How Climate Change Got Removed From the Agenda of the Rio+20 Summit

Rebecca Burns

The Durban Climate Conference last winter ended in almost unqualified failure. The original framework of U.N. climate negotiations was all but abandoned in favor of a new global pact that may or may not be negotiated by 2015 and may or may not be legally binding. Climate change deniers literally crashed the party by parachuting onto a beach in Durban carrying a “Climategate 2.0” banner—and public perception in the U.S. on the reliability of climate science continued to shift in their direction, cementing the stalemate on a domestic climate deal.Now, it would seem, many international negotiators have altogether given up on the idea of establishing a global regulatory framework for reducing carbon emissions. Next week, more than 130 national leaders will gather at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to discuss proposals ranging from replacing GDP as the indicator of economic prosperity to conducting annual “state-of-the-planet” assessments. Notably absent, particularly given a new U.N. study finding that carbon emissions have increased by 40% in the past two decades, will be any concrete negotiations on climate change.
The summit, to be held in Rio from June 20 – 22, is the follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit that produced multilateral agreements on climate change, biodiversity and desertification. But this time, no binding agreements are expected to result from the three-day meeting. At best, the talks may result in a commitment to drafting new goals for sustainable development by 2015.The summit’s dodge of continued climate talks is an intentional move to avoid politics in favor of platitudes. After Durban, U.N. officials sought to redirect the agenda for Rio away from the contentious territory of emissions cuts and climate finance and toward issues of trade and technology. In an interview with Reuters in January, when pre-Rio talks were underway, Brazilian negotiator Ambassador Andre Correa do Lago acknowledged that the focus on sustainable development was more palatable to politicians and business leaders with a stake in the negotiations.Climate change has very strong resistance from sectors that are going to be substantially altered, like the oil industry,” said de Lago, who also headed the Brazilian delegation to Durban. Sustainable development is something that is as simple as looking at how we would like to be in 10 or 20 years.”President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and a number of heads of developed countries will not be attending the summit in person, but U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern recently stressed that climate isn’t going to be a big focus of Rio, certainly [not] in a way that would be relevant to the negotiations.”In avoiding renewed climate negotiations, however, it’s unclear what the summit could actually achieve. The conference seems to lack defined goals, but even worse, there seems to be no big-picture vision among the world’s top leaders,” Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told Climatewire. “… There’s no big-picture thinking. Hello, climate is the biggest of the pictures.”Instead, the focus of the summit is the “green economy,” a term that has been defined in only the vaguest terms in draft outcome documents. Though unofficial the theme of the conference is The Future We Want,” critics note that the future that the transnational corporations attending a parallel Corporate Sustainability Forum want is quite different than the one being discussed by the 200 ecological groups and social movements staging a “Peoples’ Summit” before the official U.N. Summit gets underway.These organizers maintain, particularly, that the paradigm of green economy” has been hijacked by political and economic interests seeking to profit from false climate solutions and to proliferate the commodification of nature.“Out of this Trojan horse [of green economy’] will spring new market-based mechanisms that will allow the financial sector to gain more control of the management of the global commons,” warns a statement from the UK-based anti-poverty group World Development Movement.This concern is borne out by early reports that the governments of the U.S., the UK and Canada and particular attempted to remove references of the recently U.N.-recognized right to water and sanitation from the Rio draft outcome document. An international coalition of 400 NGOs responded with a statement challenging “an apparent systematic effort by particular governments to delete virtually all references to well-established rights to water, energy, food and development.” The right to water has been replaced in the document, but there is still no excplicit recognition of the right to food.  U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay noted in a recent interview that the battle for human rights at Rio is “far from over,” acknowledging that “technocratic efforts towards sustainable development have excluded many communities from the process of decision-making, causing economic and social inequalities to be exacerbated and human rights to be sidelined” in previous negotiations.In advance of the summit, indigenous leaders from across South America are converging on Rio to take part in the Peoples’ Summit and oppose the use of sustainable development to infringe on their land and water rights. We have a very clear message,” Moi Enomenga, a Waorani leader from Ecuador told Tierramerica. “Leave everything beneath the Earth.”

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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