Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Rio +20 Earth Summit: Greens Fail to Get The Future They Want

Reason's Science Correspondent sends his fifth dispatch from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.


Rio de Janeiro—"Politicians are spinning this outrageous deal as a victory but in fact it is nothing less than a disaster for the planet," said Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International in a press release. Bassey added, "This is a hollow deal and a gift to corporate polluters that hold U.N. decision-making hostage to further their economic interests."

Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International Executive Director, piled on too, declaring, "Rio+20 has turned into an epic failure. It has failed on equity, failed on ecology and failed on economy."

And Jim Leape, international director general of World Wildlife Fund, protested, "It's pathetic. It's appalling. If this becomes the final text the last year has been a colossal waste of time."

Perhaps as many as 100,000 activists and students joined this sad chorus, participating in a protest march here in Rio to express their anger at the failure of Rio +20 to give them the world they think they want.

What has provoked all of this high dudgeon from these environmentalist ideologues? A document entitled, The Future We Want, which basically is the agreement that government officials from 193 countries are expected to endorse on Friday at the close of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development here in Rio de Janeiro. As someone who has been covering U.N. environmental conferences since the first Rio Earth Summit two decades ago, the fact that the text of a document was completed before the politicians showed up at a United Nations meeting is flabbergastingly unprecedented. This feat was achieved because the Brazilian negotiators mostly eliminated from the text any firm commitments by the nations of the world to do anything.

Economics Nobelist Friedrich Hayek has argued, "The phrase 'social justice' has no meaning because no two people can agree on what it means." It becomes quite apparent that the phrase "sustainable development" also has no real meaning after scanning through the 60 pages of The Future We Want. The document calls for making every product and every activity "sustainable," e.g., energy production, agriculture, raising livestock, fishing, logging, water usage, sanitation, even tourism. But the term itself is never defined.

Consider paragraph 40, which reads: "We call for holistic and integrated approaches to sustainable development which will guide humanity to live in harmony with nature and lead to efforts to restore the health and integrity of the Earth's ecosystem." What can that possibly mean? The Future We Want has no less than 36 such "call fors" all sorts of things. This brings to mind Glendower in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 who tells Hotspur, "I can call spirits from the vasty deep." To which Hotspur replies, "Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?" In the context of this final agreement at the Rio +20 Earth Summit, the Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and WWF clearly know the answer to that.

But one can never be too careful in pruning a United Nations document. I came across three possible thorns hidden in the luxuriant verbiage of The Future We Want. They include launching a process to define a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), revving up the newly created Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and demands to shower more foreign aid from rich countries onto poor countries.

The SDGs would be modeled on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that were adopted in 2000 by the United Nations General Assembly. Among the eight MDGs are promises to eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, and ensure environmental sustainability.

As noted, there is no agreed upon definition of sustainable development. The Future We Want aims to remedy this situation by getting countries to approve in September at the U.N. General Assembly a working group of 30 people to devise a set of SDGs that would be adopted the next year. What might constitute an SDG? An issue brief [PDF] put together by the U.N. for the Rio +20 conference suggests that specific goals might be set with regard to production and consumption patterns, livelihoods, climate, clean energy, biodiversity, water, forests, agriculture, and so forth. Various sustainability indicators would then be devised to measure progress toward the new SDGs similar to the 96 indicators [PDF] currently promoted by the U.N.'s Commission on Sustainable Development. These indicators evaluate trends in poverty, crime, health, education, and population. One problem with this process is that development, much less sustainable development, is being defined largely as a political rather than an economic process. This means that some years down the line, activists are likely to seek to transform mere indicators like a "clean energy" SDG into actual mandates.

The United Nations is now in the process of "operationalizing" the new Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Explicitly modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the IPBES is supposed to do for global biodiversity what the IPCC has done for global climate change. It is not hard to imagine what mischief this might cause.

The Future We Want states that the signatories "recognize that the fulfillment of all ODA [official development assistance] commitments is crucial, including the commitments by many developed countries to achieve the target of 0.7 per cent of GNP for ODA to developing countries by 2015." Getting the rich countries to send them 0.7 percent of their GDPs has long been an aspiration of the governments of poor countries. For example, that goal was agreed to at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development back in 2002. Under that goal, the U.S. contribution would amount to $108 billion under this formula. According to U.N. data, the U.S. has set no timetable for meeting a 0.7 percent commitment and in 2005 spent only 0.22 percent of its GDP on official development assistance.

Although there may be some regulatory thorns lurking in The Future We Want, there are a few roses too. For example, paragraph 26 declares, "States are strongly urged to refrain from promulgating and applying any unilateral economic, financial or trade measures not in accordance with international law and the Charter of the United Nations that impede the full achievement of economic and social development, particularly in developing countries." This amounts to a prohibition of using green regulations or tariffs as excuses for trade protectionism.

In the evening I stopped by the celebration of Sustainia100 at the luxurious beachfront Copacabana Palace Hotel. The event was supposed to feature the former Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he canceled. However, IPCC chair Rajendra K. Pachauri, and the European Union's Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard did show up. As The Guide to Sustainia explains its goal is to set a "new tone in communication about sustainability. Rather than representing a future of sacrifices and restraints, Sustainia shows us how sustainable solutions can contribute to real improvements in people's lives." On the basis of the pre-event cocktail party, Sustainia is inhabited by attractive women sleekly dressed in chic fashions and men in tailored suits. I am very happy to report that in Sustainia champagne and foie gras are still served.

Although the The Future We Want is supposed to be a done deal, there is talk that some countries might try to reopen it so that it can be "strengthened." I will report on that and the disappointed hopes of environmentalists tomorrow.

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).

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  1. disappointed environmentalist mandarins are denouncing it as “outrageous,” “epic failure,” and “pathetic.”

    Their tears are oh, so sweet…

    1. Sadly, they never volunteer to do THEIR part to curb overpopulation.

      1. At least Tony will never reproduce…

    2. Their tears are oh, so sweet…

      And, one hopes, sustainable.

    3. I accidentally tuned to NPR yesterday on my car radio. The hosts were crying in their fair trade green tea. One called the Rio accords “weak” and “pathetic”. The other host agreed they were “weak” but thought “pathetic” might be too strong a word, given the political and economic realities our concerned leaders are facing.

    4. Indeed they are but what needs to be done now is some undoing.

      What’s the low-hanging legislative fruit among the successes of the enviros? What would be the success of theirs that’d be most vulnerable to upending?

      Ethanol mandate? Electric vehicle subsidy? What?

      Gloating feels good but there’s been a lot of serious damage done that has to be undone.

  2. The Future We Want

    Even their manifestos invariably sound like the petulant whining of sulky thirteen-year-old girls, venting into their “Hello Kitty” diaries.

  3. Crude oil is still falling – WTI below $80/bbl now.

    Inflationistas wrong yet again.

    1. Shrike….sniff… stink.

      1. Nice one, Maverick.

      2. Supply/demand, learn it/live it.

        Here you go Supply/demand

        1. I smell cunt.

            1. shrike cunt, Nililo.

              1. Ok, I was hoping that was it as I don’t know how supply/demand could ever offend anyone.

                1. We do know the word “profit” offends a lot of people…

        2. No, no. It’s the damn speculators, driving the price down so they can profit!!


    2. Drowning the world economy in an ocean of sovereign debt is one way to prevent inflation.

    3. Inflationistas

      Back from the DU boards, eh, “Banned by Kos”…?

  4. “new tone in communication about sustainability….

    Code language for “we really need to get back on message before we lose complete control of the debate”!

  5. You know who else called for holistic and integrated approaches to sustainable development which will guide humanity to live in harmony with nature and lead to efforts to restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem…

    1. One of those third generation Kennedy douchbags?

  6. The more undefinable the wording to a law is the harder it is for the citizenry to defend themselves against laws whose interpretations can be defined by the enforcer.

    1. Were you attempting an object lesson in “more undefinable wording” with that post?

      1. as long as the point is understood then how you understand it is fine by me.

  7. Comon ronald, there musta been some interesting vendor displays, like the foot-powered water pump for poor farmers, solar-powered cell phone chargers for rural areas, etc. A professional journalist would provide comprehensive coverage, not incomplete info intended to foam n fund-raise the wingnuts.

    1. How the hell would you know anything about professional journalism?

      1. obviously not from reading ronald’s stuff

        1. So, youtube is where your professional journalists are? Ok then…

          1. the rest were busy on the lub-rahl double-secret conspiracy teleconference

    2. Yippy, skippy! Foot-powered pumps! Stop the presses!
      Uh, how do you think water was pumped prior to the machine age?

      1. glad even a wingnut could comprehende.

        here’s moar that ronald could’ve reported on –

      1. “As the ball spins, two six-inch-diameter conductive brass loops running the circumference of the inner shell move across magnetic rotors; the current induced by this motion travels through the loops to a powerconverting microchip, which saves energy in a rechargeable 3.6-volt lithium-ion battery”
        brillant! exactly the comprehensive coverage ronald could’ve provided to educate the know-nothings.

      2. hey charles, let there be (electric-free) light!11!!111

    3. Holy fuck! Next you’ll be telling me they invented a barrel to catch rainwater to use as drinking water!

      1. we’re waay past roman technology to improve the poor’s lives…no thanks to the likes of anon

        1. o3: You are obviously able to find the sort of information you want at other sources, but few other reporters cover the strong leftwing ideological aspect of these sorts of conferences. That’s part of what I do. Enjoy.

          1. i get a target-audience orientation like w baseball weekly, or the economist, and even Reason. However, RW target-audiences should also be exposed to some of the practical positives arising outta poverty reduction programs including products like i linked to above. balance my friend. regardless thanks for the response.

  8. What percentage of the cost of these gigs do U.S. taxpayers pay for?
    It’s bad enough if they were one-off events, but it looks like a lifetime careerist teat-sucking to me.
    And we are still waiting for those beach photos, Ron.

  9. Sustainia sounds like a Wes Anderson movie. A really bad Wes Anderson movie.

    1. What? I don’t think he’s into one word titles?

      And there’s no such thing as a really bad Wes Anderson movie. Except that kids movie which I don’t count, since it’s a kids movie, and because I haven’t seen it.

      1. Fantastic Mr. Fox is actually better than, say, The Life Aquatic. Kids like it, but it’s not really a “kids movie”, either.

    2. I was thinking Lars Von Tries, actually.

      1. Although showing Kirsten Dunst’s tits at the end can help take the edge off the rest of the pretentious bullshit.

        1. Meh. She reminds me of Cameron Diaz. She’s not going to age well.

        2. Your link made me waste entire minutes of my life to read about quite possibly one of the shittiest movies ever. If only it were directed by Michael Bay.

      2. You’re right, he’s a better fit.

        WG – I don’t hate his films, but they’re often too precious.

  10. Getting the rich countries to send them 0.7 percent of their GDPs has long been an aspiration of the governments of poor countries. […] Under that goal, the U.S. contribution would amount to $108 billion under this formula.

    Not for long bitches. Obromneybot 2012 is going to job create that down to pennies on the dollar.

  11. The problem with the huge ecoweenie confabs is that once all the nutbars are gathered in one place, they are allowed to leave again…….

    1. Seriously, why can’t someone scour that ground with fire?

      1. Or wolves, for the irony.

      2. TF: Hey, there are some libertarian journalists working here, you know.

        1. Hope you brought your wolf repellent underpants.

        2. Some must be sacrificed….for the greater good……

          Sorry Ron. You knew the risks involved.

  12. Your complaint about a lack of a hard definition of “sustainable” is silly. No one has a hard definition of “blue”, but we know some things are blue, some things are not, and some things are bluer than others. Most human categories work similarly.

    1. JP: Frankly, after spending time at events like this one, I sometimes think that a lot of environmentalists believe that nearly any activity that might make a profit is unsustainable.

    2. JerseyPatriot|6.21.12 @ 11:27AM|#
      “Your complaint about a lack of a hard definition of “sustainable” is silly.”

      OK, JP, let’s see it.
      Define “sustainability” in specifics. What are we ‘sustaining’ and when would we know that we’ve done so.

    3. Pantone 072 C.

    4. Blue is something that reflects (or emits) light in the range of Wavelengths of 450?490 nm (Frequency ~670?610 TH).

      Unless you meant like ‘have the blues’. In which case I always thought it was just another name for ‘crabs’.

      1. that’s scientific blue whiterun. in phenomology however, one perceives a diff blue when contrast w yellow than w red despite the same wavelength.

        1. Yes, but the bar that JerseyPatriot set was, “No one has a hard definition of ‘blue’.” It just needed to be shown that someone does have such a definition.

        2. that’s scientific blue whiterun.

          Your perception of what blue is has no relation to what blue is.

          Just like murder isn’t OK just because you didn’t perceive it as murder.

        3. o3|6.21.12 @ 12:09PM|#
          “that’s scientific blue whiterun. in phenomology however, one perceives a diff blue when contrast w yellow than w red despite the same wavelength.”

          I’ll bet you think that bit of sophistry means something other than o3 is an ignoramus.
          It doesn’t.

        4. Yet you know when you see blue your not seeing yellow with sustainability you don’t know when you are or are not being sustainable, it all depends on who your talking to at the time but we all know blue.

            1. I thought about using the initial to my last name but it’s the same as yours, initial not the name. in order to keep people from thinking I was you.If I can figure it out how I’ll modify my call sign.

    5. We hunter education folks have a number of specific definitions for terms like “renewable resource” that wildlife management researchers been working with for 70 years or so. Somehow we never seem to be welcome at the Earth Summits.

      1. LarryA|6.21.12 @ 12:23PM|#
        “We hunter education folks have a number of specific definitions for terms like “renewable resource” that wildlife management researchers been working with for 70 years or so.”

        Not surprising you’re not welcome. Since you have specific goals, whacko Marxists get left out of the discussion, and what sort of an eco-whacko gathering can it be without brain-deads like, oh JP?

  13. Your complaint about a lack of a hard definition of “sustainable” is silly.

    Any definition that doesn’t include “profitable” is ipso facto wrong. Anything that consumes more resources than it produces cannot be sustainable.

    1. You got this one wrong, Dean. To liberals, it’s precisely the opposite of your definition.

  14. Apres foi gras la deluge.

  15. With all those attractive sleekly dressed women in attendance, we can be sure that “sustainable prostitution” will remain high on the UN’s agenda.

  16. Sustainable living is growing in popularity every day, with good reason. In simple terms, “sustainable living” refers to living a life where you take advantage of as few resources as possible and remain comfortable while doing so. This type of lifestyle benefits future generations tremendously. Why? These individuals will generally have to deal with a lesser amount of environmental damage, overall.

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