The Sword of Damocles

Why Rio+20 will not solve the environmental challenges the international community is facing and why the Green Economy is not the solution.

We are currently living in a civilization that, as far as we can determine future risk, looks unsustainable” (Giddens 2010, p. 10). A look at the news confirms this: islands are disappearing, monsoon patterns are changing and deserts are growing. Pandora’s box has been opened. Solutions to this energy-environment conundrum exist. But hydropower-dams, biofuels and nuclear energy bring, according to my view, more harm than good. What we need are political solutions which accept and act upon the following: “global warming is a problem unlike any other both because of its scale and because it is mainly about the future”. If you ask for political action on these issues right now, chances are you will be directed towards the Rio+20 conference taking place from June 20th – 22nd.

Historical significance

Environmental summits like the COP 17 in Durban don’t shed a very positive light on environmental governance. Nevertheless, the hopes are up for Rio because of the events’ historical background. Twenty years ago, Rio de Janeiro was the location where the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – later known as the Earth Summit – was held. Five years before the conference the Brundtland Report had introduced the notion of sustainability, which gained momentum during the Rio conference. The Agenda 21 drafted at the summit presented itself as a guideline to sustainable development and alternatives to fossil fuels. For the first time, biological diversity and the climate were on political and public agenda. The Earth Summit also mainstreamed the idea of the precautionary principle and paved the way for the Kyoto Protocol. What about this year’s meeting, will it be a similar turning-point?

What we can expect

Given the size and importance of this meeting, more high-ranked politicians will travel to Rio than to the COPs in Copenhagen or Durban; including many heads of states. The agenda mirrors the direction the UN wants to take to tackle climate change. The focus of the Rio+20 summit is on sustainable development but more clearly it is devised to strengthen the green economy. It will boost green energy and hopefully the sharing of green technologies between the global north and the global south.

The second aim of the summit is to draw an institutional framework for the fight against climate change. We can expect that the event will end with the drafting of a plan and the establishment of aspirational targets – similarly to the Agenda 21. In short, the best thing the Summit can do is to remind us of the Damocles’ sword above our heads.

What we should not expect

I believe we should not expect Rio+20 to resolve the environmental problems we are facing today – simply because it does not address these problems. “Perhaps the greatest mistake [is] to assume that major progress on human development and environmental conservation could be achieved from within an economic system that, at best, designed in neither” (Jenkins & Simms 2012, p. 4). Rio+20 will not address how globalization and economy – green or not – are the main reason for climate change and environmental degradation. “Economic growth elevates emissions; what is the point of making a fetish of growth if in some large part it diminishes rather than promotes welfare?” (Giddens 2010, p. 9).

If we look at the history of the event, I will argue, disappointment seems likely. In 2002 the World Summit in Johannesburg was held to strengthen the goals of the Agenda 21. The event “cost £35m and was the biggest international convention ever held” (Oliver & Simon 2002). The opinions on the event are diverging: “governments and business have declared the meeting a success, while charities lined up to declare it the worst political sell-out in decades.” Similar are the outcomes of the Bali conference in 2007.

When looking at the main problem of climate change we can refer to the ‘Gidden’s paradox’. “It states that since the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life … many will sit on their hands and do nothing of a concrete nature about them. Yet waiting until they become visible and acute before being stirred to serious action will … be too late” (Giddens 2010, p. 2). Are we ever going to see a political solution to environmental problems? Only if we reinvent politics, I believe.

The problem with the green economy

If the green economy gains momentum with or without the help of the Rio Summit, we will not experience any shift of paradigm. Yet, questioning the classic growth model is central to understanding the interaction between humans and the planet. A starting point was given 40 years ago when Donella Meadows published ‛The Limits to Growth’. Their simulations show that humans have immense impact on the Earth. In their book they argue that with more population growth and increasing use of resources the Earth system will eventually collapse. Their theory is still upheld today.

Some people believe that our Earth is “resourceful” and that we must not worry about these resources coming to an end. Julian Simon and his followers do not believe that we must find solutions for climate change. I believe, however, that their cornucopian faith in the market is dangerous. It can and will lead to even more cases of the commodification of the commons like air and water.

The green economy, too, wants more involvement of the private economy in solving environmental problems. Do we forget that in the corporate structure there is still no space for human rights and environmental protection? Furthermore, the market rationale has not yet found a working solution for the problem of negative externalities. Leaving it all to the market means missing out on solutions which might even work, such as the Robin Hood Tax. Green has already become a new business. The green economy has mainly caused a “proliferation of ‘greenwash’ initiatives, which continue to put profit before people and planet” (Day 2012).

Alternative solutions

The green parties in the world are divided upon supporting the new “green revolution” or not. Giddens believes that green cannot simply be the new red but that it has to go beyond left and right. However, the perception of how to combat the upcoming climate crisis still seems to be following these party lines. Green parties with a more liberal view are strong supporters of greening the economy. Others are more critical. Jill Stein, green presidential candidate in the United States offers a green new deal which would include “community-based, living-wage, full-time jobs … the spectrum of jobs that make communities sustainable – clean manufacturing, local organic agriculture, public transportation, energy-efficient as well as active transportation, and of course clean renewable energy, conservation, weatherization, efficiency” (Hanscom 2012).

That approach is closer to what the Wold Social Forum has put together as issues to be discussed in Rio. Since the official agenda looks different, NGOs and social movements – basically the global and local public sphere – will have their own summit: the people’s summit. The Forum for a New World Governance (2012) puts forward the following topics to be discussed at the People’s Summit: ethical and philosophical foundations for biocivilization, fair and sustainable economy, a shift in paradigm and a fair and democratic architecture of power. People seem to realize what politicians have not: it is not only about the environment, there is also a crisis to overcome.

Environmental regimes have only in a few cases managed to successfully change both policies and attitudes. The most well-known case is the Montreal Protocol for the protection of the Ozone Layer. Nevertheless, the time of empty words might be over. The supreme court of Brazil “has launched a new initiative to promote role of law in advancing sustainable development known as the World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Stability” (Rizvi 2012). The congress will try to elaborate mechanisms to enforce environmental treaties. Also NGOs are voicing their concern about the upcoming summits and the likelihood of lacking commitment by leading countries.

Where to go from here

The biggest success of the Earth Summit in 1992 was the spreading of the environmental debate: putting “green” on the agenda. That is where it has remained ever since. What is much harder is the actual implementation. “At present we have no politics of climate change” (Giddens 2010, p. 4). Bali and Johannesburg have failed to do so and Rio might go down the same lane. “The Rio+20 process risks being undermined by vested interests and powerful governments“ (Rizvi 2012).

On the official Rio+20 homepage you can follow the countdown to the “future we want”. But this seems to be representing the corporate world rather than the seven billion people living on the planet today. Luckily, they get a voice at the People’s Summit. There the motto is is to “re-invent the world”. A future in which the environmental doom is avoided requires a redefinition of globalization and the way we live. It is not enough to make things greener if the system remains the same: leaving no room for the environment as an entity worth of protection but only as a site of exploitation. It is time to think outside the neoliberal box.

This is text was submitted as an opinion piece to the lecture on “Globalization and Development” at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

Picture courtesy by th3ph17, thanks!


One thought on “The Sword of Damocles

  1. Pingback: What do You Want from Rio? | Kosmos 9

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