Former House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Jr. coined the phrase, “All politics is local,” but Dr. Daniel Relfsnyder (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment; Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science; U.S. Department of State) quipped, “All environment is local.” No matter where you live, environmental issues, like clean air and fresh water, hit close to home. This week, a panel discussed the state of North America’s environment based on the sixth Global Environmental Outlook (GEO6) North American regional report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The report is one of six regional reports that form a comprehensive overview of environmental health based on input from 1,203 scientists, 160 governments, hundreds of scientific institutions, United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders.
The findings of the North American report highlight a shift toward progress wherein changed policies, regulations, data collection, and assessments have improved environmental conditions in North America. Compared to the first GEO report in 1997, air and drinking water quality is improved and conservation of biological diversity has increased. The report also covers emerging environmental challenges, including climate change. It stresses that climate change has emerged as a real and serious threat that has and will continue to impact the North American region. The policies required to combat it have not advanced sufficiently, and Dr. Michael Brody (Adjunct Professor, American University), is concerned because “Policy uncertainties are greater than scientific uncertainties.” Coastal and marine environments are particularly susceptible to the changing climate and are under increasing threat from climate change-associated stressors, such as ocean acidification, sea level rise, and eutrophication, as well as other anthropogenic stressors, such as marine debris. Sea level rise is set to complicate coastal planning, and current “policy is ill-equipped to handle climate refuges like [those from] Louisiana,” warned Dr. Marc Levy (Deputy Director, Center for International Earth Science Information Network, The Earth Institute at Columbia University). The Arctic was also noted as an area of particular concern in the assessment due to the rapidly increasing temperature and decreasing sea ice extent that have been recorded over the past 20 years.
GEO6 aims to move beyond previous GEO assessments by providing policy recommendations; Dr. Relfsnyder believes that the “interplay between experts and government is critical.” To fulfill their goal of providing more publicly available environmental data to inform decision-making on local, regional, and international levels, the report and data were released digitally. The report also proposes stronger cooperation between international governments on climate, air quality, and environmental issues. GEO6 includes a compilation of important research and policy recommendations, which should be considered in order to address burgeoning climate issues.