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John Podesta: Tackling Climate and Biodiversity Crises in a Post-Pandemic World

John Podesta addresses the fifth session of the U.N. Environment Assembly to address the interconnected planetary threats to our climate, biodiversity, economy, and human security. He discussed the need to act comprehensively, globally, and immediately to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and coastal seas by 2030 and build partnerships with developing countries to increase bilateral assistance, financing, and debt relief, including debt forgiveness.



I want to thank UNEP for the invitation to speak. Excellencies, we’re meeting at a critical juncture. The world is grappling with a confluence of crises right now:

  • The coronavirus pandemic
  • The global economic crisis that resulted
  • The accelerating climate crisis
  • And the nature crisis that threatens with extinction an eighth of planetary species, many within decades

As UNEP’s “Making Peace with Nature” report outlines, these crises are interlinked, and governments, businesses, and civil society must respond with solutions that recognize that. The U.S. will once again play a major role in this regard. President Biden has declared climate change an essential part to his economic policy and to his U.S. foreign policy. He has returned the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement. He has committed to protecting 30 percent of the country’s lands, waters, and oceans by 2030, and he has also announced he will host the Climate Leaders Summit on April 22.

All these steps come at critical moment.

As UNEP’s Executive Director Inger Andersen pointed out, the COVID pandemic was spurred on by extreme natural destruction, which has increased the likelihood of zoonotic diseases spreading to humans.

This, in turn, has heightened our challenge to tackle the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis. A negative turn in any of these crises likely means a negative turn in all of them, and that’s what we’re seeing now.

Our lands are stressed. Our oceans are stressed. Nature is stressed to a breaking point. If we’re going to correct course, we must set biodiversity targets alongside climate targets as part of the global economic recovery, including protecting 30 percent of land and oceans by 2030. We must see these issues as interconnected, where success is only possible if we tackle all of these components concurrently. And the effort must be global. COVID’s reach has shown that anything short of comprehensive international cooperation is insufficient, and the most vulnerable will continue to suffer.

Nevertheless, I see two reasons for optimism.

One: The Sustainable Development Goals provide an equitable, sustainable, and climate-sensitive framework for how governments, the private sector, and civil society can work together to tackle these crises.

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

  • G7 countries are all committed to net zero; as are the majority of G20 countries
  • Corporations, financial institutions, and consumers are all pushing for net zero commitments and nature conservation
  • And young people around the world are using their voices to advocate for equitable and just solutions

To capitalize on this consensus and to build political momentum, the first order of business must be to build back better infrastructure with sustainable goals in mind.

We cannot tackle the climate and nature crises without moving away from polluting infrastructure.

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

Excellencies, in 2021, we need to turn that spirit into actions. Thank you.