Dancing on the Sand

Why did the environmental movement send 40,000 people to a failed summit in Rio?


At 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, 1,000 or so advanced delegates at Rio+20 (formally, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development) laid down their pens and shut off their laptops. At noon, Brazil’s worldly foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, gaveled through the Outcome Document from the chair. And by mid-afternoon, Rio was full of a sound to which that joyous city is unaccustomed: the collective moan of 40,000 environmentalists disappointed about the results. (Yes, you read that right: 40,000. Alongside 10,000 official government participants.) But if the environment movement expected Earth-saving outcomes from Rio, they were clearly enjoying too much of Brazil’s famed cachaça.

That the Rio outcome fell short of the highest expectations was not only predictable, it was predicted — by everybody. A senior European Union negotiator told me last month that the EU’s major focus had already turned to lowering expectations. That was wise: No credible analysis of environmental agreements past tells us that a global summit of this kind, with a broad, encompassing agenda, can actually deliver genuine changes in the way the world does its economic or energy business. Throw in a gloomy global economic situation, and major leaps forward were a non-starter.

There were some avoidable mistakes. Brazil got into an early fight with Mexico, which was simultaneously preparing the Los Cabos Summit of the G-20, about which country would "lead" on green growth issues. (As if the problem is that we have too much leadership on green growth, rather than a dearth of it.) The result was that rather than the G-20 negotiations bolstering Rio, the two processes proceeded in parallel. For the Rio process itself, the U.N. produced a reasonable backdrop analysis but never managed to escape the utterly opaque language of "sustainable development," and did far less than was necessary to shape the political space for action.

In practice, though, the best-organized process in the world wasn’t going to produce serious outcomes on environment issues, either in Rio or Mexico City. Climate is a thorny problem for both domestic and international governance. Multilateral fora at their best can be just a bit more than the sum of their parts; on the environment, the parts are awful. If the major economies, rich and developing, all had serious climate strategies, the question of which forum they negotiated in would be relevant but not determinant. Absent that, the shape of the negotiating table hardly matters.

What’s more, the outcomes from Rio aren’t all bad. The Europeans will be disappointed that there’s not a shiny new environment agency at the U.N., a goal they’ve been pursuing since 2004 — which means there’ve been eight years in which they’ve failed to explain to anyone but themselves why one might matter, or what, exactly, it would do. What the text does contain are some sensible changes to the way the existing U.N. Environment Program works — a rare victory for the modest-but-sensible over the flashy-but-poorly-thought-through. The document will also launch a process (or, unfortunately, a series of processes) to negotiate something called "sustainable development goals," to mirror and/or replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire in 2015. Color me skeptical on the SDGs, and the process set out is cumbersome; but at least the summit avoiding locking in specific goals without doing the necessary spade work on evidence and coalition building. Sometimes kicking the can down the road is exactly the right thing to do.

What’s really a shame about Rio is that the belabored negotiations over the formal outcome document displaced time and attention from far more creative actions that could make a genuine difference. One of these is the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative — a rare U.N. process that links energy and finance wings of government with private actors to drive investment in green technology that can be used not only in rich but also in developing countries. SE4ALL, as it’s known, isn’t going to stop climate change, but it can make a noticeable difference in real time and set precedents for how to mobilize joint action by the public and private sectors. The United States and Brazil have a fantastic public/private initiative on green cities, using Rio (the city) as a test case. Brazil has genuine street-cred on these issues as a model for economic growth with sensible energy policy and a serious approach to social inequality (the component parts of "sustainable development," once you unpack the language). No less a political figure than Hillary Rodham Clinton has called on the United States to learn from Brazil’s success.

One approach to the Rio+20 Summit — instead of expending all that human energy on a watered-down document — would have been to big up these processes, and use the presence of those 50,000 movers and shakers to generate real commitments to action — think of the Clinton Global Initiative on steroids. An early effort to put wind into these sails was strongly resisted by the G-77 grouping of states in the U.N., traditionally suspicious of creative arrangements they perceive as weakening the power of the General Assembly. (What power, you ask? Good question.) Brazil, unfortunately, often chose to play to its G-77 roots rather than showcase its own more dynamic approach. Where was the NGO lobby months ago, when it could have helped?

The hard truth is, of the unrealistic and unhelpful voices on multilateral process, the environmental lobby stands out. In watching Rio unfold, I was struck by the sheer number that would be present. Consider this: The total number of people in Rio for the summit roughly equaled the number of soldiers that Britain sent to French beaches on D-Day. Is there any question about which was the more credible mobilization? At one level, the comparison is of course absurd. But the D-Day reference does remind us what 50,000 people can do when set to a vital challenge with courage, discipline, structure, and intensive planning. Rio, to say the least, was not that.

The U.N. is not alone in having had a tough week. It’s been a remarkable few days, in fact, with three simultaneous sets of the toughest negotiations imaginable: in Moscow on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, in Mexico City over the deepening eurozone crisis, and in Rio over — well, taken at face value, nothing short of the health of the planet.

The criticisms are predictable. Summits always fail. There’s no global leadership. You can’t negotiate with recalcitrant states. The G-20 has lost legitimacy. The U.N. is feckless.

Some of this, of course, is true. Negotiators often carry on well past the point when all signals are pointing to failure (to wit: Syria). The U.N. Secretariat is capable of squandering tremendous effort on modest outcomes (I know — I’ve helped). The G-20 this year has struggled to define its mission or to find a credible way to push toward action in Europe. And no one would argue that this is a time of heroic leadership on the international stage.

But a lot of the coming criticisms will fall into the unhelpful "blame the forum" trap. Multilateralism does strange things to people. Pre-committed skeptics go for the cheap shot, ignoring empirical evidence about when multilateralism actually does work and hugely exaggerating the ability of a summit meeting itself to shape outcomes beyond the starting points of key government’s positions. Others are so ideologically disposed to multilateralism that they can’t see poor process and weak analysis when multilateral institutions are responsible for it.

Most baffling is the phenomenon of otherwise sober, hard-headed analysts judging summits, G-mechanisms, and multilateral negotiations by grossly unrealistic standards, often eschewing basic realism in a way that they would never do in examining state policy or a bilateral relationship. Tough problems are, well, tough, whether it’s a government, private sector, or multilateral actor working with the issue. The best forum and best process can help policy achieve policy outcomes, but they don’t create silver bullets. As former U.S. national security advisor Brent Scowcroft so wisely said last week — of another incredibly tough process generating hyperbole and excess expectations, Syria — "just because there’s a problem doesn’t mean there’s a solution." Realism rules the roost in analysis of statecraft and state-based negotiations; it’s just as important in assessing multilateral action, be it at the G-20, Rio+20 or another summit run amok.

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