A ghost of climate conferences past

June 27, 2012

Peter Rugh explains why the Rio+20 environmental summit failed to challenge corporate power or offer a real alternative to environmental destruction.

AT THE Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 20 years ago, 12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki silenced the world for six minutes with a plea for action.

"I am fighting for my future. Losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market," she told delegates, some of whom could be seen choking up as the camera panned the Plenary Hall. "I am only a child yet I know if all the money spent on war was spent on finding environmental answers, ending poverty, and finding treaties what a wonderful place this world would be."

Cullis-Suzuki may have briefly captured the world's attention but it wasn't enough. Her six minutes in 1992 were nothing but a pit stop on global capitalism's road to climate ruin. On Thursday, Cullis-Suzuki, back in Rio for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), told Democracy Now!:

Twenty years have passed, and everybody wants to know what have we done, how have we progressed. Well, last week, scientists released a report in the academic journal Nature that suggested that we are pushing for a tipping point in the earth's biosphere, that we are attacking our ecosystems that sustain us and all life on this earth, in so many ways, on so many levels, that we are pushing for a state shift like what was seen 12,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age.

But this time, it will be human-caused, and it will be orders of magnitude faster than the 1,000-year transition that happened last time. I mean, that report, released on the eve of this world summit, is clear that we have not achieved the sustainable world we knew we needed 20 years ago.

World leaders open the Rio+20 summit
World leaders open the Rio+20 summit

Despite the enormity our Earth's current ecological crisis, at Rio+20 this week world leaders played hooky, corporations occupied, youth delegates walked out in protest, and nothing was accomplished.

Journalist George Monbiot described the conference as the "ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago." The World Wildlife Fund called it "a colossal failure."

The head of GreenPeace International, Kumi Naidoo, announced his organization was pivoting toward "war footing." Naidoo said the conference's draft text, "The Future We Want," was being sapped dry by governments fending for their own national interests, leaving GreenPeace no other choice but to move to a strategy of all out civil disobedience. He outlined how governments were watering down the text and pissing away our future, "The trick here is to look very carefully at the UN-ese language being used."

An analysis of one version of the 50-page document finds that the word encourage appears 50 times; support 99 times; and must just three times. The phrase "we will" only crops up five times. "What does that mean in terms of ambition?" asked Naidoo.

The final document was unveiled on June 22 with accolades from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN chief Ban Ki Moon, who hailed it as a path toward sustainable development.

Yet the plan includes no new commitments to fight climate change. Even calls eradicate fossil fuel subsidies are gone. The leaders of the U.S., UK, and Germany were nowhere to be found in Rio either. They had time to jet down to Los Cabos, Mexico for the G20 summit earlier in the week, but couldn't be bothered to fly south once the summit wrapped up Tuesday.

MULTINATIONAL BUSINESSES were on hand in Rio, invited by the UN as "corporate stakeholders" to join the Global Compact. The UN worked with the International Chamber of Commerce, which represents the likes of Coca Cola, Nestle, Bayer and other concerned corporate citizens, to ensure that any document that emerged would be to their advantage.

A report from Friends of the Earth, "Ending Corporate Capture at the UN," documents the relationship between corporations and the world body:

Many UN agencies, including UNICEF, UNDP, WHO and UNESCO, have engaged in partnerships with major transnational companies (TNCs). UNEP has established partnerships with ExxonMobil, Rio Tinto, Anglo American and Shell, all of which are involved in human rights violations and the destruction of biodiversity. Other examples include: Coca Cola and UNDP on water resource protection, and BASF and Coca Cola with UN-HABITAT on sustainable urbanization.

Such partnerships not only damage the credibility of the UN, they also undermine its ability and willingness to respond to and regulate the business sector where it is involved in social, environmental and human rights violations. Moreover, the UN Global Compact promotes "responsible corporate citizenship" without obliging companies to adhere to internationally accepted standards. It allows notable human rights violators to participate and gives the false impression that the UN and TNCs share the same goals.

Thus, it allows for bluewash and merely helps businesses to boost their image and profits, instead of promoting binding obligations that would contribute to changing companies' performance.

The UN brought corporations to the table without addressing "the role of business in creating the financial, climate, food and other crises," says Friends of the Earth.

The response of the corporate world to the ecological crisis that their smoke stacks, bulldozers, lumber mills, water withdrawal pumps and GMO labs have produced has been to lobby for extending the market to encompass all of nature. For oceans, rainforests, egrets, etc., to be of value to capitalists, there has to be a price tag attached. Corporations need to have their enlightened self-interest titillated before they give a shit.

"These summits have failed for the same reason that the banks have failed," writes Monbiot. "Political systems that were supposed to represent everyone now return governments of millionaires, financed by and acting on behalf of billionaires...To expect governments funded and appointed by this class to protect the biosphere and defend the poor is like expecting a lion to live on gazpacho."

A more apt title for the sustainable development plan that emerged out of Rio might be "The Future Capitalism Wants." Or as youth delegates who walked out of the conference Thursday in dissent parodied, "The Future We Bought."

The youth delegates staged a sit-in and read a satirical version of the UN's document. They then tore the document to shreds, returned their badges to UN security, and made their way down the road to the People's Summit, where environmentalists, indigenous tribes and union members from around the world were gathered under the banner of "re-inventing the world."

AS FAR back as a year ago, when NGOs, governments and business representatives first started putting together the zero draft for Rio, there were grumblings that multinational business interests were hijacking the process, using the catch phrase "green economy."

Renowned environmental justice campaigner Vandana Shiva said that before she even arrived in Brazil, she knew the conference was going to be a "Rio-20": "[T]o offer more of the same failing economy as the recipe to the ecological crisis is a double error. This whole green economy thing interpreted as a planetary grab of the remaining resources is not going to solve anything."

In March, members of Occupy Wall Street decided call out the charade. Donning business suits, they pitched tents with corporate logos on the green lawn of the UN building in New York. They were promptly handcuffed and shuffled into a police van, but the spectacle served as a potential dress rehearsal. The message being that CEOs and bankers who wield power over our planet and its inhabitants, handcuffing us to climate death, must be driven out of negotiations for Earth's future if we are to address our ecological crisis.

Occupy Wall Street protesters were again dragged from UN grounds on Friday. Alexandre Carvalho from New York and Maryana Sant'Ana with Occupy São Paulo infiltrated the final press conference at Rio. The room fell silent as the activist stormed the stage grabbing two decorative flowers from the speakers' table and holding them up. "We are here to announce a new time; a time of imagination, poetry and no ecocide! No generational genocide," they managed to proclaim before when they were forcibly removed.

"The attempt to market green capitalism as the solution to the world's environmental problems is a farce," said Sant'Ana, "The solution is in international solidarity...and a new world consciousness."

Amazingly, hardly any media have reported on the disruption that occurred at the press conference; a virtual blackout on par with when Nicolas Sarkozy and President Obama bad-mouthed Benjamin Netanyahu over a hot mic at the G20 in Cannes last year; a room full of reporters heard the exchange, but collectively, the representatives of our free press decided not to go public. Details only leaked out days later.

The near-complete subservience of the mainstream media to the interests of power coupled with the obliviousness of those in power to the interest of the people they supposedly serve was a driving force behind Occupy Wall Street; to have our voices heard. We won't go home until you listen, went the logic.

It was only after days of camping on some of the world's most expensive real estate that the protest started to swell and gain notoriety. Already a cause of embarrassment to elected leaders, the movement, once it reached a critical mass and could have become a threat to the state, was violently suppressed. Don't fuck with business as usual. Whether you are two activists disrupting a UN press conference or thousands camped out on Wall Street's doorstep, the show must go on. Capitalism's ushers carry big guns and will remove you from the theater by any means necessary.

For 20 years, the children have delivered their tear-jerking speeches. The NGOs have pleaded. The scientists have submitted their data: nitrogen depletion, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, global warming. The images of shrinking arctic glaciers taken from space look like maps of Palestine, post-1948. Colonization of all remaining natural resources is underway.

It is safe to say world leaders are not listening, or if they are they too mired within the frame of capitalism to act. We've seen enough of this play to know how it will turn out. The system is itself the crisis. Either we close the curtain on capitalism or it closes its curtain on us.

But even as the earth de-ices and the thaw in the wake of post-eviction Occupy sets in, narrowing political discourse in America to two-party bickering, new formations are emerging in the bonds forged outside the chambers of control.

The Arab Spring, student revolts in Chile and Québec, the ascension the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece, the comradely displays of "international solidarity" between indigenous tribes, union members, and environmentalist at the People's Summit in Rio--suppressed in one location, revolt flares up elsewhere. This global game of whack-a-mole is making world leaders sweat.

Where the 99 percent organizes and stands up for itself, there is hope for our planet.

First published at Ear to Earth.

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