Podcast: Viriato Soromenho-Marques, Professor of Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Nature, and European Ideas at the University of Lisbon

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Common Home Conversations Beyond UN75

January 27, 2021

Kimberly White
Hello and welcome to Common Home Conversations. Today we are joined by Viriato Soromenho-Marques, Professor of Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Nature, and European Ideas at the University of Lisbon. Thank you for joining us today!

Viriato Soromenho-Marques
Thank you, Kimberly, for having me on this podcast.

Kimberly White
So, you teach political philosophy, philosophy and nature, and European ideas at the University of Lisbon; you were also one of the authors of the Portuguese strategy for sustainable development. Can you tell us more about these experiences?

Viriato Soromenho-Marques
Well, I think that probably the most important thing that I can tell you about my own experience is how I feel so overwhelmed looking back to the 70s, when I started to be deeply engaged with the environmental movement with NGOs, in Portugal, in Europe. I think that when I went back 40 years, almost 50 years, I am overwhelmed to see that we live now in a hotter, different planet. It’s an amazing experience, and not in the positive sense, but it’s overwhelming, as I said, because if we look to the state of our planet, not just in terms of climate change, but also in terms of biodiversity, and many other features of the environment, we understand that we are in a race, a race against time, a race between the problems that we are creating with our clumsy way of dwelling on this planet, and the severe difficulties that we are facing in order to solve the problems that we are creating. So what I have done until now, as a member of NGOs, as member of advisory bodies like the Portuguese Council on Environmental, the European Council on Environmental that reunites many organizations in different European countries, as a member of the high-level group on energy and climate change, on the way to COP 15. It was a group assembled around the President of the European Commission and also giving advice to some foundations like the Gulbenkian Foundation that recently awarded the Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity to Greta Thunberg. What I’m trying to do with my activities, basically, is to give a contribution, to try to cope with the problems that we are doing as a collective as humanity, because I think that we need public policies. But we need to overcome a very narrow understanding of what is at stake with the environment and climate crisis. If we think that this problem is a problem to be solved, just by governments and states and big corporations, I think we are wrong. Because at the root of this problem, we have the need for a profound shift transformation in our set of values in our vision of the world. And in order to do that, to perform that, I think that we need the contribution also of culture, of ethics, of religion. So we are all actors in this fight for the continuation of the survival of human civilization on earth. One of the insights that very soon, I tried to systematize in my writings was to define what is an environmental crisis? Let me clarify that. When I speak of climate change, I consider climate change, not as something that exists per se, but as a part, as a chapter as a dimension of environmental crisis. So looking at the environmental crisis, I think that we may identify five dimensions or five features, five characteristics that are completely unique. First, environmental crisis, with climate, of course, inside it is the only really planetary crisis there. There is no other thing with such scope. We may see that, for instance, climate change is basically or intensively felt on the extreme north and extreme south of our planet, in regions in which there is almost nobody living. So it’s completely planetary; there are no sanctuaries. And secondly, it’s an irreversibility and entropic crisis. We know that we have massive biodiversity extinction, and when a species disappears, it is forever. So it’s irreversible. There is also a third dimension; it’s the cumulative acceleration. We are indeed in a process of great deceleration, inside what is now called the Anthropocene. And what is happening, for instance, with the oceans, the ocean acidification is a good example of this speedy cumulative acceleration we are embarked on. And a fourth characteristic is there is a growing political and social unrest. We know that many conflicts now, inside countries and between countries, have also the mark, have also the sign of environmental crisis, probably the Arab Spring would never have happened without the climate change impact. And finally, something that probably will speak later in our conversation, we are creating a kind of what I call the ontological debt between generations. So we are transmitting to the coming generations to adapt, not in terms of money or capital, but adapt in terms of the harm we are doing, to the planet, to the software of the planet, to the biosphere, to the atmosphere, to the hydrosphere. So we are jeopardizing the planet. And so we are transmitting a kind of ontological debt to be paid by the coming generations.

Kimberly White
Now, that’s really interesting and diving back further into some of these challenges of the environmental crisis that we’re currently in; in the book Security at a Crossroad-New Tools for New Challenges, you highlight the seven categories of human security. Can you elaborate on these? And in your view, what are some of the challenges climate change poses to human security?

Viriato Soromenho-Marques
Yeah, with pleasure. Well, when we speak normally about security, we think immediately in terms of strategy in terms of military security, military balance. That’s our own conception. It’s an old one. In the past 200 years ago, 100 years ago, it was logical to think in that way, today it is completely not just out of fashion, but completely wrong. Indeed, we had in 1994, the United Nations Development Programme in a report that was published that year ‘94, advanced with a more comprehensive concept of human security, trying to look to security, also, and basically, from the perspective of the individual, of the person of ourselves. So what do we as citizens of our countries, as citizens of the world, what are, for us, the main dimensions and features of security? And the seven categories that you mentioned are part of that vision of transforming the paradigm of security. They are basically the following. So economic security, that’s completely important in a world that has grown to have more jobless people on account of the pandemic situation. Economic Security is also a key dimension, food security, health security, other two very important dimensions and environmental security. Well, I would say that environmental security is heretical because it entails also those that I mentioned, personal security to be as an individual, to feel safe no matter your race, your sexual orientation, your net level of material wealth, community security, to live in a safe community and political security. I think those seven dimensions, as I mentioned in the chapter you mentioned, are, in my opinion, very connected with the big contribution of one probably the most famous of the most important American presidents ever. I mean, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that in the famous speech of the State of the Union, 1941, spoke about the need to have, at a global level, not just at the level of the United States, at global level, four freedoms. Those four freedoms, as probably many of our listeners know by heart, are freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, in the words of Roosevelt, freedom of every person to worship God, freedom from want, freedom from want means that we are secure in terms of our access to material wealth, so we have access to food, we have a job. So it has to do with the economic realm. And finally, freedom from fear, meaning that we live in a safe world, that a world that is not going to be disturbed by invasions by warfare. I think that the table proposed in 1994 by UNEP is very harmonic, it’s harmonious. It goes in the roots of the proposal of President Roosevelt in the way that it is intended, not for a particular community, a particular specific country, but is intended for the world as a whole, using the expression of Roosevelt everywhere in the world. So the idea to have an international system, not just international law, but an international system that is able to assure the implementation of those dimensions of security. And of course, if we look to climate change, if we look to the environmental crisis, what do we see? We see that all those dimensions are in peril, are jeopardized, are in danger. Let me give you an example. I was shocked. This summer, I was working in September, and suddenly I realized that the big fires in the American West, namely in the state of Oregon, a very beautiful state that I already traveled to some years ago, Oregon is a state with a few more or less 5 million inhabitants. And I was told that 500,000 Americans, inhabitants of the state of Oregon, were on the move running from the huge fires that were crossing the states. Many other states, but the state of Oregon was very hit by the big fires. Those big fires started historically speaking, starting in December of 2017. In Portugal, we had two major big fires, one of them in October 2017 was one of the most severe and damaging recorded in history. And those fires add the direct connection with climate change. So, we are not speaking about a matter of natural sciences; we are speaking about the way in which we can cope, in our society, in the way in which we can look forward into the future. That is the question is about the future. The question is about security. The question is about the continuation of our life on earth. We have to shift dramatically the way in which we are inhabiting the earth. Our way of dwelling on the earth must profoundly shift.

Kimberly White
Absolutely, and I know that there are many who view climate change as a threat multiplier, as it can potentially exacerbate many of the current challenges and threats that members of our global community are facing, such as food insecurity and infectious diseases. The former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had stated that climate change would not only exacerbate these existing threats to peace and security, but climate change is also itself a threat to peace and security. So it’s kind of a driver of both things. And as we see, these cascading effects of climate change continue to impact our natural resources. It will continue to drive and amplify conflict. And we’ve seen this begin to happen in some developing nations that have had a lessened capacity for climate change adaptation, for sure.

Viriato Soromenho-Marques
Yeah, for sure. When we look to the tipping points that you mentioned, and Ban Ki-Moon also referred when he was United Nations General-Secretary, we need not just limit the tipping points to certain areas to the borders of developing countries, because even in European countries, like Portugal, in very developed countries, in the leading countries, like the United States, we are facing the consequences of climate change. The big fires in Australia, in Sweden, in Russia are examples of those cascading effects. And, of course, we are seeing the tipping points in the Arctic, in the coral reef in Australia, but probably and I’m not the first one to say or to say that probably even the Coronavirus crisis we are facing now has to do with the extinction and the loss of biodiversity. So, we are invading as a species the habitats of many other species. So we are breaking the borders between our species and other animal species on earth. We are cutting the self-defense mechanisms between our species and probably what happened, and not just with COVID-19, but with other illnesses that appeared also in the zoonotic process. So the transmission of biological material, in this case of a virus, from animals to humanity is probably the result of a tipping point in biodiversity. So that’s not a very bold thesis. If we look into the literature of the specialty, probably you will find many other authors and specialists that will tell you the same. So we need indeed to consider that climate change is part of a global crisis. That’s the major environmental crisis. And we need to find a new international system because today we are completely adrift. I would say that in terms of international law and in terms of an international system, we are probably in the 19th century. As we know we have to measure steps forward in the international system. The first one was President Wilson’s idea of creating the League of Nations. And the second one was the creation by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and many others of the United Nations, but today, the United Nations is a pale image of what it was 45 to 50 is a pale image of the need we have for a strong, active international organization. And, of course, of course, I’m not blaming the current General Secretary of the United Nations because it’s not a matter to be blamed for a personality; it’s a matter of organization, of involvement of countries. Above all, it’s a matter of the big countries, the United States, China, the European Union, India, Russia. So those big acting countries need to go back to the original spirit of the charter of nations and need to cross that spirit with the new challenges we have. Because today the world, it is much more dangerous than in ‘45. Because we have existential problems, climate change, global environmental crisis, the risk of nuclear war, there was already in 1945, but today it is bigger. We also have the problem of the economic system. We are now very fragile because we are exposed as humanity. We are very much exposed to cyclical finance and economic crisis because we failed in the building of a system able to control the finance and economic flows. Contrary to the hopes of President Roosevelt, Roosevelt considered the need to have an economic order, he even considered the need relative to Congress, saying that we need to have an economic Bill of Rights. So it’s interesting many, many people in Europe don’t know that President Roosevelt considered that one of the tasks for the future of the United States was to have a second bill of rights of economic dimension. So the environmental crisis can’t be separated from the economic crisis because it’s the economic structure, the economic fabric of the world. It’s the key driver of the planet of humanity today. If we don’t shift the economic fabric, we will not be able to tackle the environmental and climate crisis.

Kimberly White
Absolutely, and we can no longer look at climate change as an issue that might affect us down the road. It’s a very real and current ongoing threat. And going back to what you were saying about the current pandemic, it has been said by many experts that this is the result of environmental degradation and human encroachment into natural spaces and not just with COVID, as you said. For example, the wildlife trade has been linked to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as well as several other major pandemics and epidemics throughout the years, including MERS SARS and Ebola and also the transmission of pathogens such as bird flu and swine flu.

Viriato Soromenho-Marques
According to the World Medical Organization, 75 percent of the new diseases that appeared in the last 40 years are zoonotic diseases. So, diseases that are based on the transmission of biological material from other species to human species. The linkage, the connection, probably the causal connection between biodiversity loss and these new diseases, seems to me very, very strong.

Kimberly White
Definitely, it’s a concerning statistic and it should be a wake-up call that we really need to be respectful of these natural environments and these ecosystems that we share on our planet. Now, diving into my next question, you have said we need to abide by the moral and political imperative of fighting against climate change if we want to be fair toward our children and grandchildren. Do we have a moral obligation to work toward intergenerational equity, safeguarding future generations, and helping to ensure a stable climate? How can the Global Pact for the Environment and the framework proposed by the Common Home of Humanity help us to achieve this?

Viriato Soromenho-Marques
Very, very important question, Kimberly. Well, let me start with the first question, a more philosophical question. Do we have obligations towards the coming generations? Are there duties between generations? I think that it’s a very important philosophical and ethical question. And in my opinion, the debate is typically a debate that could be possible only in very, let’s say, refined, sophisticated civilizations. So the debate in the West about that started, again, between, to major American politicians. The first time ever that the question of justice between generations was raised was in 1789. We can find that in the exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Thomas Jefferson was in 1789 in Paris. He had been for five years Ambassador, minister, as was the term used in the 18th-century Minister of the new United States in Paris. And he was almost coming back, it was in September, so 89. And he wrote to James Madison in the United States, saying, I want to discuss with you a new problem, the problem of our duties regarding the next generation. So it’s amazing how strong and how useful for the debate of today the discussion between Madison and Jefferson is. They discussed two topics, the topic of public debt and the topic of the revision of the Constitution. So basically, the thesis of Jefferson was that a generation should not force or connect the next generation, the coming generation, neither to a big burden of monetary debt, public debt nor to a constitution that could not be revised. Jefferson was not very glad he was not in the Philadelphia convention because he was in Paris. But he was exchanging opinions by mail with Madison and others. And he was not glad with the solution. For the revision that was found by the drafters of the Federal American Constitution, he preferred a more stable mechanism of revision every 19 years. So he was trying to say that we as a generation must leave the way open for the next generation. And I’m quoting now what I think can be considered the principle of Jefferson, that is, and I’m quoting, “The earth belongs in usufruct to the living” It is very clear. Jefferson was saying that we are not owners of the earth. We are just using it during our lifespan of generations. And we have the duty to give back, to transmit the earth in good conditions to the next generation. We don’t have absolute autonomy. We need to care also in the way in which we behave on earth to care for the interests of the coming generation. So we can say that, in this line of Jefferson, we have the duty of maintaining and, if possible, promoting the earth’s integrity for the next generations. And we are not doing that. So that’s why, and I am now going to the second part of your question, as we know, the United Nations is involved in the process of creating a Global Pact for the Environment that will be proclaimed in 2022. Fifty years after the first big conference of Stockholm, the first big United Nations Conference in Stockholm, and also 50 years after the creation of the United Nations Environmental Program. And, well, Common Home of Humanity is trying to not just to support that effort from the United Nations, but we are trying to increase the intensity of the change. And that’s why we are proposing the need to integrate into that Global Pact for the Environment the idea of a Safe Operating Space Treaty, a kind of a global convention that is directed to give legal status to a very important scientific concept that was created well, let’s say in the last 50 years by our scientists, and that concept is the concept of the earth system, as we know when we have the concept of the earth system in science, but the earth system is not just a concept. It’s a concept that reflects reality. And that reality is the living unity of the earth. It’s the fact that our planet is our planet, not because it is one of the rocky planets in the solar system. We have other rocky planets; we have Mars, we have Venus, we have Mercury. But the earth system, this planet, is the only planet that, besides the rocky surface, we have something mysterious that is responsible for life. We have a kind of software, a living software. And that software is responsible for the fact that we are the only known planet with intelligent life, not just in our solar system, but at least in our galaxy. And that’s a big responsibility we have. So, our effort, as a group of citizens from different countries, is to participate in the debate of the United Nations for the Global Pact for the Environment. And to add to that, they need to give us a step forward and to create an SOS treaty, SOS convention, safe operating space convention, in which the international community, the international law, and the international system will find a new way of inhabiting our earth based on cooperation, compensated cooperation, based not in in the current negative-sum game we are embarked, in which we are decreasing every day, we are decreasing the natural capital, we are decreasing the capacity of the earth to support life. But on the contrary, we should create that convention that will give a legal status that is going to allow for individual states but also for other big international actors. And we know that we have companies, corporations that are also big international actors to have a kind of earth’s accountability in which we can, in a very rigorous way, in a very independent way, neutral way, we can do the accounting of the externalities, and we can give a reward for countries and corporations for the positive externalities they introduce into the earth system. And of course, we need to have some kind of penalty for the negative externalities international actors are introducing into the planet. So, in a nutshell, that’s basically what we are intending to do, within the process, the United Nations process of creating the Global Pact for the Environment.

Kimberly White
That’s really great. I feel like historically nations have focused more on the creation, or attempted creation of intragenerational equity in terms of development, focusing only on the current generations rather than the future. I think this is something, and I feel it is apparent with the continued propping up of the fossil fuel industry, where we’re giving trillions of dollars in subsidies, which is just compounding the issues from the climate crisis. And that’s why I feel that initiatives, like the proposal from the Common Home of Humanity, are so critical to what we need to do to move forward and to safeguard those future generations.

Viriato Soromenho-Marques
I agree. I agree entirely. And, well, there is also a big, transformative dimension in this idea in this proposal, and the dialogue with members of diplomatic bodies, and members of the media, politicians, it is very interesting because we can do nothing without sharing values, without learning with others. And I think that the shift from the current pattern of negotiation, diplomatic negotiation, that is basically the burden-sharing model, it’s, for me, vital. So the idea that we are discussing quotas, limits for emissions, it’s so poor, and it’s so wrong because we need to bring to the table of negotiations much more than that. We need to create a diplomatic paradigm that is able to go from a zero-sum game in which I win what you lose, you win what I lose, to a win-win diplomacy, to a positive-sum game. And in order to do that, I think that the SOS treaty, the existence of a convention, giving a legal status to the earth system will give a concrete material shape to an idea that was created by my dear colleague and friend Paulo Magalhaes, that Kimberly, you know him as well. And in 2002, Paulo Magalhaes talked to me about the idea of the earth condominium. And it is now a very known worldwide idea the earth condominium, and basically, the earth condominium could be the prototype for the new brand or the new model of negotiation. Because when we have a home condominium, for instance, a condominium of our of the place in where we live with our family, we know that we have two types of property, we have the property of our flats, of our house, but we have also the common property of the common spaces and functions, the electric system, elevators, many other systems that are integrated into the compound of the condominium are also co-owned by each one of the members of that condominium. So, the same should happen in the international system. We are not saying to states that national sovereignty is going to end; no, that would be false. What we are saying is that if we keep completely connected to the old, we’d almost four centuries model of state sovereignty, we are going to lose everything, including the state sovereignty; it’s what is called the sovereignty paradox. We can’t tackle climate change, environmental crisis, financial crisis alone. You can’t tackle pandemics alone. See what happened in Europe the pandemic was first faced in a very competitive way. But now, just after the cooperation between European countries, now, we have the hope of overcoming the pandemic situation, although the situation as you know, is now very bad. So, our proposal tries to combine two types of sovereignty. The first one is the classic sovereignty. So the territorial sovereignty of states, you are going to need that sovereignty for instance, many functions of state, you need to have national control to control borders, for instance, the control of international trade and so on, in certain conditions must be developed by the national state. But if we speak about the atmosphere, if we speak about water, both the ocean water or the river, the Continental waters, if we speak about the management of biodiversity, the protection of forests, we are speaking about the common software, the common heritage, using the category of Arvid Pardo. And so, in that case, we can’t divide the management, we can’t say we are the owners of this part of the atmosphere, we can’t say we are the owners of this part of the ocean. No, we are not the owners. As countries, we will exercise a court sovereignty, so a sovereignty of cooperation without other entities without the other states. So, it’s a good example of what I called compulsory cooperation. If we are really intending to overcome the climate crisis, the environmental crisis, we need to work together, that’s compulsory cooperation, we need to act together even with countries to which we have many other points of disagreement. But there is no atmosphere for China and for the United States; we have just the world, the earth’s atmosphere. So we need to translate that in political language, in law language. But I think that it’s not very complex, from the point of view of earth sciences. And with all the tools we have now, the capacity of data analysis we have, I think it’s a very strong argument. The demonstration of the reality of these physical and geophysical and biogeophysical and chemical situations is very strong in terms of demonstration. And we need to jump from the field of sciences to the field of the real world of citizen engagement, of political engagement, of states, to the field of international law, and international diplomacy and international politics. I think that that’s the task we have in the face of us.

Kimberly White
Absolutely, you make some really excellent points there. And I think you touched on this a little bit earlier, but I want to dive into it a little bit more, which is the current legal status of climate change as a common concern of humankind, that results in mitigating potential damages from climate change, and it was a dominant consideration for much of the UNFCCC’s existence, creating a burden-sharing system. These mechanisms represent a negative-sum game where the stable climate resource continually decreases. How can recognizing climate as a common heritage be the legal innovation we need in climate negotiations after decades of underwhelming climate talks?

Viriato Soromenho-Marques
That’s precisely the point I raised about the need to have the acknowledgment of the earth system, to give the earth system a legal status. And understanding that there is an object, although intangible, but no matter an object that needs legal protection, and that the legal protection of the earth system can’t be done just by an institution, nor just by one state, or a corporation, but it’s a common task of humankind, and human international system in the international community, just by that, we will be able to, indeed, overcome the obstacle of the low protection of the low status of climate change as a common concern. This is not a common concern. This is indeed a menace, a danger, or a threat to the common heritage of humankind because climate change is the result of the disarray of the flows of our way of life on our way of inhabiting the earth and of the way we are ill-managing the earth system. So, the only way to have a concrete strategy, a coordinated strategy, a long-run strategy of countries and other entities to face and to overcome, to mitigate and adapt to climate change is to understand that climate change is a symptom of environmental crisis. The environmental crisis is also a symptom of the bad shape and bad status and the disarray status in which the earth system now is passing. We need to combine and connect climate change with the need of restoring the earth system, and when I say restoring, I am saying that we need to shift also the economic fabric. Because now we have an economic fabric based on what we may call the entropic value today, the economic value is the value of entropic processes meaning when the norm of example, that we can easy to explain this, you have a forest, okay a forest is a very strong part of the earth system because it produces a set of natural surfaces very important namely, it is also a way of capturing co2. So, it is a good tool to fight climate change, but it is also very important to the water cycle, it’s very important to the forest, to the biodiversity. However, in economic value, the forest only gains economic value, when it’s destroyed. Look to all these happening crises in the Amazon forest and the big Amazon forest. Huge natural areas still pristine in many regions are being destroyed. Why? Because there are actors interested in making narrow, rapid economic value from something that is so, so rich, so powerful, and so over lasting. So we need within this effort to have a legal status for the earth system. We need also not just to shift our diplomacy, our international system, but we need to shift our economic mindset. We need to give a price not to the destruction of natural resources, not to the destruction of the earth system, but to give them a monetary reward for the preservation, for the protection, for the promotion, and for the restoring of the different areas of the earth system. Water, biodiversity, forests, landscapes, the beauty of landscapes is also a natural value. One of the things that keep us connected with our planet is the experience of beauty. The aesthetic values are also part of the reason why it’s so important to be alive. And it’s so, so, so fantastic, to be alive. We are not just destroying the life carrying capacity of our planet, but we are also destroying the beauty of the planet. And that’s a shame. And we need to face that, with all the intelligence, imagination, and moral strengths that we can assemble.

Kimberly White
All right, and there you have it. We cannot tackle climate change, the environmental crisis, the financial crisis, or the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic alone. We need to act together, despite other points of disagreement. We are not the owners of the earth, we are just using it during our lifetime. We have an obligation to work toward intergenerational equity and promote the earth’s integrity for future generations. 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 on February 10th to continue the conversation with our special guest, Katherine Richardson, renowned climate change expert, Professor in Biological Oceanography, and leader of the Sustainability Science Centre at the University of Copenhagen. And visit us at www.ThePlanetaryPress.com for more episodes and the latest news in sustainability, climate change, and the environment.

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