International Paralysis in the face of Growing Levels of Poverty and Environmental Destruction.

Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC
The most upsetting and disturbing outcome from the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June 2012, was the inability of the human community to respond adequately either to the worsening global ecological crisis and the continued impoverishment of more than one billion human beings.  Thirty leading scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre have identified what they call planetary boundaries, which, if breached, will cause irreparable harm to planet earth, and as a consequence will impact in a negative way on the entire human family for the foreseeable future.  These scientists argue that human beings have already exceeded three important  boundaries during the past few decades – climate change, nitrogen loading and the enormous loss of biodiversity.  They warn us that humankind are dangerously close to crossing the other six boundaries which they identify as the increased acidification of the oceans, stratospheric ozone, aerosol loading, fresh water pollution, soil erosion and chemical pollution.  

Warnings of impending catastrophes are also echoed by international bodies such as the United Nations.  The present director of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner “warned that pollution is killing millions of people each year, that ecosystems decline is increasing, that climate change is speeding up, and soil and ocean degradation is worsening.”   He continued, “if the trends continue governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation. Earth systems are being pushed towards their biophysical limits.”  A large-scale study from MIT Chicago in 2009 predicted that, unless there were stringent policies to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, there would be an average increase in global temperature of 5.2. degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This would cause chaos across the globe.

Even though many scientists, development workers and missionaries would agree with the analyses of Stockholm Resilience Centre and Achim Steiner, the politicians who met in Rio+20 did not have the collective will to design policies and programmes which would effectively address each one of the boundaries lines. Twenty years ago in 1992, more than 109 heads of state as well as politicians, diplomats for 170 countries and more than 50,000 people from Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) converged on Rio for the UN Conference on Environment and Development, popularly known as the Earth Summit. That conference, which was by no means perfect because elements of it were hijacked by multinational corporations, at least, came up with legally binding international conventions on protecting biodiversity and stopping climate change.  It also articulated a very important principle namely that each country has a “common but differentiated responsibility” for protecting the earth’s environment and ensuring that every person has access to the basic necessities of life.

That vitality of the Earth Summit and was sadly absent from the Rio+20 meeting.  There were no legally binding treaties or timelines for any initiatives.  Most crucial of all, there were no sanctions for failing to comply with the terms of any treaty. I did not have high expectations for Rio +20 because I have witnessed a growing divide between rich and poor countries at the various meetings of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change since Nairobi in 2006.  Rich countries, especially the US, have adopted entrenched positions from which they seldom budge.  Many of us thought that, with the election of President Barack Obama, this would change. Sadly this has not happened.  As a result all the leaders of the various delegations could agree on was to begin discussions on ecological and social problems so that countries both in the Majority and the Minority world could come up with a set of global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2015. There was also a recommendation to strengthen the role of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). This could strengthen the hand of UNEP in securing international cooperation on crucial environmental problems.

One of the excuses often given by politicians at a national and global level for not taking decisive action on the environmental issues in 2012 is that they are preoccupied by the financial crisis which has continued since 2008. These politicians believe that their first imperative is to get their country back into economic growth as quickly as possible.

Many at Rio talked about the need to move to a “green economy”.  Next week I will have a look at what that might mean and how it might affect poor countries.


1 John Vidal, “In 20 years since I was first here, the ambitions has faced away,”  The Guardian, June 20th 2012, page17.
2 ibid