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Some thoughts on the Rio+20 Environmental Summit

Published on 25 June 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

It was probably at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 that I first heard about the problem of climate change. Or at least, it was certainly the first time I realised that it was an issue of major importance. There was a large amount of media coverage of the event at the time, and I assumed that it would mark the start of a new era in international cooperation on global environmental problems.

It hasn’t really worked out that way, however. Rio+20, the follow-up conference after the first Earth Summit just wrapped up a few days ago, and reports this time appear to be rather pessimistic. AP called it ‘the unhappy environmental summit,’ noting that representatives of 188 countries ‘met in a failed attempt to find a breakthrough’ at the UN-sponsored conference.

It appears from reports that the conference attendees could all agree that there are major global environmental problems, but were unable to agree on what to do about them collectively. They could only agree to ‘reaffirm’ their original goals from 1992, for example, to achieve sustainable development and economic stability, and strengthen international cooperation. The conference produced ‘virtually no progress’ since the 1992 summit agreements.

At this point, it seems clear that expecting 188 UN member bodies to agree upon any unified course of action on the environment is an unworkable proposition, as appealing an idea as that might seem. I don’t think any other major global summits will solve our environmental problems – it’s time to switch strategies.

What to do, then? I don’t propose to have a perfect solution, but a few ideas come to mind on where to go from here:

  • generate higher public awareness and concern for the environment as a critical issue. In the US, for example, environmental issues rarely, if ever, have an impact on voters. (See this Rasmussen poll from February, where the environment doesn’t appear in the top 10 list of voter concerns.) How can we change this?
  • design environmental policy more in self-interest terms. I read too much about how richer countries have a ‘moral obligation’ to assist poorer nations with their environmental problems. That may be true, but not enough people, rich or poor, will be motivated to action without an appeal to their self-interest. How can this come about?

I’m sure there are more ideas and many of you have your own opinions, so please comment on what you think about this topic and how we can all proceed to solve the most critical environmental issues facing us today.

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1 reply
  1. Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone says:

    This is a great post. I agree
    This is a great post. I agree on your assessment of Rio.
    There is one thing, though, that I am not so sure about anymore. And that is the question of awareness and the idea of “if people only knew, they would change”. There is a growing interest in how attitude change occurs (mainly from behavioural economics) and the picture looks more complex.
    For climate change, Elisabeth Shove, presents an interesting argument, by focusing on social practices: https://www.guardian.co.uk/climate-change-and-you/beyond-abc-climate-change-policy


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