At Rio+20 environmental summit, is 'catastrophe' inevitable?

Wealthy Western nations are financially exhausted and unwilling to commit to help fund greener development for poorer nations. Will this week's conference in Rio find any solutions?

Felipe Dana/AP
Sugarloaf mountain is silhouetted against the early morning skies as the sun begins to rise in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the host city for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, Monday, June 18, 2012. The Earth summit runs through June 22, with three final days of high-profile talks among some 130 top leaders from nations around the globe.

So what happens if you hold a UN conference on sustainable development, and world leaders make speeches, and sign treaties, and then nothing happens?

This, of course, would be absurd. The problem, says Bill Easterly, a development expert at New York University, is that nothing has happened in the 20 years since the first Rio Earth Summit, in which all the world’s nations gathered and promised to address major environmental problems and then held more environmental summits, and then a few more.

As Mr. Easterly tweeted, “Delegates gather in Rio to commemorate 20 years of nothing happening since a UN Summit where nothing happened.”

The most charitable way to look at the past 20 years of environmental conferences is to see them as the beginning of a global conversation on the common threats of carbon emissions (also known as air pollution) and greater awareness of the dire consequences we all face if nations don’t get serious about developing in a cleaner and environmentally sustainable way.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, “too important to fail,” in an interview with the Guardian. "If we really do not take firm actions, we may be heading towards the end – the end of our future," Mr. Ban said.

At issue is the question of how poorer nations can develop their economies, build factories, create jobs, and create the same sort of wealth that richer nations enjoy without creating all those belching smokestacks and carbon emissions that have put the world in such a precarious position in the first place. Alternative energy sources – such as solar power, bio-fuels, wind-power, and hydroelectric dams – are much more expensive than the fossil fuels that richer nations used to reach their current state of development. Poorer nations argue that richer nations should provide financial support for poorer nations to fund all those cleaner energy projects, but as the BBC’s environment correspondent Richard Black points out, richer nations are making no promises. US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron are not even attending the Rio conference.   

Western leaders do have a lot on their minds these days. Several Western countries are trying to find new and innovative ways to pay off old and unfathomable amounts of debt. Portugal – which owes 400 billion euros, or twice its gross domestic product, to creditors – has recently turned to a former African colony, Angola, for financial assistance. Brazil, the Rio+20 conference host, and another former Portuguese colony, meanwhile, has offered plane tickets, food, and accommodation to any poor nation that can’t afford to send representatives to the Rio+20 conference. And the US, with its massive economy lumbering out of recession, and its political leaders focused on the November presidential and congressional elections, simply isn’t giving Rio+20 its full attention.

As Francis Vorhies, a reporter for Forbes magazine writes, “The elephant in the room, of course, is finance. With the Europeans less willing and able to transfer new and additional resources to developing countries, where is money for any new Rio+20 commitments to come from?”

The lack of attention by Western leaders on Rio+20 has been translated into a lack of commitments to make major environmental policy changes this time around. The Guardian’s reporter Jo Confino notes that the Rio “zero draft” under discussion this week uses the squishy word “encourage” 50 times, but uses the firmer word “must” only three times.

With no promises of support from the richer nations, Chinaon track to become the world’s worst polluter – says that developing countries must take the lead at Rio+20.

Does this mean that the world is “sleep walking to catastrophe,” in that winsome phrase used by Britain’s environmentally sensitive Prince Charles? Perhaps. It would be tempting to see catastrophe as inevitable, to see the Rio+20 as a useless exercise, and to suggest that each nation should simply fend for itself. Good luck, Burkina Faso and Chad.

Sometimes failure itself can be a wakeup call. Environmental activist groups have struggled in recent years to get news organizations to pay attention to warnings that, frankly, have begun to sound like a funeral march. News organizations bear the responsibility of turning hard-to-visualize terminology like “atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations” into simple English, and to foster a constructive discussion on what can be done to slow down if not prevent a catastrophe.

Schools already educate students who are more aware than their parents about environmental issues, and a small percentage of those students go on to get scientific degrees that give them the tools to solve environmental problems. Private companies – whose economic power often dwarfs the economies of several national governments – also have the tools to change the way they do business, by cutting their energy consumption and the emissions from their factories and offices. Consumers can reward those companies who are environmentally responsible by paying more for greener products. Young people, who pollsters tell us are increasingly tuning out politics, can reengage with the system to help change it for the better.

Related: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

Catastrophe is not inevitable, but it will take sustained public pressure, and a few key leaders who see dramatic change as in their national interests. This has happened before. In the 1970s and 1980s, student protests against nuclear weapons seemed like folly, when US and Soviet leaders were at the peak of their rivalry. But in 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement, the first treaty to limit the number of nuclear weapons, during negotiations held in Washington.  

The Soviet Union was exhausted then, and deep in debt. Sometimes debt makes people flexible, and creative. 

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