THE BLOG
01/25/2016 07:54 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

Climate, Community, Collaboration, Connection: Why Measuring Environmental Performance Matters

The first weeks of 2016 have been filled with decline and conflict, from the economy to the environment to global security. At first, the headlines' only common thread appears to be their gravity. Yet, as we think through the challenges, commonality emerges in the solutions that we must work together to build.

On January 23rd, I participated in the launch of the 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. I've been involved with the EPI since its inception, almost two decades ago. The EPI measures national and global protection of ecosystems and human health from environmental harm and draws out trends and highlights data gaps in priority areas including air quality, water management, and climate change.

Now in its 10th iteration, the EPI's global and country-level report card reveals where we're doing well, and where more concerted action is required. This is the EPI's unique contribution: it is not just a ranking but a resource, equipping us all--policymakers, corporate leaders, and citizens--with the objective information to drive change.

My involvement in helping to co-create the index comes not just from my commitment to environmental sustainability but also because I see its relevance to social isolation and connectedness. The challenges presented by a changing climate will affect people's quality of life, and their ability to feel connected to the community where they live. I see resonance in both the challenges and the potential pathways to solutions.

In the report's analysis of 180 countries' performance across nine categories of environmental concern, the verdict was frankly mixed.

On the one hand, government investments in clean drinking water and sewage infrastructure have significantly reduced deaths from waterborne diseases. The number of people who lack access to clean water has been cut nearly in half since 2000. And the world's nations are less than 2 percent away from reaching global targets on biodiversity and habitat protection.

At the same time, more than 3.5 billion people--half the world's population--live in nations with unsafe air quality. In 2014, the world lost more than 2.5 million square kilometers of tree cover--an area larger than Mexico. Even as scientists have linked untreated wastewater to increased child mortality, 23 percent of countries still lack any kind of wastewater treatment.

Measurement matters--to inject objectivity into debates, and to help allocate scarce resources efficiently and effectively; all of which will be essential to reach globally agreed upon targets such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which world leaders adopted on September 25th, 2015. Tools like the EPI can inform data-driven decision-making, and inspire collaboration around best practices--enabling us to move from agreement on the agenda to action and results.

Sustainable solutions require ensuring that every voice is heard, from local and regional governments to marginalized groups such as Indigenous peoples. Environmental challenges, in particular climate change, will not affect everyone equally; tragically, some of those least equipped to respond will be the hardest hit.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, of the 143.9 million people displaced between 2008-2012, the overwhelming majority--83 percent--were driven to flee by climate- and weather-related hazards; and fully 98 percent were in developing countries, underscoring the link between poverty and vulnerability.

For residents of island nations like the Maldives and Marshall Islands, rising sea levels could mean the place they call home literally vanishes.

In Bangladesh, environmental shocks such as flooding and saltwater contamination are driving rural residents out of their communities and into crowded cities like Dhaka--further straining public services already stretched too thin. As Elliott Negin of the Union of Concerned Scientists has written, "Scientists predict [Bangladesh] will lose 17 percent of its land to rising sea levels by 2050, potentially displacing as many as 20 million people."

Similar prognoses could apply to Asia and Africa, where drought and desertification are destroying people's livelihoods and pushing them to seek opportunity elsewhere. And with 2015 the hottest year on record, the numbers of climate refugees and environmental migrants seem destined only to grow.

We need everyone at the table to address these challenges in a spirit of common cause. When it comes to our planet, there is no such thing as "someone else's problem."

The Inuit, for example, living in the vast Arctic regions, are feeling the first and substantial effects of global warming. They are not responsible for climate change, but they see its impact all around them, as sea-ice thins, tundra shrinks, and wildlife patterns shift. Yet, if the Inuit are forced to move, they risk losing more than their homes. They risk losing their sense of identity, as the places in which their traditions, culture, and community are rooted disappear. And that kind of erosion damages not only those immediately affected, but the richness of civilization itself. When any community's identity is destroyed, all of humanity suffers.

There is even more at stake. Scientists have demonstrated how the Arctic serves as a "security blanket" for the globe. As Paul Crowley, director of World Wildlife Fund - Canada's Arctic program recently noted, "Security is best found by keeping the planet stable, and the Arctic plays an incredibly important role in keeping weather patterns, climate, oceans stable and therefore much more secure for the planet."

With good data, we can begin to see the connections between sea-ice and global security; between traditional ways of life and the survival of us all. By holding up a mirror on where we are, the EPI can help inspire policymakers, leaders and citizens in every sector to aim for what could be. Through strategies that engage and equip every individual and every sector, we can begin to build together. And in so doing, we can achieve integrated solutions that address the most complex challenges of our time.

For as my fellow Canadian, the late Marshall McLuhan, memorably said, "There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew." And the only way to protect our planet, and our human family, is if we work together.

The EPI is produced biennially by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and with support from the Samuel Family Foundation and the McCall MacBain Foundation. Full details are available at: http://epi.yale.edu.