Face it, the Rio summit was a failure

Twenty years on, Rio is a shadow of what it represented in 1992. [26 June 2012 | Peter Boyer]

If the aim of last week’s “Rio+20” environment summit was to show the world that a sustainable global economy is a foolish, hopeless dream, then it was a resounding success.

The pity is that more than a few of the world leaders attending may secretly have harboured such thoughts. In hindsight it seems that this colossal meeting (over 50,000 people were in town for the event) was set up to fail.

The official message emerging after the event, titled “The future we want”, was full of the hopeful phrases we were primed to expect. It tells us that valuing the environment is a good and necessary thing. Motherhood is too, so we’re led to believe.

That’s pretty well it. No pledges, no action plan, no financial commitments, no agreement on anything that requires countries and their governments to make more effort or to give up something for the good of the planet.

Don’t bother looking for signs of progress since the celebrated Rio “Earth Summit”, which produced the landmark UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and whose 20th birthday was marked at this year’s meeting. There are none.

While we now know more about the state of the global environment than we did at Rio 1992, we also know more about what today’s governments and institutions are capable of doing about environmental challenges. And the answer, not to put too fine a point on it, is bugger all.

This is perhaps Rio+20’s most enduring contribution to the global debate over what to do about climate change. If we were in any doubt before, we now know that global political processes are failing us.

Sure, Montreal 1987, Rio 1992 and Kyoto 1997 seemed at the time to be successes. But in the 15 years since Kyoto, in which two massive, exhaustive scientific reports confirmed the need for urgent policy responses, nothing of substance has come out the end of the long diplomacy pipeline.

So did someone turn off the pipeline’s tap, or was there nothing to flow through it in the first place?

For many reasons, these are depressing times. Today’s chronic global economic woes were much on the minds of national leaders and officials at Rio, and a key factor in the final communiqué.

If we want to know why support for action to reduce carbon emissions has been waning, we shouldn’t put too much store in public doubt about the validity of greenhouse science, misplaced as that doubt is. We need look no further than growing economic uncertainty.

When countries and peoples feel vulnerable, as they do now, then cooperation and altruism seem to take a back seat. It can be no coincidence that the downturn in public support of action on climate change happened in concert with the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath.

When money is scarce our leaders find it hard to commit to doing anything. The only thing that might shift them is if they see clearly that not making the commitment is a worse choice, but it seems that’s not at all clear to them. The Rio outcome is an all-too-human response to hard times.

Love, hope and other such high states of mind are all very well, but as W.B. Yeats said, they all eventually come down to “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart”. What we come down to at Rio+20 is that frayed, world-weary thing we call human nature.

By chance, as I was pondering this last week a friend sent me a Scientific American article by Martin Nowak, a US biologist and mathematician, about the essential part played in our evolution by the snuggle (not to be confused with the struggle) to survive.

Drawing on the work of evolutionary biologists like J.B.S. Haldane and Richard Dawkins, who found cooperation to be integral to the behaviour of all animals and plants, Nowak applies game theory to the way we cooperate with others.

Nowak’s research found that we help other people to improve our social standing. This reciprocal arrangement combines with our unique language capability to produce rapid cultural evolution — the main reason why our species is so adaptable.

“As the human population expands and the climate changes,” says Nowak, “we will need to harness that adaptability and figure out ways to work together to save the planet and its inhabitants. Given our current environmental track record, our odds of meeting that goal do not look great.”

Nowak cites research findings that people are more mindful of the common good when they get authoritative statements that it’s under threat (such as from human-induced climate change) and when they can see that their actions are observed, such as when electricity bills compare their energy consumption with the average of their community.

Human cooperation is a cyclical thing, says Nowak, with periods of cooperative prosperity inevitably giving way to recessions. “And yet the altruistic spirit always seems to rebuild itself; our moral compasses somehow realign.”

There’s nothing game-changing in this — commonsense tells us that it’s true — but I take heart from Nowak’s well-supported argument that human nature, the nature that demands cooperation as well as competition, will eventually move us to act decisively to cut carbon pollution.

We won’t make that move without an unequivocal message from high authority — a message that crosses party lines as well as regional and national borders — that this is what we must do, together.

The big divide in Rio+20 was an economic one, between developed (so-called) and developing nations, between the likes of Europe, North America and Australia on the one hand and China, India and Brazil on the other.

Closing that gap is the biggest challenge facing politicians and diplomats as we continue to pursue the dream (is that all it is?) of sustainable civilisation.

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