On October 20th, as part of the conference entitled Religion and Ecology: Discovering the Common Ground [see
Tucker], politicians and scientists were asked to speak about developments
environmental issues since the first United Nations Conference on the
Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. The speakers included Maurice
Strong, Senior Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General and
Secretary General of both the Stockholm conference and the second conference
on environment held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992; Tim Wirth, former
Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs and currently President of
the United Nations Foundation; and Michael McElroy, Chair of Harvard
Universitys Committee on the Environment. Satya was there to listen
to what they had to say.
it on Rio?
Political and Scientific Response to the Environmental Crisis
Twenty-six years after Stockholm, and six years on from Rio, the question
that hung over the 250 or so participants on October 20th was how much
had changed. For Maurice Strong, the changes have been substantial.
In 1972, when the Stockholm conference was convened, the environmental
issue was still relatively new, even though Silent Spring by Rachel Carsonthe
book that drew peoples attentions to the devastation poisonous chemicals
were wreaking on the natural worldhad been published ten years earlier
and the dire predictions of scientists about global resources were still
fresh in peoples minds. Stockholm had been confronted by reservations
similar to the ones that dogged Rio in 1992 and the Kyoto summit on global
warming in 1997. There was, Strong said, vigorous protest by developing
countries concerned that this new fad called environment, which
was really a problem of the rich, was going to divert attention and resources
from their principle preoccupationrelief from poverty and the problems
of underdevelopment. The developing countries threatened to boycott
Stockholm. This was fundamentally as they saw it a problem of equity,
of balance. Because, after all, these problems had been created by the
industrialized countries in the course of producing their unprecedented
wealthwhich was the key to their political and economic dominance.
By way of compromise, Stockholm gave birth to a new termsustainable
development. It also produced, said Strong, a declaration of principles,
the United Nations Environment Program, and a plethora of initiatives
from the non-governmental environmental organizations (NGOs) which sprang
up after the Conference.
The Earth Summit of 1992, said Strong, was an effort to restimulate interest
in the environment at a governmental and international level after the becalming of the 1980s. Gro Harlem Bruntland, then Prime Minister
of Norway, and now Director General of the World Health Organization,
was one of the main forces behind the Rio summit and Agenda 21, the plan
of action that emerged from the conference. Strong nevertheless had some
regrets about Rio. Foremost was the inability of governments to get agreement
on the Earth Charter which he described as a set of ethical and
moral principles which can be universally embraced by people throughout
the world of whatever faith and religion. These principles, he continued,
can present a common bond of ethical, moral commitment, usually
rooted in [the faiths] own spiritual conditions, ... [that] provide
that common basis for a set of motivational principles which will guide
us to a sustainable future. He admitted that Agenda 21, while not
perfect, still offered the most comprehensive set of practical proposals
that have ever been put together and endorsed by all the nations of the
Earth at the level of their heads of government. However, he concluded
it was quite clear that unless the motivation to implement [Agenda
21] existed it was not going to happen.
In the six years since the 1992 Earth Summit,
Tim Wirth acknowledged, many people have been disappointed by the
lack of progress. Nevertheless, Rio has done a number of important things.
It has made the environment a legitimate topic of conversation. It has
allowed the environment to enter the political and diplomatic discussion.
You cannot move any place in diplomatic circles without the environment
being part of the discussion, he said. Whether its taken
seriously or simply as a political discussion is another issue. But it
is there as part of a lexiconas well as the idea of sustainable
Wirth noted three themes that came out of Rio: climate change, biodiversity,
and pollution. In terms of climate change, science has become fully involved
in the debate, and it has become necessary for economists and environmentalists
to talk to each other. Wirth acknowledged that the world has not dealt
successfully with the issue of biodiversity since 1992 as continued species
destruction, the ravaging of the oceans, the tearing down of forests
all over the world show. Wirth said the planet needs to begin to
conceptualize the loss of biodiversity. Just as the concept of a nuclear
winter had galvanized people to make sure that it never happened,
so thinking about the winter of species might do the same.
Rio has also begun the discussion of persistent organic pollution. We
began for the first time to seriously link, and have people understand,
said Wirth, that their own health, their own well being, their own
capacity to reproduce was directly impacted by what happened in the environment,
and what we did to each other through the environment.
Wirth was withering on Americas obsession that trade by itself
overwhelms anything else. This dialogue, Wirth argued, has to change
if the kinds of global economic crises which continue to afflict us are
to be stopped. The dominance of economic issues is, he said, the single
most destructive element that has occurred in the world since Rio.
Wirth called for leadership. The United Nations has not implemented the
issues of sustainability meaningfully, he said. Nor has the private sector
been utilized as effectively as have NGOs in solving environmental problems.
Wirths heaviest criticism, however, was leveled at the United States
governments lack of leadership since 1992. It has failed to sign
the treaty on biodiversity and has agreed to accelerate the tearing down
of the Tongass National Forest, the last great rainforest in the United
States. If we really believe that were to provide some kind
of leadership to the world, said Wirth, here we are saying
that the rest of the world behave in one way, and [telling them that]
by the way, were going to behave in anotherand subsidize that
Agreeing with Strong, Wirth said that we know what has to be done. The
question now is, he concluded, Are we going to be able to
orchestrate the kind of political action to do what we know has to be
done, and can be done? As in Rio there is a remarkable consensus among
the community of nations. Now its a matter of figuring out how we
orchestrate the political will to get things done.
The Threat of Climate Change
As Michael McElroy noted, we live in unprecedented
times. Since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, we have poured
carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. The presence
of these gasses in the atmosphere, 3ke said, all tell the same story:
We are the global force for change and composition of the atmosphere.
The force behind this change is our dependence on fossil fuelcoal,
oil and natural gas. The changes are manifest, he said, in choked and
polluted cities around the world. They are manifest in acid rain. And
they are manifest in ground-level ozone, the invisible gas that is making
us sick, killing plants and cutting down on productive agriculture. Invariably,
our solutions are short-term. We either produce slightly cleaner versions
of the polluting fuel or built higher smoke stacks. This strategy is being
adopted around the world. Yet, McElroy noted, while the West had 200 years
to confront the legacy of the Industrial Revolution, industrialization
in China is taking place in decades and with billions rather than tens
of millions of people involved. While there is an awareness of environmental
concerns in developing countries, McElroy said, the world still has not
grasped the nettle of using alternatives to fossil fuel, which still provide
80 percent of the worlds energy. Carbon dioxide is the largest
waste product we create as a global society, he said. Its
not dirty boxes and paper and stuff like that. We produce something like
20 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year; and 22 percent of it comes
from the United States, with five percent of the worlds population.
And we have to do something about it.
At the Kyoto summit, the United States made certain commitments to reducing
its emissions rate by seven percent below 1990 levels by 2008. Currently,
said McElroy, U.S. emissions are up by 10 or 12 percent, and things are
not going to change unless course is reversed dramatically or the economy
collapsed. Since the latter option is undesirable, he argued, we need
to ask ourselves what we can do to change. We can change on an individual
level by giving money or time. We can change on a social level by influencing
corporations to behave in a responsible fashion. And we can try and persuade
our government to be more responsible. But, he insisted, there isnt
much time. We dont have 200 years to deal with this problem.
We have already changed the global environment irreparably, on a scale
of hundreds of thousands of years. M.R
© STEALTH TECHNOLOGIES INC.