This week, we reflect upon the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and our efforts at the U.S. Department of State to live up to his vision for a more peaceful, equitable, and just world. Dr. King’s final Christmas sermon, delivered in 1967, strikes a chord:
“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Looking at his words now through the overlapping lenses of the climate and biodiversity crises and the COVID-19 pandemic, they seem even more prophetic. We cannot ignore the fact that these global challenges are a result of our interconnectedness with each other and nature. Our destiny is tied to the health and well-being of all life on this planet.
Biodiversity scientists from across the globe put it well in the 2019 groundbreaking IPBES global assessment of the biodiversity crisis, saying “Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
As these global crises unfold, they are not impacting everyone equally. People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, face much greater challenges in overcoming the interconnected biodiversity, climate, and health crises. Therefore, as we pursue solutions, we must ensure that no one is left behind. The “inescapable network of mutuality” – the “single garment of destiny” that Dr. King described – can also be our salvation. It must inspire a global commitment to restore our relationship with nature, strengthen health systems, combat the climate crisis, and amend our shared destiny for the benefit of all humankind.
In the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), that is what we intend to do. We are working to build partnerships and implement solutions that will address these interrelated global challenges in ways that will help those most afflicted. We are advocating for inclusive decision-making, creating space for a voice for all. And we are supporting leaders from marginalized areas around the world, such as Indigenous communities, with traditional knowledge from whom we have so much to learn. As Secretary Blinken has said, “Diversity makes us stronger, smarter and more creative.” In OES, we view diversity – of people, ideas, and solutions – as an asset in addressing our interrelated crises, for there is no one answer to any of these problems.
Throughout 2022, we will continue and expand our work of building partnerships and solutions to make critical strides in tackling biodiversity loss, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic, while developing solutions to ensure we are better prepared for future threats. And we will do it in ways that leave no one and no corner of the planet behind.
The OES Bureau spearheads our whole-of-government engagement on global efforts to combat the pandemic and counter future health threats. This includes the U.S. commitment to provide COVID-19 vaccines to countries with the greatest need and with no political strings attached. Moreover, through the One Arctic, One Health initiative, we work with Canada, Finland, Kingdom of Denmark, and Indigenous groups in Alaska and across the Arctic to bolster cooperation in the face of emerging infectious diseases and natural disasters, helping people survive and thrive in the face of rapid social and environmental changes.
And thanks to President Biden’s recent announcement of $102 million to support the U.S.-ASEAN Strategic Partnership, including more than $40 million intended for Health initiatives in Southeast Asia, we will support hospitals in the region to better detect and contain infectious diseases and provide grants for infectious disease research partnerships between U.S. and early career scientists there, including grants focused on gender equity. In the Pacific, we are working with Islander-led organizations to establish climate-based early warning systems for mosquito borne diseases, particularly dengue.
Similarly, we are about to embark on a global negotiation to stem the tide of plastic pollution into the ocean and environment. Much of plastic pollution – which can take centuries to degrade – ends up in the ocean. It spreads to every place (literally) on the planet, from the belly of an animal in remote Antarctica to the highest mountains in the Himalayas to the deepest trenches of the ocean. A plastic bag has an average usable life of just 12 minutes but will survive in the marine environment for thousands of years. According to the UN, the world produces about 300 million tons of plastic waste each year. That amount is almost as much as the combined weight of every person on the planet. We must get this global challenge under control, too. Indeed, hundreds of businesses and consumers everywhere have called on UN member states to develop a global agreement on plastic pollution, and we hope to help lead that effort when it begins next month.
And at the global climate negotiations in Glasgow last November, U.S. negotiators helped to enhance direct engagement between Indigenous peoples and governments, including through the work of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform. The Glasgow Climate Pact also emphasizes “the important role of indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ culture and knowledge in effective action on climate change and urges Parties to actively involve indigenous peoples and local communities in designing and implementing climate action.” And yet, there is so much more to do to make good on our commitment to working with Indigenous peoples to address the climate crisis. OES is committed to this work.
To live up to Dr. King’s vision, the OES Bureau will use every international meeting and forum – like the Our Ocean Conference in April, the UN Environment Assembly, and the Summit of the Americas – to create new alliances, modernize old ones, and broaden global coalitions to conserve and restore nature to provide a healthier future for all.
Only through uniting the diversity of global voices and experiences, fully understanding the existing and expanding inequities that these global challenges expose, and implementing inclusive solutions, can we overcome our interrelated existential challenges. But we shall overcome them. Together.