It is, perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. The Earth's living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations – the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia – could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit in Rio last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue "sustained growth", the primary cause of the biosphere's losses.
The action – if action there is – will mostly be elsewhere. Those governments which retain an interest in planet Earth will have to work alone, or in agreement with like-minded nations. There will be no means of restraining free riders, no means of persuading voters that their actions will be matched by those of other countries.
Monbiot’s focus is shifting from climate policy goals to more old fashioned environmental protection, the protection of species, ecosystems and natural habitats.
He ends his comment with an admission:
Giving up on global agreements or, more accurately, on the prospect that they will substantially alter our relationship with the natural world, is almost a relief. It means walking away from decades of anger and frustration. It means turning away from a place in which we have no agency to one in which we have, at least, a chance of being heard. But it also invokes a great sadness, as it means giving up on so much else.
Nine months before the Copenhagen summit in 2009 he wrote:
The world won't adapt and can't adapt: the only adaptive response to a global shortage of food is starvation. Of the two strategies it is mitigation, not adaptation, which turns out to be the most feasible option, even if this stretches the concept of feasibility to the limits…Yes, it might already be too late - even if we reduced emissions to zero tomorrow - to prevent more than 2C of warming; but we cannot behave as if it is, for in doing so we make the prediction come true. Tough as this fight may be, improbable as success might seem, we cannot afford to surrender.If we compare both comments, it is clear that he has surrendered but now thinks surrender is not the end of the fight. This admission deserves respect even if it comes late. However, it is remarkable that Monbiot does not see the importance of adaptation, nor the potential of decarbonizing the energy systems through technological innovation. Beneath his shift of perspective he still holds fast to an alarmist and moralizing rhetoric and an emphasis on the protection of the natural environment. These form the bedrock on which he builds his ecological policy: one which is rather backward looking, attempting to preserve (or restore) the beautiful English countryside. It is quite disappointing that he should draw such a lesson from the failure of a global treaty strategy.
The failure of Rio+20 does not mean that governments have “given up on the planet”. It means that the national interests could not be aligned for a consensual yet strong policy document (the implementation of which would have posed yet other challenges). Now the discourse is shifting from one which was dramatizing and alarmist to another one, which has not taken clear shape yet. Politicians may start losing interest in the language game of “saving the planet”, because it turns out to be a counterproductive formula. Monbiot is still engaged in it.