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What Will Happen at the Rio+20 Earth Summit?

Rio+20 is not just a conference on climate change. It forces world leaders to talk about the basic dynamics of systems in crisis.

Bill McKibben, the renowned environmentalist and author, gave the keynote speech at last weekend’s Strategies For A New Economy conference at Bard College. Speaking with a perfect balance of humility and conviction he praised the work of the conference while also challenging participants to remember that ushering in a new economic paradigm based on principles of sustainability and justice isn’t only about coming up with new theories, designing new policy and building new institutions. It also requires directly confronting political and economic power, namely that of the oil companies and their financiers, which actively struggle to uphold a system headed for disaster.

He dismissed the failure of the 2009 United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen and the half-measures taken at Durban last year — neither of which were able to secure a binding global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also preemptively condemned this week’s Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development as doomed without a stronger international climate movement to hold governments accountable.

This last point hit close to home for me. I’m in Rio now, and I’ve been following the preceding negotiations for almost a year. It’s true that over the course of the last nine months I’ve watched as negotiators have bracketed and deleted basically any and all proposals that might have meaningfully challenged the global status quo. Civil society groups have successfully fought to retain human rights language in the text but ambitious proposals for things like the establishment an international financial transaction tax or a world environmental court went out the window fast.

At this point, likely policy outcomes will be limited mostly to reforms of the U.N. system, such as the strengthening of the United Nations Environment Programme and the establishment of a process to replace the soon-to-expire (without having been met) Millennium Development Goals with new Sustainable Development Goals.

Listening to Bill McKibben, I knew that he was right in terms of the actual political outcome of the conference, but I also am not so quick to dismiss it. Perhaps I’m being irrationally optimistic because of my personal investment in this process, but I think there are real possibilities for progress in Rio outside of the negotiating room.

Rio+20 is, after all, not just a conference on climate change. Its predecessor, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, ushered in the now-ubiquitous phrase “sustainable development,” which concerns the fundamental question of how we understand the relationship between ecology and economy, as well as how we can provide for ourselves without undermining future generations. This conference therefore forces world leaders, over 130 of whom are expected to be in attendance, to talk about the basic dynamics of systems — or perhaps one large integrated system — in crisis.

Climate is obviously a huge part of this, as it was 20 years ago when the Earth Summit produced the convention on climate change. The extent to which we can or cannot limit anthropogenic warming in the near term will have an enormous impact on the possibilities for lifting people out of poverty and vulnerability and ensuring the possibilities for peace. The nature of our global atmospheric commons makes international agreement a necessity. However, since Rio+20 has neither the mandate nor the political will to set emissions targets, it becomes something of a waste of time to try. If we give up now on the notion that Rio will be a “success” on climate policy we can instead focus on the possibilities for other kinds of victories.

The Rio Centro convention center, where the conference is being hosted from June 20 to 22, already feels like something of a system in chaos itself. Rio+20 is expected to draw over 50,000 attendees, many of whom come from unions, youth organizations, non-profits, scientific organizations and other civil society groups. All of these come together with their own experiences of a system in crisis, and they’ve already been holding literally hundreds of panels, parallel conferences and side events in the week leading up to high-level negotiations. In addition, there are at least 20,000 activists, occupiers and researchers expected to attend the People’s Summit and related marches taking place downtown. The energy is frantic, the stakes are high, there isn’t a clear set of sides to pick and people are making connections all over the place. Just a few days ago, I ended up having a two-hour conversation about education, international solidarity and climate justice with a representative from a Malaysian energy-sector union organizer who just happened to be sitting next to me on the bus.

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