One of the great challenges that will face humanity over the next 20 years is to find effective means to regulate our use of the global commons (meaning the air and the oceans). While not part of any nation state, the commons are the vehicles that couple all of our actions one to another. For far too long have we regarded this commons with indifference, as if they were infinite in extent, or so large as to not be impacted by our consumption for food, as a conveyance for our international trade, or as a sink for the waste products of our civilizations. Economics has tended to treat the commons as being without value, treatment which is equally true of the natural world within our nation states as well. There has been no means of assigning a cost to the marine life that we harvest, nor to the air into which our emissions diffuse, nor to the oceans into which all of our sewage, metallic wastes, and plastics must ultimately flow. Cornucopiasts aside, we are beginning to see the impact we have on the commons, and it is abundantly clear that they are by no means infinite, nor safe from human activity.
Regulation of the commons has proceeded through a variety of international treaties and organizations (such as the World Meteorological Organization, the International Maritime Organization, the International Hydrographic Organization, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), various bi-lateral agreements on cross boundary air pollution, and so forth. These organizations and conventions have created a complex set of treaties that have contributed to a reduction in ship emissions (e.g. MARPOL), and provided a loose framework for international co-operation on issues like sea bed mining and the management of fisheries.
One of the consequences of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was to create so called Exclusive Economic Zones, which declared that coastal states had exclusive jurisdiction over coastal resources (e.g. fish, oil, gas, minerals) and the responsibility for environmental management within 200 nautical miles of their coastline. I am not a lawyer by any stretch of the imagination, but it would seem that this convention focused more on aspects of development than it did on aspects of environmental preservation. The consequences of this agreement are that the vast majority of all readily exploitable resources in the ocean fall outside the global commons – that is, they lie within the control of one nation state or another. Each nation state might thus be content to monitor and regulate its own Economic Zone and forget about the state of the global commons. At the same time, the impact of these Economic Zones on the global state of the oceans and the atmosphere is unchanged.
I believe it is time to start thinking in terms of a global monitoring system for the atmosphere and the oceans. We have the beginnings of such a system in things like:
- Project Argo ,
- air pollution mapping (see Carbon Dioxide Emissions , Mercury Emissions , Ammonia Emissions ),
- global climate change mapping (see Early Warning Signs , Desertification ),
- and the early beginnings of interactive sites (query/response) for climate change (see Climate map shows world after 4C rise , Climate change interactive map ).
While some of these are promising starts, there is, overall, an obvious lack of standards (projections, scales, symbology) and a severe shortage of money. None of these sites, or any of the other sites that I looked at, could provide anything like an effective interface for exploration and understanding of the current state of the global commons. Many sites also tend to focus on public relations without the traceability to support that what they are depicting is credible. A summarized map of “hot zones” is interesting, of course, and does seek to communicate important ideas and issues – but ultimately we must be able to see that there is a relatively unbroken chain between such presentations and the measurements and analysis on which these presentations are based.
A global monitoring system is thus a very, very complex entity and is deserving of a project on the scale of the race to the moon. A few years back (just over a decade now), the U.S. NASA had a refocus of its mission to that of Mission to Planet Earth. I had hoped that this would become the primary, or even the ONLY, mission of this organization, and one that could galvanize similar efforts around the globe. This did not happen. Furthermore, even the original program was focused more on the technology of measurement hardware and spacecraft than it was on the objective. Hopefully, some nation or group of nations can find the will to again embark on such an enterprise and leave Mars to the Martians.
With a global monitoring system in place, or under development, we could begin to look at how we might regulate the global commons through regulation of the actions of nation states within their own territories and Economic Zones.