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Rio+20: the Earth Summit that wasn't

rio+20 activists

Did you know that there was a big meeting of world leaders and environmental organizations last week in Brazil? It’s OK if you didn’t: judging from the outcomes, neither did most of the participants. Billed as “Rio+20,” a recognition of the monumental Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, this meeting could only come up with a reaffirmation of the goals set at the earlier event. That’s right: three days of meetings involving 100 world leaders and 50,000 participants total could only say “Yes to what we said twenty years ago.”

I’ve been digging through wrap-up articles on the summit, trying to find any sign of progress that came out of it, but the pickings are pretty slim. On some issues, like access to birth control, the summit seemed to take a step backwards. Other wrap-ups note that at least climate and environmental issues aren’t unique in their inability to produce any kind of international consensus. Even the conference’s Secretary-General claimed that his job was “to make everyone equally unhappy.”

This is the third year in a row such meetings have failed to produce anything of substance: similar summits in Copenhagen and Cancun also punted on any substantive statements, and basically agreed to keep meeting. That’s an awful lot of carbon emissions from planes flying into host cities, and all for very little.

So, I have to wonder: has climate change exposed the limitations of our global political system? It’s a challenge that can’t be met with regional efforts, or coalitions made up largely of participants really not contributing much other than their name: major carbon emitters have to cut their emissions, and developing countries have to find long-term means to power their growth other than carbon-based energy sources.  Anything short of that may feel good, but ultimately won’t do much to stave off the crisis. Businesses and local governments can take meaningful steps, but without a substantive plan in place to direct such efforts, they seem patchwork at best.

The concept of a green economy isn’t new; it also isn’t based on pain and sacrifice, but abundance. It is different, though, and perhaps that’s just too much for our leaders. I’d love to hear your ideas for getting a genuine, transformational conversation going – it’s certainly not happening now.

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