What has really changed since the first Earth Summit?
The world has changed a good deal since the nations of the world convened the first Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
For one thing, the size of the global economy has increased by 89 percent (from US$28.1 trillion to $53.1 trillion by the end of 2011). This vast increase in the monetary value of goods and services has been accompanied by shifting tides of power as China has risen, Japan fallen, and America, once the global superpower, has succumbed to ideological infighting driven by the warped theologies of the Christian right.
The vast increase in global wealth has had little impact on overall poverty. True, large numbers of people have been lifted out of absolute poverty (which is either $1 or $2 of income per day, depending on who you listen to). But overall, while the rising tide has lifted all boats, it has lifted the yachts of the rich a hell of a lot more than the dugouts of the poor. The bottom line, according to the world’s leading poverty researcher, Branco Milanovic, is that even though incomes increased globally, levels of inequality within countries increased.
So that feeling you had about the rich getting richer and the poor getting (relatively) poorer – it was true!
But for environmentalists who think globally, the big thing that has changed appears to be that innocence and hope has been, if not lost, seriously eroded. Environmentalists converged on Rio 1992 with a sense that determined people armed with scientific data about the real state of the world could persuade politicians to steer the ships of state away from the reefs of ecosystem degradation, and into a more sustainable direction.
Witness the 12 year-old Severn Suzuki’s impassioned plea to world leaders to acknowledge their ignorance and stop their destructive economic policies. OK, it’s not exactly Winston Churchill, but it does reflect a sincere belief that change was needed and that people could make it happen. See it here:
Fast forward to the present day, and the realization that genuine progress has been made on only four out of the 90 most important policy directives to emerge from the original Earth Summit. For the record the four include elimination of ozone-layer depleting chemicals, lead-free gasoline, improved access to clean water, and enhanced research to reduce marine pollution. Limited progress was achieved in 40 goals, including the expansion of protected areas and reducing deforestation. But no progress was detected for mitigating climate change, protecting fish stocks, stemming desertification or reducing drought vulnerability.
And for biodiversity indicators the trends are all down. In reality, we lack the data to specify the true extent of current extinctions, but we can name some of the victims. In the last ten years alone, we have lost the Yantze (Buji) dolphin, Spix’s macaw, the golden toad, Pyrenean ibex, Hawaiian crow, black-faced honey creeper, and the Aloatra grebe. The common factors driving this sad parade of destruction include pollution, habitat loss, species invasions and overhunting. And all the fine words and promises of Rio made exactly no difference to their fate.
So it should come as no surprise that expectations for progress are low at Rio plus 20. The draft agreement brokered by Brazil has been called “greenwash”. Global political leaders, exhausted by years of financial crisis appear to be shooting for mediocrity and falling short.
And really, why would we expect all that much? The last twenty years has seen an avalanche of these international talk fests that have achieved extremely limited progress on a wide variety of global issues, ranging from poverty reduction to controlling the international arms trade. And on climate change, it might be fair to say that we have achieved nothing much at all, since greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than ever.
Why would we expect Rio plus 20 to be any different, when the world’s leaders are focused on reigniting economic growth at any cost. In fact, much the same dynamic may have been at work at the original 1992 Earth Summit. Check out this insider’s view by Elizabeth May, David MacDonald and others on CBC’s “The Current”.
What comes through clearly in this audio segment is that the first Earth Summit was sliding back from its ambitious goals before delegates even arrived. According to May:
“It was clear that some of our highest expectations had fallen away before we even arrived”, and afterwards “..all these ambitions just faded away. Environment ministers were eclipsed by the trade ministers and industry ministers, who thought ‘this is all very nice, but we don’t care about it’ ”.
Canada: a catastrophic fall from grace
Canada was front and centre at the first Earth summit. We had Maurice Strong, as one of the key organizers, Severn Suzuki representing global youth, and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney saved the Convention on Biodiversity. Canadian unions, civil society, women’s and native groups were all represented. As May said: “It was really Canada as a society attending a global convention, and excelling. in fact the opposite of what we have now”.
Our current prime minister Steven Harper, distracted by G20 trade talks, is not even going to attend Rio plus 20. Instead, he is sending environment minister, Peter Kent, a spluttering, barely articulate former journalist whose main role appears to be enunciating mealy-mouthed platitudes to deflect awkward questions. Following our serial spoiler and fossil-of-the-day performances at the last four climate change conferences, we look set to do more of the same at Rio plus 20, blocking attempts to establish a convention on marine biodiversity, and resisting the phasing out of oil and gas subsidies. The Harper government also failed to back calls to recognize access to water as a fundamental human right, and refused to ratify the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
How did we change from global crusader for sustainability to an oil-stained recidivist, allied with some of the least progressive powers on the planet to block progress on environmental issues. It’s a long story that, in fairness to the Tories, began with jean Chretien and the deficit busting of the 1990s. Also, in fairness to the conservatives, the rest of the developed world’s leaders are also bringing low expectation to the table. As David MacDonald, the conservative parliamentary leader at the 1992 Canadian delegation, has said: “There is almost total denial that any of this really matters very much”.
Severn Cullis-Suzuki is back, as impassioned, hopeful, and articulate as ever. But in the face of the stolid opposition of the grey technocrats that rule the international conference circuit, it is unlikely she will achieve much.
And what message does the grumpy professor take home from all this? Namely this: Don’t leave protection of the global environment to politicians, because if you do, you are bound to be disappointed.