Add new comment

The Global Environment

Learn about climate change, sustainable development and more through definitions and links to articles and informational websites.
Photo Credit:
The environment can be a source of comfort and awe for future generations and is worthy of our protection. Photo Credit:
The earth's environment faces an increasing strain as the human population and consumption patterns increase globally. The international community will have to face these challenges with innovative solutions and a commitment to preserve resources for future generations. In this section we provide some basic information on issues like climate change and a few ideas for preserving our natural environment. Discussion of these topics is a first step towards nourishing a more sustainable way of life for all of us. Following each definition there are links to more in depth articles on each topic.


Biodiversity refers to the "number and variety of living organisms; includes genetic diversity, species diversity, and ecological diversity." 1

According to the United Nations, the biodiversity of the earth has been in steady decline as species face various global pressures and many become extinct. Many of these pressures are directly related to human development and economics. Mining has adversely affected local ecosystems. Pollution from oil, toxins and domestic waste has damaged rivers and oceans. In addition, the huge impact of climate change has and will continue to affect ecosystems through desertification and the destruction of cold weather habitats in the far north and south. 2

In conclusion, "The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released in March 2005 concludes that there has been a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth due to human action. Among the outstanding problems are; the dire state of many of the world's fish stocks, the vulnerability of the 2 billion people living in dry regions to the loss of ecosystem services and the growing threat to ecosystems from climate change and nutrient pollution." 3

Links to Articles on Biodiversity:

The Benefits of Biodiversity - Winners and Losers

Conference Ends, But Bio-Battles Set to Rage

Climate Change:

Global climate change, also referred to as global warming, is a slow, long-term rise in the average world temperature. Not all regions are warming, but the overall climatic average is experiencing a significant change. One of the major concerns of climate change is the melting of glacial ice caps, which in turn could cause a rise in sea level, droughts, floods and widespread disruption of natural ecosystems.

According to scientists, climate change is caused by a rise in the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2). Research shows that for several thousand years prior to the Industrial Revolution CO2 levels in the atmosphere remained relatively constant. A comparison of CO2 concentration in 1750 to 1999 shows an increase of 31 percent. Data shows that this increase is caused by the burning of organic fossil fuels and deforestation. 4

According to the United States Global Change Research Information Office, 95 percent of carbon dioxide emissions would occur naturally without human influence. However, naturally occurring emissions, such as the gas released through the decay of organic materials, is almost completely balanced by something called natural sinks that remove green house gases from the atmosphere. Sea water and plants are both examples of sinks. Human emissions have upset this balance leading to the higher concentration levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. 5

Currently, no global agreement has been reached on climate change. The European Economic Community (EEC) and 168 countries have ratified the Kyoto Protocol to date, with the EEC and 35 countries agreeing to limit or reduce carbon emissions. The United States, the world's largest contributor of pollutants did not, claiming that reducing carbon emissions to required levels would greatly limit the growth or even hurt the economy. As of 2003, fossil fuel emissions in the United States were 23 percent higher than that of the second largest polluter China. Kyoto failed to limit emissions coming from developing countries including China and India which release high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere partially through the burning of low-grade coal. According to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in 2003 the United States emitted 1580 million metric tons of carbon, China released 1131 million metric tons and India released 347 million metric tons. As China, India and other developing countries continue to industrialize, green house gas pollution will grow. 6

Links to Articles on Global Climate Change:

Creating an E8 to Address Climate Change

Inconvenient Truths

Global Warming Cures: Time to Harvest Ocean Power?


The United Nations Department of Sustainable Development defines desertification as, "land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry subhumid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities. Desertification affects as much as one-sixth of the world's population, seventy percent of all drylands, and one-quarter of the total land area of the world." 3 Climatic change is recognized as one of the primary factors of this land degradation. In addition to warming, dry lands have become vulnerable to more extreme weather conditions possibly caused by climate change, such as flash floods, fires, droughts and heavy rainstorms. These events can lead to widespread famine and destruction of livelihoods.

Several organizations are involved in combating desertification including the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization. In December of 2006 they held the International Workshop on Climate and Land Degradation to address these issues and possible solutions. They looked at climate change and sustainable land management practices. 7

Links to Articles on Desertification:

Brazil Faces Forecast of Heat and Dust

Africa is Burning

Genetic Modification (GM) & Agriculture:

Genetic Modification (GM) refers to a set of technologies that can alter the genetic make-up of many organisms including plants, animals and bacteria. Often scientists combine genes from several different organisms with desirable traits to create a new organism that may have all of the desirable traits. This is called recumbent DNA technology and the resulting organism can be called transgenic, genetically modified or genetically engineered. Scientists can use this technology to create new seeds for better crops and even new medicines. For farmers and consumers GM Crops offer both advantages and disadvantages. 8

Genetic Modification can be very useful, for example by altering the nutrient content of a food or lowering its allergenic properties. They can also alter plant seeds so that they grow more efficiently in certain environments, limiting the effects of pests or drought. GM Crops often produce higher yields than traditional crops, increasing food security.

Despite these benefits, there are still many questions and reservations about the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The effect on the environment and humans is not yet fully understood or researched. Dependence on GMOs may lead to a decrease in the biodiversity of natural organisms through cross-pollination. Also, technologically advanced nations will benefit most from these processes, giving developed nations an unfair advantage. In short, the debate continues in the scientific community as well as among growers, consumers and development practitioners. It is important for consumers and producers to educate themselves and be aware of the impact of Genetic Modification on the environment and on the health of individuals. 9

Links to Articles on Genetic Modification:

GM Crops are Compatible with Sustainable Agriculture

Hungry Nations Demand Truth About GMOs and Food Aid

GMO: Which Way for Africa?

Sustainable Development:

Sustainable development is the development of land, cities, businesses and communities that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" according to a 1987 report from the United Nations called The Brundtland Report (also known as Our Common Future).

The concept of sustainable development attempts to embrace both economic development and environmental protection. This implies that we must maintain our current rate of development whilst leaving suitable resources behind for later generations. In this context, environmental problems must be tackled by considering their relationship with the state of the economy and the wellbeing of society. In fact, the environment, the economy and society taken together, include everything that we need to consider for a healthy, prosperous and stable life.

Many environmentalists have criticized the term "sustainable development" as an oxymoron, claiming that economic policies based around concepts of growth and continued depletion of resources cannot be sustainable, since that term implies that resources remain constant. In addition, some people claim that the term "sustainable development" was invented by business to show capitalism as ecologically friendly, thereby placating people promoting environmentalist values. While it is true that economic interests remain the top priority for many businesses, it is also true that many are attempting to grow in ways that are healthy for the earth. 10

Links to Articles on Sustainable Development:

Encyclopedia of Sustainable Development

Turning the Spotlight on Sustainable Development

How Growth Challenges the Global Political Climate


1 U.S. Department of the Interior National Biological Service

2 Friends of the Earth

3 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Division for Sustainable Development

4 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

5 U.S. Global Change Research Information Office

6 Oak Ridge National Laboratory

7 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

8 Human Genome Project Information

9 World Health Organization

10 Encyclopedia of Sustainable Development

Contributed by Rachelle Vanderzanden, Project Intern at GlobalEnvision. Rachelle is an undergraduate student at Portland State University where she is currently studying political science. She comes to GlobalEnvision and Mercy Corps through a community-based learning program at her university called Student Leaders for Service. Upon completing her degree, Rachelle hopes to pursue a career in international development.

Return to top

Curated news and insights about innovative, market-driven solutions to poverty explored through news, commentary and discussion.

Learn more ยป

Global Envision newsletter