Many international conferences have examined specific environmental problems facing our planet, such as drought, biodiversity loss, overpopulation and overfishing. Other conferences have examined threats to the air we breathe and to the water we drink. But, rarely, have scientists and politicians gathered to discuss all these problems at once. From Paris, Lisa Bryant reports for VOA on a new effort to look at global environmental threats as interconnected.
Here are some estimates you may not want to hear: By 2050, up to two billion people may be affected by desertification, much of it due to climate change. In less than 20 years, up to two billion people may face water shortages. Air pollution kills more than 1.5 million people in Asia annually.
These are among many grim statistics supplied by scientists and environmentalists, who gathered at a recent meeting in Paris to look at the future of the human species - and of our planet.
The meeting, hosted by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization - or UNESCO - was the first to examine all these different environmental problems together, and how they are interconnected. The scientists are not just considering tangible causes of environmental degradation, but also our moral responsibility toward our planet - call it environmental ethics.
Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bashir Diagne explains.
"Ecology isn't just the science of the environment, but it has very much to do with the attitude of human beings vis-a-vis nature," said Souleymane Bashir Diagne. "The ethics of the environment, the ethical attitude we should adopt as human beings vis-a-vis nature and other species is at the core of our ecological thinking."
But experts say ethics is too often neglected in the environmental debate. Another problem: International agencies like the United Nations often tackle just one piece of the environmental puzzle at a time, says Jerome Binde, who helped organize the UNESCO conference.
"I think, probably, they have been compartmentalized because of the structure of administrations and of great institutions," said Jerome Binde. "They are compartmentalized themselves."
The Paris meeting brought together some of the world's leading environmentalists and politicians from a variety of different disciplines. UNESCO'S Binde says the participants agreed it was important to work together on issues like deforestation, biodiversity, water scarcity and ways to reduce consumption. This kind of environmental collaboration is only just beginning, Binde says, but he predicts it will grow.
Beyond just working together, environmentalists and politicians also need to start looking ahead, says Asit Biswas, head the Third World Center for Water Management, a nonprofit group based in Mexico City.
"People are so busy looking just beyond their nose, they haven't thought about the future," noted Asit Biswas. "And, by the future, I don't mean 2020. I mean four, five years from now. Basically, nearly all the U.N. agencies and the international organizations in recent years in the field of water have not looked beyond the immediate future."
As scientists and politicians search for more holistic solutions to environmental problems, Biswat says, they also need to look at what has already been achieved.
"How is it possible that a city like Phnom Penh in Cambodia - which is completely in public sector water management - has a better water management record than private sector water management in France or in England," asked Asit Biswas. "Nobody knows about the success of Phnom Penh. And yet, 12 years ago, Phnom Penh used to lose 70 percent of its water because of bad management. Right now, they have reduced their losses to eight percent."
That is a particularly good lesson, Biswat says, for cities like New Delhi and Bangkok, where up to 60 percent of public water never reaches consumers because of mismanagement and poor plumbing.
A constant message at the conference was, what happens to our planet in the future depends on how much importance we give it today. Environment ministers in many countries, for example, continue to have second portfolios. Experts say we need to value out environment more, before we can save it.