What Rio tells us about the Arctic

The recent Rio+20 conference in Brazil was ‘a show of good intentions devoid of political will’, says author.

President Obama has fast-tracked Oil giant Shell's drilling permits in Arctic [Reuters]
President Obama has fast-tracked Oil giant Shell's drilling permits in Arctic [Reuters]

Lonesome George has died. He was a giant Galapagos tortoise and at 100 years old still in his prime. His ancestors inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but George was most renowned for being the sole survivor of the Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni sub-spieces. For the Guinness World Records he was the rarest living creature; for environmentalists a flagship for conservation. His death marks the extinction of one more species.

One would hope that the accelerated loss of biodiversity would give political leaders a greater sense of urgency for climate policy. But the outcome of Rio+20 exposes that leaders seem incapable of sensible policies. In fact, the coincidence of Lonesome George’s death with the conclusion of the UN Second Conference on Sustainable Development is an all-too-grim reminder that the environmental collapse is nowhere near being reversed.

It was 20 years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that governments first pledged to endorse international treaties on biodiversity. It was a time we now look back upon as an age of innocence. Since then, many international conferences have taken place to discuss the fate of the planet, but hopes that negotiations would bring policy changes have dissipated, whereas the accompanying peoples’ summits have acquired a decidedly bureaucratic tone of deja-vu. With collective disillusionment reaching its apogee at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference on climate change, expectations have been running low.

 Counting the Cost – Rio+20: A corporate environment?

But it’s just when you think things cannot get worse that they do. The UN Summit in Rio last week made an already hopeless scenario even more distressing. The outcomes of the conference ring alarm bells all the way to the Arctic. If Rio+20 contributes a legacy, it may well be that governments are not only incapable of helping but have become a major obstacle to sensible policies to address climate change.

Going backwards at Rio+20

Rio+20 was the largest UN conference in history, mobilising around 75,000 people in Rio de Janeiro for nine days. From June 20-22, 57 heads of state and hundreds of ministers assembled to discuss a sustainable future for the planet. The conference was not going to solve the world’s environmental problems, nor were governments asked to commit to legally binding treaties or funds. The goal was only to identify venues and policy options to pursue sustainable development.

We expected little progress. Mind you, a lot happened, except in the wrong direction. As usual, Obama did not bother to attend and, as usual, the conference was a show of good intentions devoid of political will. What everybody failed to forecast was a deliberately weak and vague final declaration, The Future We Want, which perhaps intentionally misrepresents the complexity of environmental policy with green-economy solutions.

The president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science felt the scientific community was not represented and described the document as a step backward. The international scientific community was dismayed by the declaration’s lack of urgency as much as by the silencing of scientific evidence about climate change.

Women’s coalitions, for their part, were outraged that the Vatican and its allies succeeded in removing forthright language on reproductive rights from the final document, thereby disregarding the multi-faceted nature of environmental policy. For many activists, the declaration is an empty statement that supports extractive industries and legitimates the commodification of nature. Some protesters even publicly shredded the final declaration, while others criticised the document’s focus on limited technological fixes that will do little more than perpetuate development-as-usual. Appropriately, the summit was nicknamed “Rio minus 20”, and Greenpeace called it an epic failure.

Indigenous mobilisation

Indigenous peoples, who stand at the forefront of climate change, were equally disappointed with the language on the final declaration. Experts at navigating international conferences and dealing with unaccountable governments, they mobilised more than 500 indigenous nationalities from around the world to demand that their voices be respected and taken into account. In addition to protesting specific development projects, notably through occupying efforts against the construction of Brazil’s Belo Monte hydroelectric project, indigenous leaders advanced a proposal of their own.

At a special encampment, the indigenous movements signed the Kari-Oca 2 Declaration. The text condemns the commodification of nature under the “green economy” label, denouncing it as a new form of the same colonialism indigenous peoples have resisted for more than five centuries. The declaration pledges to “continue to struggle against the construction of hydroelectric dams and all other forms of energy production that affect our waters, our fish, our biodiversity and ecosystems that contribute to our food sovereignty”.

The Kari-Oca Declaration stresses the fundamental dimension of culture and human rights essential to viable, long-term projects for sustainable development. Stressing “cultures as ways of being and living with nature”, the leaders of the indigenous movements insisted that more than biodiversity is at stake in international debates about climate change and environmental degradation. Tortoises are becoming extinct in the Galapagos, and cultures are threatened by disappearance in the Xingu region of Brazil. What is at stake is the relationship between man and nature, the capacity of the so-called modern, developed world to understand land and natural resources as our common home.

Meanwhile, in the Arctic

Ironically, as heads of state were gathering in Rio, the global petroleum giant Shell was finalising preparations for oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, the most bio-diverse conservation area in the circumpolar north and home to the Gwich’in and the Iñupiat peoples. Notwithstanding the region’s significance, the Obama administration has turned a deaf ear to indigenous and scientific concerns, has refused to conduct the Environmental Impact Statement on the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and has even suspended a federal scientist for exposing climate threat to polar bears if oil permits are given. Instead, President Obama has fast-tracked Shell’s drilling permits, going beyond even George W Bush’s attempts to sell the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Big Oil.

 Anger at ‘lack of ambition’ at Rio summit

The advance in Arctic drilling calls attention to how the exploitation of ecosystems has intensified since the 1992 UN Summit, along with the aggravation of violence against the rights of the indigenous peoples who live in the threatened zones. Shell’s record is worse than bad. In the Niger Delta, for example, the company has spilled over 400 million gallons (1.51 billion litres) of oil, and toxic gas flaring has contaminated an area half the size of Florida. Shell has repeatedly been taken to court for devastating local communities with oil spills, has admitted that they may have funded warlords, and has failed to meet both international environmental standards and local Nigeria legislation regulating its activities.

The odds are that things will be even worse in the Arctic, where Shell and other oil companies plan to carry out the most dangerous form of drilling in a vulnerable area of crucial environmental importance for the planet. Nobody knows how to respond to a spill below the Arctic ice, and there is no infrastructure for thousands of miles capable to handle such accidents. The Arctic is but the next chronicle of a foretold irreversible disaster.

Where Venezuela meets the United States

Greenpeace and its allies launched a “Save the Arctic” campaign during Rio+20. Proposing that the region be made a global sanctuary, they demanded that oil drilling and unsustainable fishing be banned from Arctic waters. But governments were not prepared to listen.

Indeed, one of the high moments at Rio+20 came when Venezuela publicly supported US policy on ocean politics. The two countries joined Russia and Japan in efforts to block the launch of the Oceans Rescue Plan. It was amusing to see Venezuela’s public discomfort in siding with its biggest international antagonist. It was less amusing, however, to see such an unholy alliance successfully postpone a global agreement on High Seas Biodiversity.

Rio+20 can easily be dismissed as a farce. Governments, from the political right to left, from hegemons to the weaker states of the global South, are failing to develop sustainably, while postponing urgent policy changes and bending to the will of corporate interests.

Yet the current political vacuum can be a point of departure for the invention of alternative venues for policymaking. If states will not step up to the plate, then it may fall to civil society to create other forms of political organisation that can better secure sustainable development. Maybe the present moment can be turned into an opportunity to take up the challenge of expanding our political imaginaries, and to seek novel ways to do politics beyond the increasingly inadequate state-centric system we have been locked into.

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.

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