The beauty of Rio de Janeiro is that however serious your problems you always have the beach where you can sit and watch the sun sink below the horizon while sipping a caipirinha.
But no amount of cocktail sipping and sun watching can blind us to probably one of the biggest problems the planet has ever faced. It is a problem to which there are solutions, but solutions that our political leaders failed to grasp after three days of talks in the Brazilian city.
They will now be back in their capitals pouring over copies of the document signed by 190 nations in Rio. The agreement, called ‘The Future We Want’, is designed to deal with the effects of climate change, to curb CO2 carbon gas emissions and to ensure the world switches rapidly to cleaner energy sources.
Almost everyone, other than the politicians, agree that it fails to do that, and that it is hardly worth the paper it is printed on.
Weak though it is, many countries will simply ignore the document or have their lawyers scan the small print to find ways of avoiding their responsibilities.
A fine example of climate change hypocrisy came from the conference hosts, Brazil. Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, their finance minister, Guido Mantega, announced new trade deals signed with China. “The expansion of trade with China can be infinite,” he said. “China is fast growing and wants to stimulate consumption so they will continue to buy our commodities. There are no limits.”
That’s great for the Brazilian economy, not so good for the sustainable growth and polluted environment that the world had come to Rio to discuss.
While the world leaders were chauffeur-driven with police motor-cycle escorts to the conference centre, indigenous people, religious groups, environmentalists, and more met in a park near the centre of Rio for a people’s conference.
Meanwhile, across from the main conference centre, on a site to be used by athletes in the 2016 Olympics, business leaders gathered to discuss green technologies and their responsibilities in ensuring a cleaner world.
The representatives of major vehicle and agricultural machinery manufacturers and chemical producers agreed with the Amazonian jungle dwellers, the religious groups and the environmental organisations that we are all in this together.
Vehicle manufacturers now vie with one another to prove they can produce the most energy-efficient, least polluting cars. It makes business sense. It is what their customers want. They do not always agree with the environmental groups on means and methods but they are generally pushing in the same direction.
What they all have in common is their criticism that while we have the know-how, the technology and even the money to solve our environmental problems, what is missing is political will.
Leading scientist Robert Watson, who has advised the US government and World Bank among others on environmental issues, said: “The cost of action is far less than the cost of inaction. But there is a lack of political will at local, national and international levels. Some elements of the carbon industry like the status quo and those who want to see the status quo maintained are maintaining it.”
Representatives of the major energy companies were notable by their absence in Rio.
Leading economist Jeffrey Sachs, said the United States, one of the world’s leading polluters, is influenced by the oil companies.
“We cannot depend on US leadership right now. Behind the scenes the US government has been the major footdragger on a number of issues.”
US inaction on climate change is made worse by this being an election year. The economic crisis in Europe also slows down negotiations and acts as a distraction, an excuse to do little or nothing.
The former president of Costa Rica, Jose Maria Figueres, who is now a campaigner on the climate change issue, said the process was flawed, that the negotiators were often old men who negotiated for the sake of it. “All negotiators,” he said, “should be forced to resign when they reach 45. Half should be women, preferably mothers. Then we’d have an agreement within a year.”
The arrogance of power was very evident in Rio de Janeiro during the conference. Already congested roads were blocked by shiny, black official cars escorted by police motor-bikes and carrying heads of state to and from the conference centre. Helicopters hovered overhead while black-suited security guards eyed everyone suspiciously.
But their strutting is looking increasingly ridiculous as big business, economists, environmentalists and ordinary people lose faith in their ability to lead, in their willingness to deal with the climate change crisis and, put very simply, save our planet.
It is not that they do not have the technology and the money. They do. An often quoted figure was the US$ 1 trillion said to be given in subsidies to the oil industry.
“We must put a price on carbons,” said Robert Watson. “Because that would be a stimulant to sustainable development.”
This was a conference to mark the twentieth anniversary of the first major climate change gathering in Rio. Negotiators have met almost every year since then, in Cancun and Copenhagen, Durban and Bali and later this year in Qatar.
More and more countries and social groups have joined the debate, big business is now on board. The solutions suggested range from the hopefully practical to the ludicrously outrageous.
We now have a clearer idea than ever before about the extent of the problem. The climate change doubters sound increasingly isolated and out of touch.
If there was any hope to be found in the aftermath of Rio+20, it is in the fact that the social and religious groups, business and religious leaders, environmental organisations, some politicians, and you and me are realising that our governments lack the political will to do their job and solve this problem, and that we must either put more pressure on them or forge ahead without them.
The only other alternative is to order another caipirinha and watch the sun sink below the horizon from the Copacabana beach.