Back in the day, as I was just graduating from high school, a bold undertaking took place in Rio de Janeiro. The Earth Summit as it was called was a twelve day United Nations conference held to address mankind’s lack of concern for the environment.
The Summit involved 172 governments, 108 heads of state and tens of thousands more. The issues focused on vehicle emissions, air pollution, the growing scarcity of water and how to replace fossil fuels. World governments in 1992 were intelligent enough to realize the quandary the planet was in and were sufficiently ambitious to come up with the Convention on Climate Change which led to the Kyoto Protocol.
Last week, world governments gathered again in Rio to mark the 20th anniversary of the historical summit and try once more to find solutions to our various environmental problems. This time around, the summit was to last only three days and key heads of state, most notably Barack Obama (US), Stephen Harper (Canada) and David Cameron (Britain) among others were missing, casting doubts on the usefulness of the summit from the beginning.
Canada’s Stephen Harper said he did not have the comfort of worrying about environmental concerns while the Canadian economy sluggishly rolls along; that did not prevent Conservative Brian Mulroney from attending and signing on the dotted line twenty years ago, even with unemployment 4% higher at the time.
In 1992, faced with a tough fall election, George Bush Sr. reluctantly attended as not doing so would have been political suicide thanks to the immense media coverage. This time around using the same fall election excuse, Barack Obama refused to attend, but with the lack of a credible news media in the United States; no one cared.
Even without the big names, it was hoped that Rio+20 would energize and kick start talks on how to improve environmental sustainability through a green economy (an idea completely lost on the leaders who did not attend). What we got was a commitment for countries to pay more attention to climate change and to talk about it more in the future; no dollar amounts, no timeline, no nothing.
Canada’s environment minister Peter Kent, who was recently the recipient of a letter from environmental guru David Suzuki for concerning himself with the economy rather than the job he’s actually paid for, said he was “very happy, very satisfied” with the outcome of the summit.
Two things were made abundantly clear to everyone as the Rio+20 conference came to an end; one, the greening of our economies would be left to everyday people. Two, yesterday’s government ambition has turned into today’s government apathy.
When it comes to the environment, in other words the future of the human race, politicians just don’t give a shit. Oil refining and hydraulic fracturing are at record levels, Alberta oil sands continue to expand, even the usage of coal continues to climb.
Greed is of course the bottom line and politicians have given no real incentives for things to change, even the milder, well intentioned programs have failed; owners of electric cars with government subsidized rebates have an average income of $220,000/year. At least the 1% can be green if they choose.
In my opinion we’ve come upon a bit of a paradox. With the politicians refusing to listen, invest or legislate, it falls upon individuals and the free market to take action. The fossil fuel industry will never change, that’s a given. Multinational corporations won’t revolutionize themselves so long as the money is rolling in – and it is, even in a struggling economy.
That leaves just the smaller firms and businesses that don’t necessarily have the funds required for sufficient research and development. So who is left to step up? The way I see it, the nations of the world have done very little to curb global warming up until now, as a result things have only gotten worse; corporations along with big business were free to step in anytime, but they didn’t.
In 1944, Eisenhower referred to D-Day as the great and noble undertaking. The world spared no expense in ridding the world of Nazi tyranny and in doing so brought an end to the Great Depression and ushered in decades of economic prosperity.
In the 21st century, humanity will face no greater enemy than the one we created ourselves and yet our leaders lack the vision and integrity to put us on a more righteous path. Like everything else these days, it seems the next great and noble undertaking will have to start in the streets.