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The Greatest Challenge of 2012: Can the World's Leaders Go from Zero to Planetary Heroes in less than 160 Days?

Jacob Scherr

Posted January 13, 2012

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It is the start of a new year and the time for making resolutions to change our ways.  Yet we all know how hard it is to give up old habits.  This reality was evidenced by the just released “zero” draft of the output document for the Rio+20 “Earth Summit”.  Following a well-established pattern, the “zero” draft alone provides little promise that the gathering of world leaders in Rio de Janeiro June 20-22 will fulfill the UN’s desire to generate the political will needed  to move  the world off its current trajectory towards a degraded planet less able to meet human needs.   Rio+20 must be about much more than just another document.  The next Earth Summit needs to stimulate real accountable actions that put humanity on a more sustainable path.

The “zero” draft is truly just a very preliminary vision.  It was prepared by a group of experienced diplomats and officials at the UN, based on submissions from a 100 governments and more than 500 civil society and other entities and two days of discussions at a December preparatory meeting.  Over the next five months, this document could be expected to be the subject of hundreds of hours of intensive negotiations.

The 19-page “zero” draft optimistically titled “The Future We Want” already has too much jargon and repetition and too many abstract incremental promises and far off goals.  Given the experience with past UN mega-conferences, there is a real danger that by the time the leaders get to Rio, they will be asked to endorse a document that will have ballooned in length to more than 100 pages.  There will be strong pressures to accommodate the desires of various governments and interests to make sure that their issue or concern is at least mentioned.   The few potential gems in the zero draft (my colleague Lisa Speer has blogged about the draft’s promising language on the high seas) could easily get lost in a deluge of vague promises.  Worse yet, based on the record of the last four decades, there is little guarantee that governments will follow through on these negotiated grand plans.

So here is the plea NRDC has been making to officials, negotiators, and fellow civil society advocates:  Make this summit differentKeep the final Rio+20 declaration short and sweet.   We all need to focus on what will make this Summit transformative – let’s create the expectation that each of the leaders will come to Rio with commitments to specific actions which produce real near-term results for which someone can be held accountable.   

Let’s not waste time arguing over matters that has been debated repeatedly over the last 40 years.  Let’s ask the presidents and prime ministers to focus on a handful of truly international structural issues – such as upgrading the United Nations Environment Programme, setting clear and measureable sustainable development goals, and moving much more quickly to secure protections for our high seas.

It is the very first and very last paragraphs of the zero draft which gives me most hope that we can break with the routines of the past and make the next Earth Summit truly historic and ground-breaking.  The first indicates that presidents and prime ministers will be expected to come to Rio+20.  Our very top leaders need to make a powerful, clear showing that they are really serious about working together for a prosperous, secure and sustainable future for our people and our planet.  They need to inspire governors, mayors, executives, and other leaders also to be engaged and take action. They need to instill real hope, particularly in young people, that we can make a very rapid transition to a low-carbon green economy.

The very last paragraph calls upon the Secretary General to create a registry of Rio+20 commitments as an “accountability framework.”   Our hope is that hundreds, if not thousands, of such specific promises will be made in Rio on all of the various issues of deep concern to civil society.  (See our list of deliverables.)  And – as NRDC proposed at the UN in December – the Secretary General will use modern information technologies to let citizens around the world see what countries and others are pledging, what progress is being made, and where there are needs for more attention and action.  Such a web-based directory (take a look at the mockup we presented at the UN) would help fulfill the Secretary General’s own New Year’s resolution when he said, “Technology outpaces our current thinking, peoples’ ideas and our current way of working…We have to make our Organization more nimble, more efficient and effective, and transparent and accountable.”

With less than 160 days left before the Rio+20 Earth Summit, each of our world leaders still has a chance to break the comfortable habits of the past and become a “hero” in confronting the greatest of challenges – improving the quality of human life and protecting our planetary home.  This is one test where inevitably some leaders will do better than others, but we are all at risk if we do not demand that they all take real action now towards a future we want.

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Steven Earl SalmonyJan 20 2012 01:34 PM

To children everywhere,

Please explore what is willfully ignored and conspicuously unexplored. Many 'experts' appear to have sold out to the "one percent" by participating in the widespread denial of science regarding the issue of human population dynamics/overpopulation. One the one hand we have the deafening silence of scientists and on the other we have pseudo-scientists who broadcast whatever self-serving thought, contrived logic and ideology their benefactors demand. The human community is being deceived with false promises and directed down a primrose path by unsavory, mutually aggrandizing leaders. These so-called leaders are erroneously believed to possess the intellectual honesty, moral courage and will to act boldly that is required to acknowledge, address and overcome the colossal threat posed to future human well being and environmental health by the unbridled growth of absolute global human population numbers.

Any exploration of what is being deliberately avoided and repeatedly denied would include, I suppose, an examination of the best available scientific evidence related to the most accurate placement of the human species within the natural order of living things as well as all the seminal research related to the way the world we inhabit actually works. Perhaps rigorous scrutiny of "human creatureliness", an easily observed aspect within the breadth of humanness, could be a point of investigation. Very little attention and research has been dedicated to this aspect of our all-too-human nature. Another point of inquiry has to do with the nature of the world we inhabit, with particular attention to the shape, make-up and ecology of Earth. Is our planetary home flat or round? Is the Earth like a teat at which the human species can forever suckle or is the planet composed of limited resources that are being wantonly dissipated today? Is the ecology of Earth frangible and can its ecosystems be degraded by human pollution to a point at which the Earth could become unfit for human habitation?

Children, why not invite your friends, parents, teachers and other elders like me to speak truthfully with you about what efforts are being made to assure a good enough future for you by pursuing a path toward sustainability? Despite your elders' claims of ignorance about what it means to live sustainably, do not be fooled. They are playing stupid. The challenge for you is to call out your elders and insist they simply acknowledge that no one with wealth and power in the 1% wants to stop what is known today as "business as usual" practices, much less sensibly begin to plan for the right-sizing of 'too big to fail' corporations. Open discussions are everywhere eschewed of plans for transitioning away from the legitimization of transnational corporate 'persons'. Too-big-to-succeed business empires are not being "powered down" to sustainable enterprises, ones that can exist in 2050 on a planet with the size, composition and environs of Earth. To this end, perhaps we can speak loudly, clearly and often about what your elders need to learn fast and well regarding how to live in our planetary home without recklessly dissipating its finite resources, as large-scale corporations are doing now; how to adjust outrageous per capita overconsumption patterns and individual hoarding lifestyles in preparation for an end to economic growth (not development); how to sensibly stabilize and then humanely reduce the size of the human population to a level that assures sustainability of the human species and life as we know it; and how to deal effectively with the relentless pollution and environmental degradation that is occurring on our watch.

The Rio 20 Conference will occur in June 2012. Where are the scientists who are ready, willing and able to discuss openly, objectively and honorably the "mother" of all emerging and converging, human-induced global challenges looming before the human family on our watch: human overpopulation? Have scientists capitulated to the politically correct agenda of the rich and powerful as well as agreed to speak only of that which the 1% determined is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially suitable, religiously tolerable and culturally prescribed? Children, perhaps I am mistaken about all of this. For your sake, I certainly hope so.

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