John Podesta: Coping with climate and biodiversity crises in a post-pandemic world

John Podesta addresses the Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly to address interconnected global threats to our climate, biodiversity, economy and human security. He spoke of the need to act comprehensively, globally and immediately to protect 30% of the United States’ land and coastal seas by 2030 and to partner with developing countries to increase bilateral aid, financing and debt relief, including debt cancellation.


I would like to thank UNEP for the invitation to speak. Excellencies, we are meeting at a critical time. The world is currently grappling with a confluence of crises:

  • The global economic crisis which resulted in
  • The accelerating climate crisis
  • And the crisis of nature which threatens with extinction an eighth of the planetary species, many of them in a few decades

As the UNEP report “Making Peace with Nature” points out, these crises are interrelated and governments, businesses and civil society must respond with solutions that recognize this. The United States will again play a major role in this regard. President Biden has said climate change is a critical part of his US economic and foreign policy. He brought the United States back to the Paris Climate Agreement. He pledged to protect 30% of the country’s land, water and oceans by 2030, and he also announced that he would host the Climate Leaders’ Summit on April 22.

All of these steps come at a critical juncture.

As UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen has pointed out, the COVID pandemic was caused by extreme natural destruction, which has increased the likelihood of the spread of zoonoses to humans.

This, in turn, has heightened our challenge of dealing with the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis. A negative turn in one of these crises probably means a negative turn in each of them, and that is what we are seeing now.

Our lands are under stress. Our oceans are stressed. Nature is stressed to a breaking point. If we are to raise the bar, we need to set biodiversity targets alongside climate targets as part of the global economic recovery, including protecting 30 percent of land and oceans by 2030. We need to consider these problems as interconnected, where success is only possible if we address all of these components simultaneously. And the effort must be global. The reach of COVID has shown that anything that is not comprehensive international cooperation is insufficient and that the most vulnerable will continue to suffer.

Nonetheless, I see two reasons for optimism.

One: The Sustainable Development Goals provide a fair, sustainable and climate-sensitive framework on how governments, the private sector and civil society can work together to address these crises.

And two: There is a global recognition of the challenges we face:

  • The G7 countries have all committed to net zero; like the majority of G20 countries
  • Businesses, financial institutions and consumers are all pushing for net zero liabilities and nature conservation
  • And young people around the world are using their voices to advocate for fair and just solutions

To capitalize on this consensus and build political momentum, the first priority must be to rebuild better infrastructure with sustainable goals in mind.

We cannot face climatic and natural crises without moving away from polluting infrastructures.

As the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Post-2015 Goals, of which I served, noted five years ago: we need a transformation, a new spirit of solidarity , cooperation and mutual accountability based on our common understanding of our shared humanity.

Excellencies, in 2021 we must turn this spirit into action. Thank you.

About Mike Stevenson

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