New Internationalist

Rio+20 Earth Summit – time to change the narrative

What we need at the June meeting is action – not voluntary pledges and empty goals. Phil England looks ahead.  

We’re living through a particularly ugly period in world history. As Naomi Klein has lain out very clearly in Shock Doctrine and subsequently, in late stage capitalism deregulated corporations and financers don’t just seek to maximize profit at the expense of both people and the planet, they actively exploit disaster.

We can see it in the way the partial collapse of the financial system has been used to force national economies to march even faster to the neoliberal drum beat – with cuts in public expenditure and public services opening the way for private investors and corporations to profit from previously off-limits services such as healthcare and policing.

And we can see it in the way that Klein’s ‘disaster capitalism’ wants to cash in on the environmental crisis. The same market approach – pushed by the likes of BP and the investment banks – that has failed to solve the problem of climate change is now being pushed as the solution to deforestation and the escalating destruction of the natural world. In UN conference-speak, the privatization of the atmosphere is known as carbon trading, the privatization of the world’s forests is known as REDD and the privatization of everything else known as ‘payment for ecosystem services’.

Coming up very quickly on the event horizon is something laden with tremendous symbolism. The Rio+20 Earth Summit in June can’t fail to stand first and foremost as a testimony to the failure of national governments – captured by corporate interests – to address the environmental problems that prompted the first Earth Summit 20 years ago. Climate-changing greenhouse gases are rising at unprecedented, unforeseen rates and so are rates of biodiversity loss.

The draft declaration for the conference itself recognizes this failure. ‘Unsustainable development has increased the stress on earth’s limited natural resources, and on the carrying capacity of ecosystems,’ it says. ‘Food insecurity, climate change and biodiversity loss have adversely affected developmental gains. We are deeply concerned that around 1.4 billion people still live in extreme poverty and one sixth of the world’s population is undernourished, pandemics are omnipresent threats.’

The whole thing is such an embarrassment to the global community that it’s been reduced to a three-day event where heads of government such as our own David Cameron aren’t even expected to turn up.  The draft declaration that world ‘leaders’ are being asked to sign up to is just 20 pages long and has virtually nothing of any substance in it.

This ‘Zero Draft’ as it is called, was summed up as a statement of ‘Zero Ambition’ by the newsletter of the NGOs that are inputting into the Rio+20 process: ‘The whole text breathes only the voluntary approach, which countries can accept or just leave. It is all up to nice and interesting partnerships, good intentions and promoting green consumption. When you read in detail you can find some good ideas, but most are not really new: other indicators, stop harmful subsidies, civil society participation; all said and agreed on a decade or two ago.’

This is the same failed voluntary approach that came out of the original Earth Summit 20 years ago. That Summit produced the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC that has been the basis of the UN climate talks ever since) and the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Rio+20 agenda in its current form has nothing to offer but more of the same failed medicine. The agenda is full of voluntary pledges and empty goals with no means of fulfilling them.

As part of the agenda-drafting process, dozens of civil society groups from around the globe have submitted their ideas and proposals alongside those of national governments. Some of these initiatives have been discussed in the working groups focused on Energy, Equity & Environment and Environment & Economics and we think deserve the serious consideration of Occupy London as a whole.

First is the proposal to recognize planetary boundaries. A heavyweight paper in the scientific journal Nature in 2009 drew together what we know about Earth systems and how far we can push them. The paper identified nine boundaries (more may be identified as our knowledge develops) – three of which we have overshot already (atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, rate of biodiversity loss and nitrogen cycle). A group of public interest lawyers have started a campaign for these to be recognized and respected by international law.

Second is the proposal to make Ecocide the Fifth International Crime Against Peace. This would make CEOs, board members, government ministers and heads of banks personally liable for large-scale damage to ecosystems such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and production of oil from the Canadian tar sands.

Third is the proposal to recognize the rights of nature. This draws on the work of Bolivia – which drafted a proposed Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010 – and also on the philosophical tradition of such thinkers as Thomas Berry and the Wild Law community, who propose that the Earth – rather than humans (and corporations) – should be at the centre of our legal system. This is echoed in the words of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who said ‘the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment’ and progressive thinkers such as Susan George, who has said that inverting our current priorities so that the environment comes first, humans second and the economy third is the great task of our age.

There are other proposals for an International Court for the Environment and an Ombudsman for Future Generations, for example, which we should also consider supporting. And the capture and effective derailment of the UN process by corporate and financial interests is, of course, the other half of the equation that we need to be addressing.

Phil England is a journalist and Occupy London supporter.

Photo: Oxfam's Kate Raworth gets creative at Occupy London, by Antonio Assis.
This blog post first appeared in The Occupied Times. Reproduced with permission of the author.

Look out for the June 2012 issue of New Internationalist, which will focus on Rio+20 and the 10 Worst Climate Greenwashers.

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