By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, May 21, 2012 (IPS) – With a month to go before the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, nearly two dozen NGOs are calling on President Barack Obama to confirm his attendance at the event, known as Rio+20. President Obama’s “presence at this Summit would signal its critical importance to all Americans, demonstrate our country’s deep concern over urgent global issues that will inevitably affect our security and well-being, and highlight our nation’s determination to be a contender in the race to a low-carbon green economy,” according to an open letter made public on Monday. The White House refused to comment, saying it has yet to receive the letter. The Rio summit is being billed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to spur a sustainable, “green” global economy, but has run into trouble enticing some leaders to attend. Germany’s Angela Merkel and the UK’s David Cameron have both reportedly declined.
“U.S. leadership at Rio is essential,” Don Kraus, CEO of Citizens for Global Solutions, a Washington-based national network, told IPS. “It would be difficult for Merkel, Cameron and other leaders on the fence to miss this meeting if President Obama can prioritise the summit over U.S. domestic politics. I don’t see any other nation that could bring the same level of leadership to this process.”
The meetings will mark two decades since the groundbreaking Earth Summit, the U.N. conference held in 1992, also in Rio. Those talks eventually resulted in the Kyoto Protocol, currently the most significant international accord aimed at combating global climate change. While 191 countries have ratified the protocol, the first set of commitments for which are to sunset at the end of this year, the United States remains the only signatory that has yet to do so.
Meanwhile, the U.S. remains the world’s largest economy, largest consumer of resources, and most significant polluter. Simultaneously, the country has for decades offered the most influential leadership on environmental issues on the global stage. This unique positioning recently led U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon to note that President Obama’s personal participation at the summit would be “crucial”. “We count on the United States,” the secretary-general said at an event here in Washington late last month.
President Obama has confirmed that he will be attending the annual Group of 20 summit, being held immediately beforehand in Mexico and offering a convenient itinerary. Yet while at least 130 world leaders have confirmed their attendance at Rio, President Obama has remained tight-lipped about his own plans. This despite repeatedly suggesting that issues of environmental sustainability are of utmost importance to his administration.
Undoubtedly, the president is labouring within a national and international context that has, by certain marks, de-prioritised environmental issues in recent years. Following the downturn in the global economy and the failure of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to reach a new post-Kyoto agreement, governments have had difficulty in taking up climate-related initiatives.
“In the aftermath of Copenhagen, it was clear we had a lot of grassroots work to do in terms of creating political momentum,” Kyle Ash, with Greenpeace, told IPS. “In Copenhagen, Obama didn’t put enough political weight on climate change – he just gave the issue to Congress and sat back to wait. At that time, the politicians didn’t feel there was enough domestic political pressure.”
In the United States since then, green issues have become increasingly divisive, with political conservatives having successfully tied the subject to a larger backlash against “wasteful” public spending. The political climate has forced President Obama to scale back on several large initiatives.
Yet a recent survey found that 72 percent of U.S. citizens think that global warming should be a “very high” or “medium” priority for the national government. The findings cut across party lines. With such a mandate, President Obama could bear in mind a few lessons from Copenhagen. Although no overarching agreement was reached during those talks, what forward momentum did take place happened only after the president became personally involved.
“On the one hand, there was this effort to create a complicated, top- down, one-size-fits-all approach to climate at Copenhagen,” Jacob Scherr, with the Natural Resources Defence Council, told IPS. “Eventually, it became clear that this wasn’t possible. So, Obama sat down with the ‘new green superpowers’ – Brazil, India, China, South Africa – and crafted the Copenhagen Accord.”
For better and worse, over the past half-century this type of leadership has been the U.S.’s almost sole prerogative on global environment issues, though it hasn’t always made use of that role. “Over the past 30 years of my experience, we’ve looked for other countries to move into leadership positions when the U.S. doesn’t seem able to do so, and I just haven’t seen it,” Scherr says.
In the lead-up to Rio+20, observers point to the U.S. delegation’s positive role in attempting to keep the summit’s agenda short and focused, with an eye on concrete results rather than on new plans and pledges. While the summit agenda has by now expanded to around 140 pages – from the five pages originally called for by the United States – Scherr says that the Obama administration’s priorities were still the right way forward, though this could be diluted if the president doesn’t attend the Rio summit in person.
“We don’t need another treaty, more promises – we have too many promises on the books already. This summit has to be about action and accountability,” he says. “The U.N. and Brazil have made it clear that this isn’t the place for negotiation: this is the place for governments to come together and announce what they’re really doing, to generate political will for countries to make real, short-term commitments.”