Where to From Rio+20?

Twenty years ago, Australian journalist Lenore Taylor was in Rio for the first Earth Summit.  I was nine years old. I knew – and cared – about environmental problems. But I assumed that by the time I was an adult, the grown-ups would have solved them.

It wasn’t just youthful optimism; I had evidence for my hope. Every politician, no matter what party, talked about leaving a better future for young people. They said they cared about our futures; that they’d do whatever it took to protect us.

After the first Earth Summit, Lenore Taylor’s headline was ‘Actions Must Now Match Words, Says UN Official’. Twenty years later, that headline could easily be recycled. We have not taken the actions that world leaders had waxed so eloquently on back then.

The ‘Captain Planet’ generation grew up hopeful that the world would stop environmental destruction before it was too late. After twenty years of believing that our voices mattered, we become cynical. And after this week, we’re angry.

More than 45,000 participants in Rio+20 are returning to their lives without having witnessed any major change to international environmental law or the rules of the global economy.

Many of us are asking how we got into a situation where Governments are failing to act in the best interests of the majority of their people.

The deal that eventuated from months of negotiations was so watered down that every single press release from civil society shared a common message: this was rubbish.

Governments have been presented with the evidence about what’s happening to our planet. If they have any respect for science, they know how serious it is. This month’s alarming Nature paper, ‘Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere’ is the scientific equivalent of shouting from the rooftops.

And by now, the solutions are just as understood as the problem. We know what’s causing the damage: pollution, carbon dioxide emissions, overfishing, deforestation, overconsumption, overpopulation and a growth-driven global economic system. And if we caused the problem, we have the ability to solve it.

Changing the world’s development model to one that respects planetary boundaries won’t be easy, but it’s not as if we don’t know how to do it.

So if world leaders know what’s wrong, and we have the tools to fix things, what the hell happened in Rio? And Copenhagen, for that matter? And Durban, Cancun, Poznan, Bali and Montreal? Why do these environmental mega-summits keep failing?

The blame doesn’t lie entirely with the government negotiators. Coming out of Rio, there’s a much bigger story to tell than short-sighted leaders.

Halfway through the summit, I snuck into a business lunch. As fate would have it, the table sat down at was populated with representatives of the mining industry. They were from an international peak body for mining companies, and were there for the same reason they attend every international meeting – to lobby.

Chewing their steak, the mining guys told me they were pleased with the negotiations so far. It was the same day that Brazil had presented a new, watered-down text that environment and aid groups had denounced as an ‘epic failure’.

Other business leaders with a more long-term perspective weren’t so happy. In a different side event across the hall from where the lunch was held, a panel of entrepreneurs from clean tech start-ups and eco-innovative companies were speaking at the Rio+social conference. ‘Screw business as usual,’ said one of them, and the audience cheered.

We haven’t moved forward in tackling the challenges of sustainable development and climate change for a simple reason. The people whose lives are at risk from environmental collapse are less politically powerful than the people whose profits are at risk from the solutions. 

Australians know the power polluting industries have and how ruthless they are in using it.  We’ve seen it firsthand. The mining industry alone spent $22 million on its advertising campaign to protect its super profits against the mining tax, helping to topple former prime minister Kevin Rudd in the process.

In the United States, the sums are even bigger. The Centre for Responsive Politics have calculated that individuals and political action committees affiliated with oil and gas companies have donated $238.7 million to candidates and parties since the 1990 election cycle (75 percent of which has gone to Republicans). And according to Greenpeace, there are four full time lobbyists paid by the fossil fuel industry swarming around Capitol Hill for every U.S. congressman or congresswoman.

It’s working. Oil Change International estimates that fossil-fuel companies get $59 back in subsidies for every dollar they spend on donations and lobbying in the States. In Australia, ACF estimates that fossil fuel companies receive $12.1 billion in subsidies and tax breaks.

“In Australia, taxpayers are handing over $4,480 every minute to fossil fuel companies paying for their fuel excise alone,” said the ACF’s Simon O’Connor.

Since the 1992 Earth Summit, global carbon emissions from energy are up 48% and you’d have to be living under a rock not to notice the extreme weather impacts of climate change. In the words of Severn Cullis-Suzuki, “now, we need nothing short of a massive paradigm shift if the human race is to carry forward into the future with dignity.”

She’s right. But paradigm shifts don’t happen on their own. Coming out of Rio, it’s clear that corporate influence is polluting our democracy. It’s become so bad that Governments can’t see clearly through the smog.

We all have a responsibility to change this situation. Past generations made sacrifices for the sake of their children. This is the first generation sarificing their children for the sake of themselves – and most people know in their hearts it can’t end well.

In the wake of Rio, it’s time for ordinary people to speak up. Governments will only aim as high as their citizens demand. You don’t need anything other than what you have to make a difference. You have a voice. Now use it.

About annastarrrose

Author & environmentalist
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9 Responses to Where to From Rio+20?

  1. Jon Dee says:

    Good article Anna – it’s definitely time to speak up on this issue. We need to find a way to get people empowered at the very local level. Once people see their neighbours saving money by saving energy, that’s when we’ll see more movement on the energy efficiency side of things.

    Once we get people understanding and acting on their energy use in their homes and communities, I think we’ll be able to get them to move on demanding that we reduce our emissions from a society wide viewpoint.

  2. Just reading this is depressing. I can only imagine how disappointing experiencing this political impotence first-hand must be. It seems that despite every opportunity to change course, it will take an environmental cataclysm – with suitably devastating consequences – to forcibly check human over-consumption.

    This makes the argument over climate change look like a red herring to keep the wholesale demolition of the biosphere off the agenda.

    Unless humanity evolves a higher consciousness of the global consequences of our behaviour, our fate will be the same as a malignant cancer whose insatiable and unthinking urge to grow dooms both parasite and host.

    Still, gotta have hope!

  3. carlyhammond says:

    Thanks Anna – you’re absolutely right that little will shift unless we become a whole lot louder and find new ways to communicate and engage with all powers that be. Hopefully the one legacy of Rio+20 is a more widespread acknowledgement that our economic model is broken and we need a new, holistic alternative. theother.com.au

  4. Nice piece Anna, and I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion. The problem for segments of the environment movement is coming to terms with the fact that many business people and politicians lie to us about their concerns and priorities. They give us the words we want to hear while delivering the money and the outcomes to the industries they say they want to transition away from. If all we call for is words like sustainability and we confuse ratifying Kyoto with transforming australia then why would politicans take on powerful groups when they can appease us with some kind words?

  5. Maz says:

    The best thing you can do is to go vegan. Then there would be enough to go around for everyone on the planet, not just us cashed up westerners! The only power we have is over our own personal choices. Where consumers and more-so environmentalists choose to spend their dollars speaks volumes.
    Now is as good a time as any to reflect on your values and know the effect of your choices when flexing your consumer muscle. Be aware of where the products you choose come from, how they are made and what they are made out of. Support the businesses who support sustainable production, which is kinder to the environment. Exercise your right to choose and send a clear message that we no longer value those products with high external or ‘real’ costs – costs which are borne by all of us, and future generations.

  6. Great work, as always, Anna. I hate to point it out, but it isn’t the job of Governments to act in the best interests of the people. It is to represent the interests of the people, whether their interests are in their best interest or not.

    This means that getting louder is even more important.

  7. Kate says:

    Brilliiant Anna.

  8. Pingback: Where to From Rio+20? | New Internationalist Australia

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