Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rio+20 - The Hangover

George Monbiot, the influential English journalist and environmental activist writes in the Guardian on the failed Rio+20 summit, under the deadline “After Rio, we know. Governments have given up on the planet”.
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.


Harry Dale Huffman said...

This is the angst of the deluded, based upon false science masqueraded as fact before the public. Just stop writing, Mr. Monbiot, you and your like have done too much harm with your unreal fantasies for too long. I want your voices of existential despair and tyrannous "solutions" silenced forthwith.

Elby the Beserk said...

Monbiot in his article claims that the European climate is characterised by being stable and mild. Yet another removal of the Little Ice Age, which of course, in geological terms was only yesterday, and caused devastation in Northern Europe. Monbiot is at hear, just another moralising warmer propagandist whose story is just what he wants to hear. And BOY - is he fond of the sound of his own voice

Neven said...

May you have to adapt much.

Georg Hoffmann said...

"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 "

and so since interests couldnt be aligned ... they gave up.
What is wrong about it?

I think Harald Welzer has a longer article on Rio in the recent print edition of the Spiegel. Cannt bring myself to spend the 4 Euros though...


Reiner Grundmann said...

the question is if they gave up, or of they gave up saving the planet. If the latter, one would presume that the planet could have been saved (but it wasn't because governments were unwilling).

If you put the policy debate in these terms (I don't say you do) then moralizing is all you are left with.

Georg Hoffmann said...


On the way from Rio 92 to Rio 2012 these conferences started with a solvable problem (emission reductions per technique and per treaties) and confronted with difficulties added more and more issues (instead of less). Now it's a "wicked problem" where we have to solve bio diversity, soil treatment, tropical rain forest, social and gender justice, water quality, third world vs first world, whatever.

Now it's guaranteed that politicians will fail and social scientists even explain why. A perfect agreement. I just wanted to mention that indeed THEY GIVE UP ON THE PLANET. A complete failure.

Generations fail on some issues. So what? Might be we (ie our generation) did great on female rights or illiteracy rates but there will be no progress on emission restrictions. Not now, not in the future.

Is this a moral failure? Let me put it like this: If we didnt achieve anything about illiteracy or female rights would that be a moral failure or would you also speak of "the unfortunate impossibility to align national interests"?

Just because you donty like to speak about moral it does not mean that issues have a very important moral aspect.

RainerS said...

"Saving the PLANET"....("OMG"... says the third generation agnostic RainerS)
That kind of languange is part of the problem and not of any kind of sensible approach for some kind of "solution".

The very belief in a "joint effort" of "all nations" to find common grounds in "addressing" climate change (man-made or not) was either highly naive, economically motivtated (gov. money) or just a device for some pseudo-green Westerners to assert or increase the influence of vested interest in world affairs in the first place.

Let´s take a very brief look at "National Interests" of developing countries.

China - after getting rid of the hard-core Maoist clique-of-four - pursued a policy of at least regional developement in mostly coastal provinces. Highly successful in terms of lifting large parts of the populace out of poverty, but still being left with an unbalanced economy even on the national scale and potential trouble spots all over the country. Additionally, holding foreign debts, it does not make sense for them to push for economic stagnation in their trade partners induced by carbon austerity.

India - according to my sources (business people and trade journalists) the country is riddled by a mixture of highly developed hot spots, utter poverty and British-inspired law. Still, the governments tries to improve conditions for development. Not an easy task. Any fans of Naxalits around here? Mr Krauss? Or are you just caring about Ecuador? No offence meant :-)

Brazil - the current SPIEGEL edition (Mr Hofmann is to poor to buy it, help him) gives a decent account of the positive aspects (for a change, largely ignoring environmental impacts). Bottom line: many people lifted out of poverty. By a socialist president and an ex-guerillera incubent - with market economy means, to a considerable extent.

To be continued ...tomorrow (it´s about a Monbiot piece, after all), but the guys paying the taxes for all this Glasperlenspiel-BS need to get up early in the morning ;-)

Werner Krauss said...

I would love to know what actually happened in Rio during the summit. Success or failure is for those who make their living by having an opinion and knowing it better. But there was a summit, too, where people from all over the world met. It would be interesting to learn about strange encounters and what people brought back home, wherever that is.

Reiner Grundmann said...

I came across the following account which offers some insights


Reiner Grundmann said...


of course all policy issues contain a moral element. What I meant was moralizing as a policy strategy which is not very effective.

BTW, climate change as such is a wicked problem, see the separate thread.

Thomas said...

Politicians may start losing interest in the language game of “saving the planet”, because it turns out to be a counterproductive formula.

Und Gott sei Dank. That's what I have been saying for at least 10 years already.
Politicians are only a miror of those who elected them.
The voters (but for a fringe radical minority) have never considered that "saving the planet" was an issue.
They only indulged the politicians making this kind of noise because it didn't matter anyway.

Now that the people who are also voters begin to have some REAL problems and not in 100 years but right now, they begin to quite harshly say to the politicians that the "save the planet" non sense has to stop NOW

An excellent example of what I am writing above will be in my opinion set soon in Australia.
The Labor+Green government just imposed a carbon tax there. I will not be surprised that Labor will be utterly wiped out at the next elections and the first law of the new government will be to abolish the carbon tax.

No politician in the world (but Castro or Kim il Sung) can hope to go against his people and stay in power long.

Georg Hoffmann said...

"of course all policy issues contain a moral element. What I meant was moralizing as a policy strategy which is not very effective. "

Well, might be "moralizing" then is also a wicked problem. I rather miss in the public discussion on climate change clear moral standards or conviction based on which people come to their conclusions. In this sense the discussion is under-moralized, rather the contrary of what you said.
There is virtually no consequence of our actual emission behaviour for now living generations. That makes the climate problem special and a more moral problem than for example "air pollution" or the "ozone hole". Dont you think that it would help to clearly present this moral problem (whatever we do, we do it for someone else)? So bad "moralizing" in your sense means actually referring to moral standard which are not explained.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Not sure I get your point but I am with you if you are saying we should include moral reasoning when discussing climate change (it comes rather as a surprise that you are saying this - thought you were reserving a privilege for science).

And I also agree we should discuss the issue of future generations and which obligations we have towards them. How should we allocate resources? What are the most important issues? How much consideration should we give to unborn generations? etc.

By "moralizing" I mean the denigration of positions one rejects, labelling them as bad or evil. And in this sense we have seen a morally charged discourse. Such an atmosphere does not allow for free discussion of policy alternatives.

Reiner Grundmann said...

On 2 July two news headlines relate to the failed Rio +20 summit.

Dr Rajendra Pachauri: Time to forget governments and use people power to fight climate change

The Guardian:
How would you lead us out of the climate predicament?
Our only option is to lead from below.

Oh, the irony. When the Hartwell paper was published two years ago with a call to bottom up initiatives, it was all but denounced as denialism.

H/T Bishop Hill

Werner Krauss said...

@Reiner #13

"...we should discuss the issue of future generations"

"Future generations" has already become a technical term and lost somehow its meaning; I personally prefer to replace it with "our children and grand-children", for example. If we talk about our children and how to allocate resources, we have to talk about LOVE as the main resource. Do we have enough of it? Is it renewable?

Of course, children are not an issue among others, like economy, for example. They need love, and we have to find love. Some say love is endlessly available once you found it; others speak of eternal love, or of love as the very foundation of democracy (Humberto Maturana, for example).

So should future earth summits be turned into love summits? Sounds a little alarmist for some, I am afraid. But we should consider the possibility...

Reiner Grundmann said...

Love is a private feeling and when you make use of the term "our children and grandchildren" you only can mean your children and grandchildren. I would be alarmed should politics try to occupy this most private element of our lives.

Future generations is a technical term, but it is not meaningless. It is a signifier for the ethical problem of intergenerational justice. It is a problem, with no clear solution.

Perhaps you prefer the private, love-based version of this because you can imagine more easily how to deal with your offspring? How would this be different from a pure Neo-Darwinian response?

Werner Krauss said...


of course, I suggested a "love summit" with tongue in the cheek. But anyway, I strongly suggest to consider love as a powerful resource. Science & politics without love, I think we already had enough of that. To call children "signifiers for the (unsolved) ethical problem of intergenerational justice" is too much sociological honor for those little creatures. Instead, we should kiss & hugg all of them, which is, by the way, far from being neo-darwinian. So come down Reiner, and: Stop - in the name of love!

Hans von Storch said...

Werner, love is the brother of hate, and love transforms often and then seemingly easily into hate. Also, love means mostly highlighting some while putting others into the back. What did Mielke say? Aber ich liebe doch alle - alle Menschen (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XBEqyu5Mck). Also lass mal lieber sein.

Werner Krauss said...

@ Hans

well, love is maybe not exactly a field of expertise in climate science?

Reiner Grundmann said...

your rhetorical question begs another obvious question: is love part of the social science/humanities expertise?

Werner Krauss said...

@ Reiner

Probably, yes. In anthropology, currently "affect" is a big issue, which is already close to love. And there is this whole traffic between place-based or indigenous knowledge and Western culture (which is mostly subsumed under new ageism or neo-shamanism, but nonetheless is still a very powerful tradition of its own).

Furthermore, we indeed have the school of Maturana, von Foerster, Bateson, and others of the constructivist school, where love plays a crucial role. Not to mention the long-standing mutual interest between Buddhist and, for example, MIT scholars.

Even Prings (?) of your estimated Hartwell paper has a paragraph in one of his articles (with Steve Rayner? I forgot, I quoted it once here on klimazwiebel), where he does not talk exactly about love, but about awareness and surprising shifts of perspectives due to a meditative sense of awareness (when seeing the Golden Temple in Kyoto) - not love, but also a specific state of mind which is based on the assumption of an animated world (awareness, attention, feeling - for lovers, the world is animated, too).

all in all, yes, I think there is some expertise in the cultural sciences concerning love, affect, feeling, senses, attention, awareness etc.

Werner Krauss said...


of course, there is much more about love in the humanities; the above is only the result of spontaneous theory-brainstorming!

Reiner Grundmann said...

I agree that there is work on the role of emotions in social interactions, but why focus narrowly on love, the most elusive of all?

Werner Krauss said...



Reiner Grundmann said...

I call it rain


Werner Krauss said...

"everybody's making love, or else expecting rain" (Desolation Row)

Reiner Grundmann said...

Love hurts (Roy Orbison)

Love is the most frequent word in pop songs, so no surprise we can exchange arguments by pop-sci (sorry proxy).

Interestingly, Albert Hirschman made the point that only with the taming of passion could modern capitalist democracies develop (The Passions and the Interests, 1977).