What the Failure of Rio 20 Means for the Climate
Expectations were extremely modest for the Rio+20 Earth Summit that ended last week—and the best thing that might be said about the conference is that it managed to clear that very low bar. Despite the presence of more than 50,000 people and about 100 heads of state and government—though not, notably, U.S. President Barack Obama—the summit produced very little of note. The final statement that was negotiated at Rio—titled “The Future We Want”—was 253 paragraphs of affirmations and entreaties that added up to little more than a plea for something better. The Chinese diplomat Sha Zukang, who headed Rio+20 for the U.N., called the statement “an outcome that makes nobody happy,” while environmental NGOs were blunter: “A failure of epic proportions” said Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, adding that the statement itself was “the longest suicide note in history.”
It’s tempting to use the failure of the Rio+20 conference as evidence that international environmental summits and accords are simply unworkable. But it’s hardly only environmental issues that are gridlocked at the global level. Just a few days before Rio, the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries failed to make much progress on either the European financial crisis or the violence in Syria—two problems that are more immediately pressing than climate change, water shortages, endangered species or just about any other big-picture issue that was kicked around in Rio. If the leaders of the world can’t come together to avert what could be the next great global recession or a growing Syrian bloodbath, fixing the infinitely more complex problem of climate change seems all but hopeless.