Flying Down to Rio: Rethinking Global Public Policy

Was the UN’s Rio+20 Earth Summit another lost opportunity for policymakers to do something productive about the global environment?

July 10, 2012

Was the UN's Rio+20 Earth Summit another lost opportunity for policymakers to do something productive about the global environment?

Twenty years ago, in June 1992, I had the privilege of attending the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Debate hung heavy in the air. A sense of occasion, a hope for our common future, the future of humanity and its relationship to mother earth were on offer.

Environmental activists lobbied, debated and generally harangued governments to do better. The World Bank and its Global Environment Facility, where I then worked, were particular targets of attack: We needed to change and, in no small measure as a result of that meeting, we did.

The Global Environment Facility, the financing facility to underwrite the globally negotiated environmental conventions, offered great hope. It was equipped with funds to take action and provided a new form of governance that appeared to build bridges between the United Nations and the Breton Woods institutions.

The business sector was notable in its absence, save for the pioneering leadership of Stephan Schmidheiny and his World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which even then was making the case for the private sector and the role it must play in contributing to sustainability. They were heady times: a time for reflection, optimism and change.

Fast forward twenty years and one can only be in despair at the intergovernmental process we have just witnessed. A turgid text under the hopeful title of The Future We Want that includes almost 300 paragraphs covering everything and offering nothing.

It “recognizes,” “reaffirms,” “recalls,” “acknowledges,” “reiterates,” “underscores,” “urges,” “stresses,” “highlights” and “invites” throughout the text. A carefully crafted text set out in polite and diplomatic terms that “acknowledges, reiterates and reaffirms” the description of a diplomat: someone who thinks twice before saying nothing!

It makes for heartbreaking reading. By some accounts, over 40,000 negotiators and experts were assembled to review the progress of humanity in an increasingly stressed and fragile world. Yet all they managed to produce was a paper and action plan of such lightness and vagueness that astonishes, even if it hardly surprises.

Is there a better way? Those operating outside of government and diplomatic circles seem more concerned, more clued in and more willing to take action. Bottom-up efforts are underway in cities and local municipalities demonstrate concern and a willingness to take action. Rural communities are beginning to stir, concerned about the erosion of natural capital in their midst.

Dramatic changes in weather patterns are causing a wake-up call for many concerned about flooding, drought and the destruction of their homes and livelihoods. Scholars from all disciplines are becoming engaged in a debate about our common future.

Likewise, students are beginning to demand new thinking and new teaching about the ways of the world. Young people are now more connected and more concerned about their own future than at any time in recent history. The unemployed and the very large number of the soon to be unemployed represent a powerful voice for major change to our economic systems.

Decent people displaced from their homes by a cruel and one-sided banking system suddenly have cause to better understand how our global financial system mis-operates. The outrageous bonus culture of the financial sector is raising hackles even among those quietly in favor of a strong capitalist financial system.

Concerned citizens are demanding more information and forming new networks and reengaging in old ones such as the Club of Rome, whose 40-year old study The Limits to Growth suddenly seems to have greater resonance today than ever before.

This suggests that new networks of concerned, interested and committed activists and intellectuals could make a difference. Jean Francois Rischard, a former colleague of mine at the World Bank, has long made the case that networks of committed and knowledgeable individuals and organizations could combine to form powerful alliances for change.

Once organized, coalition building amongst such groups could provide powerful impetus for constructive change. Ideas exchanged, debated and then adopted can be dispersed to produce platforms for change. Relying on periodic mass gatherings of diplomats is out of touch with current reality.

But advocacy and interest groups must also change. They must dispense with their strong tendency to perceive global issues solely within their own specialized interests. They also must recognize that the future of our common humanity depends upon how well we deal with the underlying systemic causes that have driven us to where we are today.

This means rethinking our present-day values and value systems; our economic models that produce uneconomic, inequitable and wrong growth in the name of wealth creation; our financial systems that trade on greed, avarice and misery; and our global governance systems that are steeped in elitism, patronage, opaqueness and myopia.

The vagueness and political correctness of “the green economy” must be replaced with more concrete blueprints for a new economy based on real and urgent change in our economic policies. The same applies to our valuation of — and investment in — natural, social and human capital.

We also need an overhaul of our financial and banking services to make them fit for purpose as servant, not master, of our economy. New governance arrangements must be introduced that are agile, responsive, transparent, inclusive and focused on action.

We must ask whether the pious hope that color coding growth to a shade of green will magically produce real prosperity and more jobs. We need to change course and we need to change with firmness and speed.

This is the challenge. New metrics are discussed at various points in the Rio+20 text. One that does not appear is the quality and quantity of global public policy per unit of greenhouse gases expended.

In that regard, the negotiators should be ashamed. The funds spent on many months of preparation and the ultimate green party in Rio cannot and never will be justified by the tepid outcomes and pious hopes expressed in The Future We Want.

I remain optimistic that we will reshape and remake our world a better place for all but not through events such as Rio+20. People matter — and it is their deep interests in their children’s future that will ultimately be transformative, not those who negotiate our future with an eye on what each government can get away with. We deserve better.

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Takeaways

The Summit's result was a turgid text of almost 300 paragraphs that covers everything and offers nothing.

Advocacy and interest groups must dispense with their strong tendency to perceive global issues solely within their own specialized interests.

The vagueness and political correctness of "the green economy" must be replaced with more concrete blueprints for a new economy based on real and urgent change.

I remain optimistic that we will reshape and remake our world a better place for all but not through events such as Rio+20.