Countdown to 2012: The Road to Rio +20

In exactly one year's time, world leaders will converge on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the UN conference on sustainable development, 20 years after the first "Earth Summit" was held there in 1992. Will this turn out to be another "Copenhagen moment" for the climate movement? Most people I speak to think it will not deliver the treaty we all hoped to get in Copenhagen, but with record levels of carbon emissions creating new climate disasters every day, it's certain Rio +20 will present a moment for decisive action.

According to the latest estimates from the International Energy Agency, greenhouse gas emissions are rising with a vengeance, having briefly slowed during the global recession. Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA, noted that prospects are becoming increasingly bleak for keeping global warming below 2°C (not to mention the 1.5°C limit which more than 100 countries have called for, which is a survival limit for many vulnerable countries).

Like offering an outstretched hand to a guy hanging off the edge of a cliff, he added, "If we have bold, decisive and urgent action, very soon, we still have a chance of succeeding."

Climate-saving measures will most likely slip in through the back door of the Rio process, taking the form of ambitious energy targets where win-win solutions are there for the taking. The recent IPCC special report on renewables shows the way forward on a myriad of energy-related crises including poverty, health, and security as well as climate. But tackling climate change head-on? Everyone is wary.

It wasn't always like this. In 1988 climate change was an issue whose time had come. Delegates at the "World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere" held in Toronto that year concluded that "Humanity is conducting an uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment... the Earth's atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate by pollutants resulting from human activities... It is imperative to act now."

This was not a partisan issue in those days. The UK's arch-conservative Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, "We have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of the planet itself," and a swaggering U.S. President George H.W. Bush promised decisive action: "Those who think we're powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect. As President I intend to do something about it."

Four short years later, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in Rio, along with the Convention on Biological Diversity, an agreement to negotiate a Desertification Treaty, a set of Forest Principles, the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, a UN action plan for sustainable development. Looking back, it seems remarkable that governments were able to achieve so much in such a short period of time, compared with the polarized atmosphere that pervades international negotiations today.

In those four years, however, the dynamics that plague the current round of climate negotiations had already taken root. For a fascinating reminder of what happened in Rio 92 (in particular the spoiler role played by the Bush Sr. administration, explained as a "desire to solidify its domestic right-wing support in the face of the electoral challenge from Ross Perot") this brief summary from a 1992 issue of the Multinational Monitor is worth a read.

In any case, the 1992 climate convention did not include legally binding targets and timetables for CO2 emissions reduction commitments and the rest, as they say, is history. 20 years on, we are still looking for binding commitments that are sufficiently ambitious to catalyze massive investments in renewable energy to fight the climate crisis.

Between now and the start of the next Rio Conference in June 2012, three things need to happen:

1) The public -- the global electorate -- needs to actively engage, not just on climate but on the full suite of issues that will be under discussion. We must demand leadership from our elected representatives, and we must listen in particular to the voices of youth -- to those who will be left to deal with the consequences of the mess we've made. The most memorable moment of Rio 92 was 12-year-old Severn Suzuki's address to the assembly:

Her message is as powerful today as it was then, though its urgency has increased by orders of magnitude.

2) Businesses need to more consistently practice what their green PR preaches, and they must leave the fossil dinosaurs behind. Fossil fuel industries MUST decline in importance in all of our energy and manufacturing needs. This will require both government and business investment in an array of new technologies. It will be easier and cheaper if businesses cooperate with one another, and if governments cooperate with business. One way to ensure this is for business to lobby government for smart regulation and smart incentives for the 21st century, instead of for regulations and incentives that fit another moment in history.

3) Governments must rise to the challenge. They must come to Rio prepared to commit not only to lofty long-term targets which will be left to some future government to implement (or not as the case may be), but to the immediate actions that put us firmly on the right path towards those targets. If they come to Rio with empty hands, history will not forgive them.

Speaking of history, here's an idea. I propose we set up a wiki to serve as the "Climate History Book" as in, "will you go down in history as a climate hero or a climate criminal?" Every politician who knowingly shirks his/her responsibility for the sake of getting re-elected should be prepared to go on record with that position in the Climate History Book. Likewise every climate denialist. Come Judgment Day, and by that I mean the day when our children and grandchildren ask us what we did to protect their futures, back in the time when catastrophic climate change was still preventable, the record will speak for itself.