Rio-engineering

The UN Rio+20 outcomes document, “the Future We Want”, has been released. It lacks the urgency necessary to prevent crossing a Rubicon in the Earth system. If this is the “Future We Want” what is the future we will get? And, is 57 the new 42?

“The Future We Want” has landed (10 January). This is the title of the so-called zero-order draft of the Rio+20 outcomes document.

I warn you, if you are feeling a little down or depressed, skip the next bit  and jump straight to the end.

The words “bold”, “ambitious” and “visionary” are not words to describe the document.  “Weak”, “woolly” and “woefully inadequate” may step closer to the truth. There is no urgency. No feeling we can crack our global challenges this generation or the next. “The Future We Want” simply reiterates the hopes and dreams of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.

But since then, science has demonstrated that this vast human powerhouse is now the prime driver of planet-scale change: we have entered the Anthropocene. Science has shown we are pushing the planet towards tipping points. Earth’s seven billion inhabitants are the equivalent of geological forces lasting tens of thousands of years. In the crows nest of humanity, Earth-system scientists are shouting a clear warning that our actions jeopardize the stability of Earth’s life support system as we know it. Civilization has managed this feat not in ten-thousand years, but in a single lifetime — since 1950.

In the last few years I have attended several meetings where UN experts and advisors have argued that only an unprecedented environmental catastrophe will kick nations out of complacency. In the vein of a blockbusting action movie, these same experts usually finish by saying this generation is risking the future of humanity. At this stage a scientist at the table usually pipes up, gently correcting them: humanity should be fine, it is civilization that is at risk.

OK, so are these people prone to hyperbole that they have lost all touch with reality?

Maybe not. The world needs to take a reality pill. If we take no action our planet will be 2-4 degrees Celsius warmer by the end of the century, 6 or more by the next century, 8 or more a century later. The best evidence is that in this regime the world’s ice will eventually melt, raising sea levels 70 metres plus. With most of the world’s major cities on vulnerable coastlines, civilization as we know it now will be unrecognizable a few centuries on. And of course the problems reach far beyond a rise in sea level. Leaving it for the next generation to solve is not an option. By then we will have crossed the Rubicon. In all likelihood there will be no going back. The corner needs to turn in the next decade. So Rio+20 is timely.

We are a species that knows how to adapt. In the last two hundred years we have pulled a surprising number of rabbits out of the hat, so we will crack this one, right?

Well, the zero-order draft will not save us.

The Future We Want’s scene-setting introduction is ominous. It fails to inject any urgency into proceedings. “We, the Heads of State and Government resolve to work together for a prosperous, secure and sustainable future for our people and our planet.”

At least there is some hope that presidents and prime ministers will turn up to Rio.

“We are also committed to enhancing cooperation and addressing the ongoing and emerging issues in ways which will enhance opportunities for all, be centred on human development while preserving and protecting the life support system of our common home, our shared planet.”

Great. But this was said twenty years ago at the first Rio Earth Summit.

The preamble closes with a soporific: “Taken together our actions should fill the implementation gaps and achieve greater integration among the three pillars of sustainable development – the economic, the social and the environmental.”

Doomed.

The framing is wrong. Rio+20 should not be set in the landscape of the first Rio summit. Things have moved on. Between 1992 and 2012 we have gathered enough evidence to redefine sustainable development. The first Earth Summit adopted the Brundtland commission’s definition of sustainability: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

By now the penny has dropped that politically this is viewed as an aspiration — an ideal to work towards. The reality is global sustainability is not an ideal but a prerequisite for any kind of long-term development of our societies. This is a major omission in the zero-order draft.

So what is useful in the draft? The two big-hitting proposals focus on creating a Sustainable Development Council from the ashes of the Commission on Sustainable, and promoting the United Nations Environment Programme to an organization. This will allow them to wield more weight within the UN, but it is not obvious that this is enough to kickstart fundamental transformation.

Paragraphs 52 and 53 are encouraging on the science front:

52. We stress the need for a regular review of the state of the planet and the Earth’s carrying capacity and request the Secretary-General to coordinate the preparation of such a review in consultation with relevant international organizations and the UN system.

53. We call for the scientific basis for decision making to be strengthened across the UN system and recognise that the interface between science and policy-making should be enhanced.

A regular “State of the Planet” assessment going beyond climate — and the environment — is a necessity. How this can happen and in what form needs much discussion, but an Intergovernmental Panel on Global Sustainability (see previous post) deserves some consideration. This would have the necessary political and scientific legitimacy required for progress. It would make full use of all existing assessments, indeed it would bind them together creating a coherent narrative but focus on interconnected solutions.

Paragraph 57 is also interesting. “We agree to further consider the establishment of an Ombudsperson, or High Commissioner for Future Generations, to promote sustainable development.”

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the number one position on the planet, the Obama position, was not “US President” but “Planetary Ecologist”. This was someone whose focus was far into the future, linking actions now to impacts generations hence – for planetary stability and predictability. Perhaps paragraph 57 is a realisation that one day Earth may need such a position. Rio+20 may bring us a step closer to that day.

In another famous science fiction book, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,  Douglas Adams revealed that the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything was 42. Leadership is a powerful catalyst for change but there exists a leadership deficit in the world today. Our leaders need to take more responsibility for the future. Perhaps one day the ultimate answer to the ultimate question will be 57.

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