Another year, another failed climate summit

The 49-page agreement produced at the Rio+20 Earth Summit is unmitigated junk. I’m not going out on a limb here. It’s one of those rare universally agreed upon truths.

Greenpeace called the summit a “failure of epic proportions”. The organisers of the original 1992 Rio Summit said the document was a weak collection of “pious generalities”. Friends of the Earth described it as “hollow”. George Monbiot wrote it was “meaningless platitudes”. Richard Branson used the phrase “mealy-mouthed”.

They are all correct. The document, “The Future We Want”, is stuffed full of trite acknowledgments, reaffirmations, recognitions, and renewals. It’s like a greatest-hits album. There’s no new material.

“The need to further mainstream sustainable development” gets acknowledged, of course. The “natural and cultural diversity of the world” has its due recognition. The “importance of freedom, peace and security [and] respect for all human rights” gets reaffirmed. Also reaffirmed is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which dates back to 1948. Indeed, the word reaffirm is used 59 times throughout.

Virtually every goal of every lobby gets its due. The unions even managed to get “decent jobs” thrown into the priority list. Hell, why not? Coordinated global action on decent jobs is no more or less likely than coordinated global action on emissions reduction.

One paragraph even proudly says the signatories recognise that “Mother Earth is a common expression in a number of countries and regions”. And they say satire is dead.

Rio+20 was supposed to be the revitalisation of the global climate movement. The first Rio summit set in train everything from the Kyoto Protocol to Copenhagen. After the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, and the water-treading at Cancun and Durban in 2010 and 2011, Rio was to be the spark that got climate action going again.

But now Kyoto expires at the end of this year, and the cycle of yearly climate meetings are a wash. It’s been obvious for years there would be no coherent or significant international action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Yes, there was an outbreak of optimism before the Copenhagen summit. Recall the “Hopenhagen” campaign, the sort of silliness only an alliance of the United Nations and high-price advertising agencies could produce.

For all that enthusiasm, there was never a clear explanation about why developing nations would suddenly jettison their long-term economic development goals. At the time, we were told the Copenhagen negotiations were thwarted at the last minute by India and China. This influential report in Der Speigel of the final moments of Copenhagen reads very different in retrospect – it’s plain now the negotiations weren’t scuttled by personal offence, but were doomed from the start.

That of course has been what free marketeers have been saying about global action all along. And now a sense of hopelessness is starting to seep through the green movement.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Don Henry told Radio National on Thursday last week that he was “very disappointed” with the Rio declaration. In his view, Rio revealed an “unusual confluence of caution”, as rich countries tended to their wounded economies, and poor countries focused on reducing poverty.

Striking the same baffled note, Martin Khor, one of the members of the UN Committee on Development Policy, said last week, “We’ve sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success.”

But the reluctance to curtail economic growth for uncertain environmental ends has always been predictable.

Certainly, these climate conferences have coincided with one of the greatest economic down turns in the past century. It is possible to blame their failure on the great recession.

But regardless of the global economy, it is in no single nation’s interest to substantially reduce emissions unless everybody else is also doing so in unison. Ross Garnaut described this as a true prisoner’s dilemma: international cooperation, he wrote, “is essential for a solution to a global problem”.

So another interpretation is that climate negotiations have plateaued because such cooperation has a natural, hitherto undiscovered, limit. It can only go so far. The failure of coordinated emissions reduction is a natural experiment political scientists will study for decades.

I argued in The Drum last month adaptation is now the main game. For green groups, this ought to be the take-home message from Rio. And if they focus on adaptation, they might find surprising allies.

But to get there, they would have to drop their utopian fantasy of the planet coming together to achieve a shared goal. And that realisation may be much more disappointing than their discovery the Rio agreement is nonsense.