July 16, 2012

Rio+20 Breakdown

The Great Immensity is happy to welcome its first guest blogger, Marie-Marguerite Sabongui, who attended Rio+20, the United Nations’ recent Conference on Sustainable Development.

The mega-conference of the century just ended with an extraordinary fizzle. So why are some of the most vulnerable countries in the world cautiously optimistic about the outcome?

Rio+20, the follow-up event to the historical 1992 Rio Earth Summit, drew 50,000 people and intended to deliver the concrete, drastic shifts we need to avert catastrophic climate change while lifting 1.4 billion people out of poverty.

But after months of exhausting prep negotiations – I was there and can attest! – 188 countries agreed to a legally-non-binding document  (check it out here) that only “reaffirms” the importance of changing course, and launches processes…to consider further processes…to address our pressing global problems. It’s not quite the urgency that’s called for. While hopes were high – and the media came in droves to report – there was no big news.


I was in Rio as an advisor to a small island state. Low-lying countries like Nauru or the Maldives could disappear within the next fifty years because of sea level rise or a single devastating storm. They are already facing real food and water scarcity, less predictable rainfall, and more frequent drought.

For my small island colleagues, the conference delivered minor wins. The document officially acknowledged that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and that impacts of climate change “represent the gravest of threats to the survival” of some islands.  For the first time, the international community acknowledged that some states could cease to exist as countries through the small but relentless washing away of their territory.

The language may seem too dry for the stakes, but these political gains were hard fought and felt valuable. The logic is this: agreements like these can help set priorities domestically and internationally for the next twenty years and increase the chances, however little, that change will happen.

For a while, I was pleased with these minor successes too. For months I had been desperately lost in the woods of international legalese, and so celebrated when we got language we wanted in the text. I felt these outcomes were measured steps on which to build momentum.

But the re-acknowledgement of problems, no matter the wording, is simply not enough to help real people in real crises. There’s a wide chasm between these high-level agreements and what is happening on the ground.

Case in point: After the conference, I traveled to the Amazon’s Mamiraua Reserve, home of the seasonal flooded forests. There, communities are accustomed to living surrounded by water six months of the year. But this year, many have had to build second floors in their homes or have been forced to evacuate to regional towns because the flooding reached 50-year record highs. The federal government in Brazil hasn’t been able to mobilize enough emergency funding. Many of these families have found their crops drowned.

The high-water mark is visible on this stilt-house, where the family has had to build a second floor to stay above the flood in Mamiraua. Photo credit: Benedict Moran

While the situation in Mamiraua can’t fully be chocked up to climate change (it is a La Nina year, during which more rains can be expected), crises like these can be amplified by climate change and may be on the rise due to increased rainfall and increased snow melt in the Andes Mountains, a significant source of the Amazon River’s flow. That the government is unprepared with disaster relief funding is concerning. But even more concerning is the fact that families around the world living near water are unprepared to adapt to rising levels.

For me, Mamiraua was a stark reminder that political action at the highest levels is not meeting the world’s most urgent needs and is out of step with the calls of the scientific community. Sure, the scope of the Rio+20 agreement is broad and has potential to eventually lead to change. But if these changes come – the track record for actually following through with these UN agreements is already less than stellar – delivery will be slow and will fall short. While governments plug away at negotiations and squabble over who will foot the bill, shores will disappear, wildfires will spread, droughts will scorch fields, and families will be devastated.

The low-ambition of “The Future We Want” – as the document is un-ironically officially called – is the lowest-common-denominator compromise between countries that continue to prioritize narrow, old-school economic self-interests instead of engaging in the spirit of sustainable development that they have theoretically endorsed. What we need is action at every level, from international and national priority setting, to community organizing.

Here are just a few ways we can close the chasm between “The Future We Want” and the future we actually want.

  • On the sidelines of Rio+20, where advocacy organizations like 350.org held focus groups and demonstrations, ending harmful fossil-fuel subsidies was the number one recommendation to governments. The oil industry has claimed record profits in 2011. While the Big Five companies collectively raked in $140 billion in profits, governments continued to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, in large part for expanding oil exploration. Many civil society organizations argue this sends the wrong signal about our energy future.
  • At Rio+20, Hillary Clinton announced a $20 million commitment to the United Nations “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative to encourage private sector investment in renewable energy in Africa. Those old fossil fuel subsidies could mean changes for research, development, and deployment of renewable technologies. The shift to investing in renewables has the potential to generate jobs in many fields including the energy, vehicle, and building industries while reducing carbon emissions. The good news: solar and wind industries are developing faster than expected. Over the last five years, solar capacity has been growing by over 50 percent a year, while wind capacity has been growing by 25 percent.
  • Sustainable transport and sustainable cities were hot topics at Rio+20 and at the parallel C40 Cities conference, which drew mayors from major cities around the world. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, currently chaired by NYC Mayor Bloomberg, is a network of large cities proactively advancing programs and partnerships to increase energy efficiency and address climate risks and impacts. This type of development would not only mean lower emissions and better air quality, but more resilient, long-term, and livable homes. With potentially more frequent disasters and the world’s population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, we’ve got to create safe spaces for future generations and learn to live together more efficiently.

Mamiraua Sunset

Post by Marie-Marguerite Sabongui. Thanks, Marie-Marguerite!

  • Featured Video

    No matching videos
    "The Next Forever" is a song from The Great Immensity. The footage was taken on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal by videographer David Ford. Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman.
    Click here to comment!