Mongolian youth look to lead on environmental governance
Probably the most frequent question I fielded from Mongolian students was “what can we learn from your experience that will help us leap ahead? How do we create a system that allows for economic prosperity but respects and protects the environment?”
Environmental governance is the set of rules and practices that govern the use and allocation of natural resources. These rules can be embedded in legal codes or they can be more informal, cultural and behavioral factors.
In the United States we take a well-established legal system of environmental governance for granted. US systems were established gradually as resource conflicts led to a body of law to resolve dispute. Eventually this led to the passage of the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and numerous other regulatory policies, all studied and understood by our intrepid Mongolian students. In Mongolia, because property rights were not a founding principle of government from 1920-1990, and pressure on resources was light, many of these rules and practices were embedded in cultural values. As pressure on resources is increasing they sense the opportunity to establish a legal system that avoids many of the pitfalls of the US system.
The issue that seemed to fascinate many Mongolian students was the establishment in US law of the “public trust doctrine”, or the principle that certain resources—such as clean air and water, species, and perhaps even cultural landscapes—are public or common resources, and that government has a primary required role in maintaining them for the public’s use. While I was in Mongolia this very issue was being debated and decided by the Mongolian Supreme Court, which eventually found that citizens have a right to sue on behalf of the environment if government fails to protect it.
The other environmental governance issue that fascinated students is the idea of ecological debt. Ecological debt is the concept that the right to a healthy environment is a fundamental right, and exploitation of the planet’s resources by industrialized countries at the expense of undeveloped countries is a breach of those rights. This right is further breached by the fact we now face a global climate crisis and the only way to mitigate impacts is to de-carbonize our economies. Since industrialized nations built their wealth on cheap and abundant carbon based fuels, what debt do we owe to developing countries for monopolizing these resources?
Rapidly developing nations like India and Brazil, seeing them selves shifting from under-developed to developed nations, are hesitant to endorse rapid cuts to carbon emissions. Instead they are joining the ranks of the nations that owe the ecological debt—the group of 17 most industrialized nations who account for the vast majority of global GHG emissions—and are balking. Nations like Mongolia are saying that the wealthier developed nations ought to carry the bulk of the fiscal burden. Western and emerging economies say that the funds will need to come from taxes on the private sector and no one has the political will to make the case while their economies are still languishing under slow growth and debt crises.
I suspect that the answer probably lies with our altruistic, optimistic, innovation hungry, barrier leaping students, like those I was so fortunate to meet during my time in Mongolia, rather than the bankers, and bureaucrats who have taken over my generation.