Integrative Geopolitics: An Earth Day Event

An Earth Day 2020 talk, delivered to Lehigh University by Joseph Robertson, on the 50th annual Earth Day—April 22, 2020.

Integrative Geopolitics: Climate Resilience in a Post-COVID World

This online event is the keynote for Lehigh’s Earth Week 2020 Celebration, with support from the Office of Sustainability, in collaboration with the Environmental Initiative, Environmental Studies Program, and the Lehigh Sustainability Council.

To attend, please visit the event page.


Text updated: April 24, 2020, at 9:40 am CDT.

On the 50th annual observation of Earth Day, the COVID-19 pandemic emergency has so far taken 180,784 lives around the world.

  • With 2,611,182 confirmed cases at this writing, nearly 7 out of every 100 people confirmed to have been infected have died.
  • To slow the spread of the virus and save lives, the everyday bustle of cities and towns around the world has been shut down.
  • We are learning that many of the core structures of what we call “the economy” are not well suited to deal with such a major disruption.

There are mounting concerns about food security—not from impending drought, but from supply-chain disruption, freezing of financial resources, trade restrictions, and commodities markets that don’t know how to react to the scale of this uncertainty. Even bees’ travel to places in need of pollination has been disrupted.

We are witnessing in real time what happens when the flow of human capital and other resources is mapped to the wrong priorities, or blocked by forces that crowd out the most well-reasoned sustainable investment and resilience-building. Every small weakness in the system can turn into an impediment to saving, or sustaining, lives.

Resilience and sustainability are not luxuries; they are imperatives.

While governments are closing borders and limiting exports of many basic goods, including farm goods, and pledging unprecedented sums of money to aid industries and individuals within their own borders, the need for constructive international cooperation has never been so immediately evident.

On Monday, April 20, the price for US crude oil went into negative territory for the first time in history. That means people were paying others to take oil off their hands, because no one will buy it, and there is nowhere left to store it affordably—and this in spite of an unprecedented global agreement to limit production and push prices up, to make it easier to finance supply chains.

Every day, we have more evidence, of dangerous design flaws in supply chains—from food production and distribution to health services and energy.

The compounding costs of our routine depletion of human and natural capital—from air and water pollution, climate disruption, undermining of biodiversity and ecosystem health and resilience—are building up in the background.

An integrative geopolitics requires that we understand interacting systemic risks—such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, food insecurity, water scarcity, and climate disruption—as security concerns. Each of these plays a role in human security, national security, and planetary security. Destabilization at any of these scales can turn into destabilization of economies, nations, and regions.

What we do and don’t know about interacting system-design flaws, and the risks they create, will determine whether we are able to emerge from their moment of converging planetary-scale crises with a chance at sustainable health and resilience.

The Whole-Earth Active-Value Economy (WEAVE) knowledge graphing effort maps knowledge relationships between:

  • institutions, nations, and enterprise;
  • water, climate, and biodiversity resilience;
  • agriculture, food, finance, energy, infrastructure, science, shipping, watersheds, ocean health and resilience, forestry, and land use practices.
Here, we see New York City across the water from Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. Despite the short distance, the scale of planetary systems and the influence they will wield over human security are clearly evident. Photo credit: Joseph Robertson.

We need a more multifaceted, visionary, and humane multilateralism. We need an integrative approach to geopolitics.

This great disruption will generate major systemic shifts, driven in part by new habits developed during this time of crisis. We can accidentally stumble our way into slow-moving improvements, or we can let accident drive us backward. The smarter way forward is to plan toward a future of shared prosperity and resilience, at the human and planetary scales.

To distill the complexity of the converging crises we now face, this Earth Day, let’s look at 5 broad areas of action that can allow us to make significant progress toward an integrative geopolitics that builds security at all scales:

  • Price on pollution — Negotiate the elimination of preventable harm; not doing so is costing us trillions of dollars per year in wasted resources, stability, and wellbeing.
  • Right to know — Use science to understand complex, compounding interactions between systems (natural and human).
  • WEAVE thinking — Value natural capital and human capital, by rewarding options that build structural and human-scale resilience.
  • Decentralization — Include more voices; invest in science, health, information sharing, and zero-pollution methods.
  • Planetary health — Shift food system incentives to foster human health and prosperity, while safeguarding biodiversity.

Joseph Robertson is Global Strategy Director for the non-partisan non-profit Citizens’ Climate Education.

In this work, he represents nearly 200,000 Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteers in United Nations Climate Change negotiations, and other multilateral processes. He is the lead strategist supporting the Acceleration Dialogues (diplomatic climate-solutions roundtables) and Resilience Intel—an effort to move the world to 100% climate-smart finance.

Starting in April 2020, Joseph is also serving as Commission Director for the Food System Economics Commission.