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Thinking outside the tank with Asia’s thought leaders

As in many world regions, Asia is not immune to experiencing “a rise in populism, nationalism and protectionism” at a time of “increasing economic inequality, climate change, mass migration and security threats”.  What role does a respected environmental think tank such as SEI have in the face of these challenges?  SEI Asia Director Niall O’Connor joined the 8th Asia Think Tank Summit in Bali to help answer this question.

Niall O'Connor / Published on 4 December 2018

SEI Asia Director Niall O'Connor: "If we have the courage to think outside the tank" we can address the burgeoning challenges of a rapidly developing Asia. Photo: Jamie Kemsey / SEI

The opening statement at the Asia Think Tank Summit was clear: We are now experiencing “a rise in populism, nationalism and protectionism”  at a time of “increasing economic inequality, climate change, mass migration … and security threats”.  Asia is not immune to these disruptive changes. In many ways, it is a model of today’s geopolitical concerns over climate change, urbanization and other key environment and development issues. This opening statement, cast out to the 65 organizations attending the 6th Asia Think Tank Summit in Bali in November, set the tone for a challenging three days of push and pull to realize the conference’s title – “A bridge over troubled waters and turbulent times.”

Coming from SEI, with a clear perspective of environment and development needs, I knew this Summit was an opportunity to learn what other leading agencies are thinking about and planning.  At the same time, I wanted to explore how SEI can contribute to the conversation. For instance, while many in attendance heard of the recent IPCC 1.5oC report and the worries therein, few fully understood the real consequences and the urgency: that the consequences are here now and are happening to you and to me. The actions required to avoid the worst outcomes must come from beyond institutions embedded in environmental issues.

It was refreshing  to hear from those whose focus is on politics, economics, business and trade, as well as research institutions, civil society, and media. This diverse roster understood the overall conundrum: How can we agree on, and address, the key issues affecting this huge and diverse region in just these few days?

The regional political arena was one of the first challenges. Our discussions on growing populism, nationalism and protectionism considered how such trends often result in the abandonment of entrenched centrism for disruptive extremes.  These trends are fed by the rise of misinformation and fake news, amidst the massive volume of information available. The spread of deliberate misinformation affects all of society, including environment and development concerns. How can people facing this bombardment of information – who are challenged every day by the current economic models that produce growing inequities at unprecedented scale and pace of change – make clear decisions about the best path out of our current set of dilemmas?

The overwhelming influence of the media in today’s digital age remained a hot discussion topic throughout the event. The growth in digital data, and those who control it, lends itself to data owners influencing and controlling the worldview we get to see, and not for the greater good. As an example, it was noted that deaths from wars in Asia receive extensive coverage despite numbering under 100 annually. Yet we hear too little about the 7 million people that die annually from pollution, the 3.5 million from diabetes, and the 1.5 million from traffic accidents. These daily struggles are drowned out by an all-consuming media presence, and people often do not have the luxury of time and patience to value the foundational blocks that a healthy  environment provides, whether as clean air, safe water supply, fertile soils, abundant natural resources, or other essential ecosystem services.

The discussions that followed centred on one question: how would all this play out?  Would the  growing trade wars lead to even worse, such as tank wars and conflict? Would unsustainable resource use and climate damages lead to further conflicts over diminishing resources, resulting in more powerful nations, or other vested interests, taking more control to fill their need or their greed over the need of others? We may feel we are in uncharted territory, but that is the influence, and the goal, of the misinformation.

Diminishing resources as a result of unsustainable resource use and climate change in Asia Pacific can increasingly lead to conflict. Photo: SEI.

Yet another simple question remained with me throughout the increasingly knotty debate: What is the role of a respected, environment organization in all of this, and how can we play our part to address the current world plight, changing closed-minded warpaths to open pathways that help achieve the UN Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals?

The answers are available in the form of  well-articulated pathways that map out the required transformational changes. This is the bedrock of SEI’s work, using evidence-based science to support policy decisions enabling progress along these pathways. As the father of kids who expect a better future rather than one destroyed by their parents, this is why I remain optimistic. It brought comfort that in discussions with other think tanks, many dedicated to the needs of the military and business, they were pondering the same questions. Military think tanks see climate change as a key threat that they need to understand and integrate into their projections. Businesses see climate chaos as undermining the foundation of their future profits based on a stable economy, while civil society organizations focus on the repercussions for the communities they serve. The ground is not always common, but we are all walking the same path.

So how do we progress? SEI is well placed to lead in this area using research and our evidence-based science approach to expand into more strategic policy partnerships. We can drive the agenda among strategic leaders, effectively delivering the results of our focus on evidence, partners and capacity development to achieve the policy changes that support sustainability. We just need to do it at scale, and for this, we need to reach beyond our comfort zone: to develop new capacities outside of research; to engage heavily with different think tanks, the private sector and additional government ministries; to maintain our crucial civil society relationships; and to coordinate and convene all actors to consider science-based options while making decisions.

We need to break the silo mentality and focus beyond our traditional environment partners. Engage ministries of finance and trade, for example, and showcase where science and policy lead to real economic results for today and the future. We need to stop preaching to the converted, and divert our energy and resources to more strategic partners that directly influence change. If we fail to persuade our leaders and communities that it’s not about pure economic growth, that it’s about sustainable pathways instead, no amount of good work will change the current pattern of trade wars, cyber wars and tank wars. We can avoid this crisis-management habit and transform the current economic and political systems into the sustainable systems we need – systems that conserve the planet’s natural capital, support the spiritual and cultural values of our environment, and enhance the wellness of all people with a gendered and inclusive focus. We can accomplish these transformations if we have the courage to think more outside of the tank.

Written by

Niall O’Connor

Centre Director

SEI Asia

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