Recently, I spoke at the annual Summer Institute of the College of the Atlantic in Maine. While there, I spent an hour enjoying Acadia National Park and it reminded me how lucky we are to have so many wonderful spots like that in the U.S., to reflect and recall the importance of natural spaces to our health and wellbeing – not just in national parks but in all the places we live, work, and play.
But many countries around the world don’t have national parks, nor do they have the kind of comprehensive environmental laws that have cleaned up waterways and done much to reduce air pollution and conserve species from extinction over the last fifty years. You might think the U.S. is a global leader in this regard, but we actually rank 43rd in the world according to the Environmental Performance Index – behind much of Europe, other industrialized nations, and a few small island states. Indeed, all around the world, the more we see how our planet is imperiled by unsustainable development and climate change, and the more we were cooped up at home during the pandemic, the more we appreciated the importance of a clean and healthy environment for sustaining life here on Earth.
The clean healthy environment that many communities in wealthy nations sometimes take for granted is something that tens of millions in their own countries and around the world aspire to achieve — but remains out of reach. Now there is a clear message from world leaders that this must change. On July 28, the United Nations General Assembly took historic action : the United States, along with 160 other U.N. Member States, voted in support of a resolution on a right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
Countries from all corners of the world came together to endorse this resolution, reflecting our collective resolve to scale up efforts to give everyone the clean, healthy, and sustainable environment they need for basic quality of life. The United States is proud to join with the global community in strongly supporting this resolution. The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet praised the action, saying “Today is a historic moment, but simply affirming our right to a healthy environment is not enough. The General Assembly resolution is very clear: States must implement their international commitments and scale up their efforts to realize it. We will all suffer much worse effects from environmental crises, if we do not work together to collectively avert them now.”
The call to advance this right was a drumbeat that gained strong momentum in recent years. And it is easy to understand why: a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is important to human life on our planet, and it enables the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is not an extravagance or a trifle – and it has much greater actual value than we currently account for or admit.
Biodiversity loss is also increasing at a pace quickly leading to a point of no return for many species. We cannot afford to let this happen – protecting the Earth’s biodiversity means protecting the health of humanity as well. We see increasing levels of pollution, which serves as a force multiplier for environmental degradation and leads to an unconscionable number of premature deaths each year, and drastically increased rates of asthma, especially among children.
We also know that the climate crisis has the greatest impacts on women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, and members of marginalized and underrepresented communities, including with the more than one billion persons with disabilities. In their domestic efforts to plan for climate change and build climate resilience, it is imperative for countries and local governments and stakeholders to consider all members of society, as well as the benefit of rapid action for all – every dollar spent on preparing for climate disasters saves many more dollars (and lives) in responding to them.
Environmental defenders around the world work to protect and defend their communities from environmental damage, and we have all benefited from those tireless efforts. Too often, however, they encounter threats of violence, attacks, retaliation, and even criminalization of their activities, which should be protected as the exercise of the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Environmental defenders may struggle to get environmental information from their governments, are denied the ability to participate in decision making on proposed projects that affect them and are threatened when they peacefully protest potential harm or current environmental impacts.
While few of us will be thrust onto the frontlines of environmental defense, we all can and should uphold the indispensable role environmental defenders play in this effort. And the historic July 28 vote on a UN General Assembly resolution on a right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a key step in promoting and protecting the rights of environmental defenders and all environmental advocates around the world. Now, as we noted , there is vital work ahead. We intend to build on this multilateral success as we work with other countries to develop a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment and turn this very ambitious goal into a global reality. We expect this historic resolution will catalyze urgent and accelerated action to achieve environmental progress and save lives.
Fifty years ago, world leaders came together to recognize that a healthy environment is necessary for the enjoyment of human rights. This year, at the Stockholm+50 Conference in early June, in addressing the assembly I asked, “What if the 1972 Conference on Human Environment had never taken place? What if the leaders back then had not galvanized a global movement to save the planet?” We are at a similar crossroads now. With the support for this new resolution, countries have signaled the need for further action to protect the environment on behalf of all people.
Now we must act – country by country, locality by locality, tribe by tribe – for a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all to be respected, protected, and ultimately fulfilled. We have joined hands to raise the world’s ambition to protect the environment – and those who defend it – to ever greater heights.
About the Author: Monica P. Medina was confirmed as Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs on September 28, 2021.