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December 1998
Blame it on Rio?

The Political and Scientific Response to the Environmental Crisis


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 regarding 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 University’s Committee on the Environment. Satya was there to listen to what they had to say.

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 Carson—the book that drew people’s attentions to the devastation poisonous chemicals were wreaking on the natural world—had been published ten years earlier and the dire predictions of scientists about global resources were still fresh in people’s 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 preoccupation—relief 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 wealth—which was the key to their political and economic dominance.” By way of compromise, Stockholm gave birth to a new term—”sustainable 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 faith’s] 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.”

Since Rio

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 it’s taken seriously or simply as a political discussion is another issue. But it is there as part of a lexicon—as well as the idea of sustainable development.”

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 America’s 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. Wirth’s heaviest criticism, however, was leveled at the United States government’s 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 we’re 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, we’re going to behave in another—and subsidize that terrible behavior.”

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 it’s 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 fuel—coal, 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 world’s energy. “Carbon dioxide is the largest waste product we create as a global society,” he said. “It’s 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 world’s 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 isn’t much time. “We don’t 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


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