World Resources Institute President Andrew Steer speaks at Washington’s Nation Press Club. Photo by: WRI / CC BY-NC-SA

This is a pivotal year for climate change. Some of those advocating for carbon emissions cuts are drawing inspiration from a surprising source: legalization of gay marriage in the United States.

“History suggests things happen more quickly and unexpectedly than many predict,” said World Resources Institute President Andrew Steer at Washington’s National Press Club last week.

“Things often take a long time to get going; when they get going it happens very rapidly,” he said, adding: “Just look at issues like gay marriage.”

Same-sex marriages are now recognized by the federal government and legal in 36 U.S. states, after historic rulings by the Supreme Court in 2013 triggered policy changes at the state level.

We’ve made some progress addressing climate change since the creation of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, Steer said, even though the MDGs included only a “half-hearted” goal on environment.

MDG 7 calls for the “significant” slowdown in biodiversity loss and for policymakers to aim for sustainable development.

Steer graded the MDGs a B+ in delivering positive changes to development overall, but said progress on environmental sustainability has been the weakest because the goals lacked specific targets or a clear division of responsibilities.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s synthesis of ideas for the post-2015 development agenda, released last month, puts sustainability at the heart of cross-cutting issues like energy, cities, growth and economics, not as an isolated goal of its own — an encouraging sign, said the WRI chief, who noted that the emerging sustainable development goals have a “very important role” to play in carrying over 2014’s momentum — created in part by two high-profile summits in New York and Lima — into concrete commitments on emissions cuts and the price of carbon at this year’s climate talks in Paris.

There are plenty of challenges the SDGs could focus on. Water scarcity and mismanagement remain a problem throughout the world. Some regions have seen the worst droughts in hundreds of years. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise; the “elephant” in the room, Steer said, is the emissions “lock-in” due to existing power plants.

Yet at the same time, climate issues have become more universally recognized priorities, both for developing and developed countries, and new approaches to finance have emerged that could prove fruitful. The world appears less polarized between rich and poor countries as more countries shows interest in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The proof, Steer suggested, will be in the proverbial pudding. Follow-through on reform and funding pledges will be key, as well as mechanisms to ensure accountability.

Will sustainable development policy spread as swiftly as the legalization of gay marriage has in the United States in recent years?

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Claire Luke

    Claire is a journalist passionate about all things development, with a particular interest in labor, having worked previously for the Indonesia-based International Labor Organization. She has experience reporting in Cambodia, Nicaragua and Burma, and is happy to be immersed in the action of D.C. Claire is a master's candidate in development economics at the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs and received her bachelor's degree in political philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross.