In case you haven’t heard yet, a massive United Nations conference recently ended in Rio de Janeiro. This Earth Summit, AKA Rio+20, was the largest UN event in history, with 150 Heads of State and 50,000 visitors, including diplomats, journalists, businesspeople, politicians and environmental activists. The mission of this Earth Summit? To save the world. Specifically, to create an institutional framework for sustainable development as a planet, with particular focus on a green economy and poverty eradication. Seven priority areas were established: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans, and disaster readiness.
Rio was supposed to save the world by charting a course for a livable future through sustainable development. That was also the mission for the original Earth Summit in Rio 20 years ago, and in Copenhagen in 2009, and in Durban this past winter, and at every other similar conference over the past 20 years. The outcome? Another unacceptable document, weak on ambition and lacking the urgency we need. In other words, failure.
So why are we still here?
We’ve been spinning our wheels for decades. There has been some progress, but nowhere near the response that science demands. The truth is, one group of players keeps dragging us back: big business and industry. They control the political process and policy decisions at every level. This is true around the world to varying degrees, but here in the US, it’s worse than it has ever been. Multinational corporations have unprecedented control over our elections, our politics, and our laws. This also means that they dictate the positions our country takes at these crucial negotiations.
I recently got involved in the UN process as a United States youth delegate with SustainUS. The youth are an official, integral, and much-needed constituency at these negotiations, and they are some of the most inspirational people I will ever meet. I’ve worked alongside passionate, determined young people from around the world: young engineers from Zambia, Maori activists from New Zealand, budding scientists from the Maldives, medical students from China, and scores of committed US youth. We’ve worked together as a global coalition, throwing our energy, ideas, innovation, and our relentless hope at the greatest problems facing our species and our planet.
But over time, I’ve also seen the changes—in body language and demeanor, brought on by fatigue and resignation. Some people become jaded after only a year or two. Some even drop out of the process entirely. One brilliant young delegate told me that she would never come back, that it’s clear who’s running the show, and who pays the price in the end. It was her first conference. Many of us stay on, but instead of boldly pursuing the policies we actually need, we plan our strategies around what is politically feasible. That’s reasonable—except when what is politically feasible bears no relation to a livable future on planet Earth.
Failure to lead
Why do some countries (US, Canada, etc.) keep obstructing progress? Do they not like the environment? Do they not like human rights? Do they not want a future? In Durban, US youth delegate Abigail Borah made headlines when she stood up and called out the US negotiators, administration, and the “obstructionist Congress” for blocking progress at the climate negotiations. She was right to call them out. But how can they be accountable to the people of this country if their responsibility to corporate interests takes precedence? It’s time to talk about the real issue. Our political process, our democracy, won’t let us make real progress, from the local to the international level, until we get the money out of politics.
Assault on reason
In the months leading up to the Rio conference, opponents of sustainability stepped up their attacks on climate science. Conservative think-tanks, oil companies, and the billionaire Koch brothers led the assault on the global warming “hypothesis.” Perhaps you saw the Heartland Institute’s bizarre billboard campaign “I still believe in climate change—do you?” which compared those who accept climate science to Charles Manson, the Unabomber, and Osama Bin Laden. Yes, this is the same institute once paid by Phillip Morris to assure Americans that smoking is perfectly healthy. Today Exxon-Mobil is a generous contributor.
The admitted goal of this campaign and others like it is to generate skepticism and disbelief around climate change. It’s not hard to understand the motives of such groups. They are making unprecedented profits from fossil fuels and have staggering amounts of financial interest in the industry. Those are their interests, not ours. Their profits come at our expense. With the Rio conference approaching, their attacks couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Of course, one traditional check and balance to such corporate aggression is the government. Today, we know the game is rigged. The huge amount of corporate money that flows into US elections means that politicians are more beholden to their for-profit backers than they are to the 99%, and they almost never act against those financial interests. Big money in politics is now positioned to ruin not only our democracy, but our chance at a sustainable future.
In the lead-up to Rio, we watched as delegations, led by the US, deleted human rights references in the draft text. Then, days before the conference, negotiations suddenly went behind closed doors. It became clear that the presence of civil society was being rejected, as were our policy recommendations. After all other options were exhausted, it was time for a major act of civil disobedience.
Members of civil society, led by international youth delegates, tore up a mock text and staged a sit-in outside of the negotiation halls. Through consensus, all agreed that despite the UN mandate, we were no longer represented in the process, which had been drowned out by corporate interests. Climate-change activist Bill McKibben, indigenous leaders, and NGO representatives all participated in the consensus process. Instead of further legitimizing a failed process, it was time to turn in our badges and walk out, joining Occupiers at the people’s summit across town.
It’s impossible to overstate the power and influence the US wields at global negotiations. When the fossil fuel lobby controls Congress, the US is forced to be the bad guy of the climate negotiations, obstructing progress and condemning the world to increasingly catastrophic scenarios – as they did once again at Rio+20.
Help reclaim our democracy and our future! Demand action! Sign the petitions to get money out of politics in the USA. Sign the Occupy Rio+20 petition and Friends of the Earth petition, to help end corporate capture of the United Nations. They have the money, but we have people power. Our voices must be heard. The future we want starts here and now, with you.
Follow the Rio+20 aftermath on twitter: #rioplus20 #futurewewant #mgcy
You can also join the campaign to end fossil fuel subsidies here, and on twitter: #endfossilfuelsubsidies