THE UNSUSTAINABLE RHETORIC OF DEVELOPMENT - RIO+20 = BEIJING+15 (1)

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11 december 2012

By Arthur Mitzman

The UN’ s Rio + 20 Conference of June 2012 was expected to celebrate environmental progress since 1992, when the UN held its landmark Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. At Rio ’92, environmental awareness of the necessary limits to growth was still on the upward trajectory that began with the Club of Rome report of 1972. Concern about the harmful effects of industrial growth, especially about the greenhouse gases that scientists knew to be threatening to overheat the earth’s atmosphere, led at the Rio “Earth Summit” of ’92 to the creation of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and five years later to the Kyoto Protocol.

Curiously, however, the final documents of Rio ’92 said very little about climate change. The reason for such negligence was that a rhetoric of market-based material improvement, indifferent or hostile to environmental matters, had since the ‘eighties become dominant in the UK and the US.1 Postulating unfettered economic growth. privatization of public goods and unhindered global capital movements, this “neoliberal” doctrine spread over the planet in the ‘nineties, even becoming de facto dogma in the People’s Republic of China. It was in the interest of the political and corporate leaders at the helms of world powers to intensify the carbon-based industrial growth that seemed to justify their policies, not to slow it down through a massive conversion to renewable energy required by what they saw as dubious green theories about the climate.

Rio + 20 received considerably less attention than Rio ’92 and was broadly viewed by the NGOs present as a failure. Covering up that failure, however, was an adroit hijacking of environmentalist rhetoric. In the last two decades, economic forces and programs East and West have been using the concepts of poverty eradication and sustainable development as a greenwash to sanction a carbon-based industrial growth which, by its climate-altering effects, only exacerbates the problems of the poor. This article explores one example of this hijacking by a close examination of the rhetoric and context of Rio +20.

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Just before the U.S. elections in November, “Frankenstorm Sandy”, wrecking New York and New Jersey, joined a series of natural disasters that scientists said could well have been the result of global warming. A few months earlier, while crops in the U.S. mid-west withered through the summer of 2012 in the worst drought in six decades, threatening higher food prices world-wide,2 disastrous effects of last summer’s climate-related extreme weather were being felt elsewhere on the planet – above all by the poorest in Asia. Prolonged temperatures above 40°C caused drought in India’s fields and power outages in its cities; floods caused by torrential rains tormented Thailand, China, Japan and the Philippines. The Philippine sociologist Walden Bello, who recounts this ongoing catastrophe in a recent article, looks to political “weapons for the weak” to give poor countries a chance to protect themselves against the failure of the powerful to prevent global warming, a failure he attributes both to the developed world (especially the United States) and to the most rapidly growing part of the developing world – China.3

The latter, now the world’s greatest emitter of CO2, has refused to commit itself to absolute emissions reductions, arguing both its right to pollute the atmosphere under the Kyoto commitment of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, and the much greater responsibility of the developed world for the greenhouse gases threatening the future. The former (the U.S.), with a climate-skeptical Republican Party and a powerful carbon lobby intimidating the Democrats,4 has taken what Bello calls a “maddeningly nonchalant attitude”, evidenced by the recent statement of its top climate official, Todd Stern, that the 2 degree warming limit agreed to at Copenhagen, should be abandoned as impractical.5

Meanwhile, the poor of Asia lose homes, livelihoods and lives as the juggernaut of climate change sweeps them into the waters and decimates their food supply.

Under these circumstances, the closing document of the most recent UN environment summit, Rio + 20, which focused on “eradicating poverty… [as] an indispensable requirement for sustainable development”, while failing to address the problem of climate change. was a piece of hypocrisy that shocked even the hardened environmental campaigners present. Greenpeace called it “a failure of epic proportions”; Friends of the Earth: “Rio without the principles”; Oxfam: “Rio will go down as the hoax summit”; The Union of Concerned Scientists: “Rio Declaration is not ‘The future we want’”; WWF: “Rio+20 Negotiating text is colossal failure of leadership and vision”; George Monbiot said, “After Rio, we know. Governments have given up on the planet”6

The outcome of the June 2012 Conference was so disappointing that Wael Hmaidan (Director of Climate Action Network-International), speaking on behalf of the NGOs at the conference, demanded (in vain) that the words “with the full participation of civil society” be removed from the document’s first sentence.7

Hmaidan stressed that the Conference’s final document, The Future We Want contained no recognition of carbon emission tipping points, no mention, much less denunciation, of the 100s of billions in carbon subsidies supporting business as usual (against which a petition signed by a million persons was submitted to the conference), at a time when governments claim they have no funds for “sustainable development” because of the crisis. Indeed, in the nearly two thousand word section on oceans, climate change is alluded to only in passing as impacting “marine and coastal ecosystems and resources,” (p.31), but not in relation to the adjacent problems of ocean acidification and sea-level rise.

To understand why The Future We Want was such a monumental disappointment, I will argue here, on the basis of terminological shifts and historical context that “sustainable development” has become the velvet glove covering the mailed fist of neoliberal globalization and “growth”.,

The UN on Environment, Sustainability and Climate Change in 1972, 1987, 1992 and 2012

There are three statements that serve as benchmarks for Rio+20: The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment of 1972, the Brundtland report of 1987, Our Common Future, and of course, the predecessor Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992. There is a fourth document in the background of official discussions of sustainability: the 1972 Report to the Club of Rome: The Limits to Growth, which, in the light of growing concerns by ecologists, first posed in a systematic way the incompatibility between prevailing economic trends toward exponential growth and the finite resources of planet earth. But, while highly important as a background influence on all subsequent discourse on sustainability, The Limits to Growth was not, as were the documents reviewed here, a UN document.

Comparison of the three earlier UN declarations or reports with The Future We Want is all the more plausible since the 1992 document, “reaffirms” the 1972 Declaration, and in the “overview” of the simultaneously issued prospectus for the 21st century, “Agenda 21”, specifies the Brundtland Report as the point of origin of that 700 page document. Rio +20 “reaffirms” the 1992 document but curiously, among the twenty-odd acknowledgements and reaffirmations of earlier international environmental statements that fill page 3 of “The World We Want,” fails to mention the Brundtland Report.

The four documents are of unequal size.
· The 1972 “Declaration” is just four pages with 2194 words.
· The Brundtland Report of 1987, generally considered the starting point for serious discussion of “sustainable development” 8 , is about 60 times the size of its predecessor, running to 247 pages with about 138,000 words.9
· The 1992 Rio “Declaration”, including the 13-page overview of Agenda 21, is 18 pages and 6,717 words: about three times longer that its 1972 predecessor. but only a twentieth the size of the Brundtland Report.
· Rio + 20, with its 53 pages and nearly 24,642 words, is almost four times longer than Rio ’92.

Nonetheless, within the “declarations” of 1992 and 2012, it is primarily the first parts – respectively a third and a quarter of each document – which are of central importance.10 In the 2012 document, parts I-III (p.1-13) correspond roughly to the proclamation of 27 principles of the first five pages of the 1992 “Declaration”.

None of the three earlier documents emphasized climate change. This is more easily understandable in 1972, when there was little scientific understanding of the phenomenon, than in 1987 or 1992. The omission is particularly surprising in 1992, since the Rio Climate Summit did produce the UN Founding Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but no doubt the stubborn opposition of the then U.S. government, which viewed restricting oil consumption a threat to the American way of life. (not to mention the sullen hostility of oil-rich Saudi Arabia), profoundly influenced the content of the final document. Despite this lack, the document continued to voice the same concern for the planet and for the squandering of its resources as the 1972 declaration.

Perhaps a sign of the ongoing ideological shift, the 1992 declaration showed a decline in concern for the climate compared with 1987, when the authors of Our Common Future repeatedly referred to the menace of climate change in the pages of Chapter 7 that dealt with energy. They warned of the danger of greenhouse gases and offered predictions of sea level rise and temperature increase under business-as-usual that were not very far from the IPCC estimates in its 2007 report.11 In that chapter, basing themselves on a gathering of scientists from 29 countries under UNEP auspices at Villach, Austria, in 1985, they wrote that the participants “concluded that climate change must be considered a 'plausible and serious probability”.(par.20) Moreover,

“They estimated that if present trends continue, the combined concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would be equivalent to a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels, possibly as early as the 2030s, and could lead to a rise in global mean temperatures 'greater than any in man's history'. Current modelling studies and 'experiments' show a rise in globally averaged surface temperatures, for an effective CO2 doubling, of somewhere between 1.5°C and 4.5° (par 21)

“An important concern is that a global temperature rise of 1.5-4.5°C, with perhaps a two to three times greater warming at the poles, would lead to a sea level rise of 25-140 centimetres. A rise in the upper part of this range would inundate low-lying coastal cities and agricultural areas, and many countries could expect their economic, social, and political structures to be severely disrupted. It would also slow the 'atmospheric heat engine', which is driven by the differences between equatorial and polar temperatures, thus influencing rainfall regimes. Experts believe that crop and forest boundaries will move to higher latitudes; the effects of warmer oceans on marine ecosystems or fisheries and food chains are also virtually unknown. (par.22)

“There is no way to prove that any of this will happen until it actually occurs. The key question is: How much certainty should governments require before agreeing to take action? If they wait until significant climate change is demonstrated, it may be too late for any countermeasures to be effective against the inertia by then stored in this massive global system. The very long time lags involved in negotiating international agreement on complex issues involving all nations have led some experts to conclude that it is already late.(par.23)”


The Brundtland Report is replete with warnings about the environmental dangers of uncontrolled development – hence the great emphasis on sustainability. But as Judith Shapiro, Professor of Global Environmental Politics at American University put it, “sustainable development”, which the Brundtland Report articulated, “is commonly defined as meeting the needs of present generations without endangering the ability of future generations to do the same.”12 In that context, there would seem to be no other challenge to “the ability of future generations” to meet their needs as important as climate change. How do the subsequent “declarations” deal with it?

For the reasons mentioned, five years after Our Common Future, the much shorter 1992 Rio Declaration, while focused on earth ecosystems, had relatively little to say about climate change. It was mentioned just twice, both times only in the supplementary overview of Agenda 21, and mainly in terms of the need for more scientific studies of its impact. Nonetheless, if Rio ‘92’s emphasis on the earth as an ecosystem were to be replicated and brought up to date today, one would expect that the central issue would indeed be climate change. In fact, when former U.S. Democratic candidate for the Presidency John Kerry made a lengthy statement on the Senate floor detailing his expectations for Rio+20 just before its inception, he titled it “On Eve of Rio+20, An Honest Assessment of Climate Change Challenge”13 .

That assessment is not altogether absent from The Future We Want, but it is carefully hidden there. Climate change is dealt with just once, cursorily if significantly, in parts I-III, and a bit more extensively later on. Parts IV-VI deal more with the nitty gritty of implementation through institutions and particular areas of concern – including climate change.

Thus, global warming is highlighted twice in Rio+20, and mentioned in passing in the thematic sections on food security, energy, sustainable cities, oceans and seas, small island states, desertification and mountains. Both of the main references exude urgency and danger, but they tend to get lost in the surrounding verbiage – a bit like flares signaling an emergency set off in the midst of a fireworks display.

The first time is on page 5, where it is more likely to be read (par.25). The authors admit “that climate change is a cross-cutting and persistent crisis and express [their] concern that the scale and gravity of the negative impacts of climate change affect all countries and undermine the ability of all countries, in particular, developing countries, to achieve sustainable development and the Millennium Development Goals and threaten the viability and survival of nation” and they emphasize “that combating climate change requires urgent and ambitious action, in accordance with the principles and provisions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” Note the focus on sustainable development, the leitmotif of the document, and the casual passing of the buck to the UNFCCC for “principles and provisions”.

The second time, in the latter part of the document, climate change is dealt with more extensively, with a subheading of its own and three paragraphs (190,191 and 192). This is in chapter V, “Framework for action and follow-up”, under sub-heading A: “Thematic areas and cross-sectoral issues.” The “thematic” items surrounding “climate change” are by far the largest section of this 53 page document: 25 pages.

As a significant thematic issue, “climate change” thus follows after 16 pages of presumably more important items: “Poverty eradication”, “Food security and nutrition and sustainable agriculture” (two full pages), “Water and sanitation”, “Energy”, “Sustainable tourism”, “Sustainable transport”, “Sustainable cities and human settlements”, “Health and population”, “Promoting full and productive employment, decent work for all and social protection”, “Oceans and seas” (3.5pages), “Small island developing States”, “Least developed countries” (4 lines), “Landlocked developing countries” (9 lines), “Africa”, “Regional efforts”, and “Disaster risk reduction”. The 33 lines on climate change are then followed by “Forests,” “Biodiversity”, “Desertification, land degradation and drought”, “Mountains”, “Chemicals and waste”, “Sustainable consumption and production”, “Mining”, “Education”, and “Gender equality and the empowerment of women”.

Those are the fireworks. The emergency flare on climate change, vainly competing with them for attention, expresses, in par. 190, “profound alarm that emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise globally”, and deep concern “that all countries, particularly developing countries, are vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, and are already experiencing increased impacts, including persistent drought and extreme weather events, sea-level rise, coastal erosion and ocean acidification, further threatening food security and efforts to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development.” Consequently, the authors “emphasize that adaptation to climate change represents an immediate and urgent global priority.” N.b.: “adaptation to”, not “mitigation of”.

The next paragraph (191) is primarily one of admonition, warning “all countries” to respond to the situation (which the authors here prudently refrain from calling a “crisis”) so as to “protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” This phraseology of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, taken over from the largely inoperative Kyoto protocol, was what had for well over a decade permitted the People’s Republic of China, as a self-declared developing country, to claim exemption from any internationally agreed limit on the CO2 emissions from its largely coal-based energy plants, while the United States Senate, in an unending pas de deux with the People’s Republic, refused to consider a climate treaty as long as China would not be bound by it. The following sentence is the closest this document comes to acknowledging the seriousness of global warming:

We note with grave concern the significant gap between the aggregate effect of mitigation pledges by parties in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2° C, or 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels.

That’s it. The rest of this brief section discusses funding, and then says all countries should “fully implement their commitments” under the (impotent) UNFCCC, the (still-born) Kyoto protocol and the (quite paralyzed) Durban conference of November-December 2011. The most frightening phrase is the pledge to “build on the progress achieved” at the latter.

Climate change, as a generalized threat to the human environment, could have been used to illuminate nearly all of the other twenty five themes covered.14 Instead, while mentioned in passing in seven of these topics, it became hardly more visible than a needle in a haystack. The neglect of the central environmental issue of this century is as unforgivable as it is comprehensible.

For Rio+20 was not, as was Rio ’92, about the preservation of the earth as an ecosystem on whose stability humankind depends.15 It was about the preservation of the economic status quo, currently being shaken by financial crises, stagnant GDPs, and unemployment. This could not openly be admitted at Rio+20, so the accent on environment that had earlier been so pronounced was shifted to “sustainable development”.

For the continuation of this essay and the endnotes, click here


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