use of renewable energy, and all nations agreed in principle to reduce their fossil fuel use.
Yet we remain in deep trouble. Most agreements are insufficient because of one important factor: they are aspirational, nonbinding, and unenforceable because countries jealously guard their sovereignty and resist external mandates. The world is awash in lofty aspirations, unmet promises, and unfulfilled goals.
The SDGs are one example. Another is the Paris Climate Accord, signed by 194 countries and the European Union in 2015. The UN calls it a "legally binding international treaty," but it is not. Signatory countries are legally bound to participate in the negotiating process, but their carbon-cutting plans are voluntary. Progress is often insufficient to meet national commitments, let alone the carbon-cutting goals of the Paris pact.
So, it's time to sound the alarm not only on climate change but also on the much broader and more holistic goal of a planet able to support security and prosperity for all life. And we don't just need a fresh alarm; we need a different path forward. For example:
Nations could codify and enforce the "public trust doctrine" in their constitutions and laws. The doctrine traces back to ancient Rome and acknowledges that "By the law of nature, these things are common to mankind—the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea."
One of the foremost experts on the doctrine, Professor Mary Wood at the University of Oregon, explains, "Under the public trust doctrine, government trustees may not allow private interests to cause irrevocable harm to critical public trust resources...the people legitimately own for themselves and for their posterity."
The doctrine traditionally applied to the right to access water. A new International Framework Convention on the Biospheric Trust (IFCBT) could extend it to the atmosphere, freshwater resources, soils, the ocean, the air, and the wilderness.
The IFCBT would declare that all nations are co-tenant sovereign trustees of the biosphere, "bound together in a property-based framework of corollary and mutual responsibilities," as Professor Wood puts it regarding the atmosphere. Each country would make the doctrine binding and enforceable under its own laws. However, some international enforcement would be necessary to sanction nations that don't take part or act in good faith.
Yale economist William Nordhaus has proposed a scheme to address global warming. Countries could apply it to the broader public trust doctrine. He suggests willing nations create a "climate club" and use trade sanctions to penalize the unwilling. One such sanction would be a border tax on imports from nations that do not fulfill their carbon-reduction goals.
The fundamental reason international climate agreements have not lived up to their potential, he explained in 2015, are powerful incentives for "free-riding." Absent any penalties, laggard nations benefit from the carbon-cutting work of others, even if they do not reduce carbon emissions themselves.
So, to qualify for membership in the club, each national government would implement its own binding and internally enforceable biospheric trust doctrine and name the officials of national and subnational governments as trustees.
If there is a shortcoming in the doctrine today, it's that it protects natural assets for human benefit without acknowledging nature's intrinsic right to life — the recognition that "ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property that can be owned" but are also "entities that have an independent and inalienable right to exist and flourish," as the International Joint Commission puts it.
The United Nations further explains, "Rights of Nature are grounded in the recognition that humankind and nature share a fundamental, non-anthropocentric relationship given our shared existence on this planet, and it creates guidance for actions that respect this relationship." The UN has listed rights-of-nature policies in constitutions, statutes, regulations, and court decisions in 30 countries.
To be fully effective, the IFCBT would incorporate an idea the International Bar Association (IBA) endorsed a decade ago. It suggested creating the International Court for the Environment (ICE). However, it acknowledged that countries and special interests would handcuff the Court with caveats and conditions "purposely designed to bog down work on the topic."
Finally, the IFCBT would address another problem. The IBA points to "treaty congestion" caused by hundreds of overlapping agreements, mostly "soft laws" that are neither binding nor enforceable.
The unfortunate truth is that toothless pacts and protocols allow the inertia of the fossil-fuel era to continue while catering to the insatiable profiteering of the oil and gas industries, even as scientists warn that most of the world's reserves of those fuels must remain in the ground. In the last two climate conferences of the parties, in 2022 and 2023, delegates caved to the industry and oil-producing countries by failing to establish an off-ramp for fossil fuels from the global economy.
The people and governments of the world must stop allowing corporations to act as though they own and are entitled to exhaust and degrade the atmosphere, air, oceans, soils, and freshwater resources vital to life on the planet.
In summary, why do we need a modern public trust doctrine? The Philippines Supreme Court articulated the reason in a case brought by children trying to protect the country's last old-growth forest from the logging industry. I have edited it slightly for brevity:
The right to a balanced ecology concerns nothing less than self-preservation and self-perpetuation. These basic rights need not even be written in the Constitution for they are assumed to exist from the inception of humankind. If they are now explicitly mentioned, it is because of the well-founded fear that unless the right to a balanced and healthy ecology are mandated, the day would not be too far when all else would be lost not only for the present generation, but also for those to come – generations which stand to inherit nothing but a parched earth incapable of sustaining life.
What should our holistic vision be? The cornerstone environmental protection law in the United States, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, states America's vision clearly: "Use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations..."
We can do that. We must.