Rio+20: Global Leadership Fails to Effect Change

by: Stephanie Roush

June 28, 2012

Twenty years ago, in 1992, world leaders gathered in the cultural capital of Brazil for a United Nations conference on sustainable development that would positively shape global environmental policy for the coming decade. The precedent set for Rio+20 came at a time when there was still hope – and time – to preserve our planet that was being threatened by capitalism and population growth, among other things. Last week, in Rio de Janeiro, the same conference was held, and although influential leaders and international representatives were in attendance, the outcome was decidedly less positive, if not alarming.

Rio+20 protesters
Indigenous groups call for their voices to be heard at Rio+20.
(Christophe Simon/AFP/GettyImages)

Rio+20 provides evidence of the diminishing hope we have as an international community to tackle the vast problems we face concerning the imposing threats on our environment. The summit was meant to address problems such as air pollution, ocean swelling, and water waste, yet the amount of meaningful conversation about these topics was laughable.

For a United Nations sanctioned conference with 45,000 participants and 188 countries present, Rio+20 ended with very little, if any, progress.  Many influential heads of state refused to attend the conference; Barack Obama was notably absent.  After a disastrous summit concerning similar topics in Copenhagen in 2009, many leaders feared the same chaos would occur in Rio,  so they either extended their regrets for their absence or chose to remain silent and passive during the conference.

Brazil, gearing up for its spotlight on the world stage with its hosting of the 2016 Olympics, did not initiate any steps toward new policy.  In fact, in a strategic move, Brazil took the controversial brackets from the proposed agreements set forth by the conference and removed them completely, leaving little of worth to discuss. 

The fear of failure and conflict that permeated the conference demonstrates our current lack of leadership on a global scale concerning the environment. In the time that the global community has remained passive the problems associated with global warming and climate change have multiplied exponentially and now seem nearly impossible to solve.

The many religious groups present at Rio+20 appealed to the moral side of the issue. They argued that as God’s people we have a moral obligation to take care of the planet he created. The Dalai Lama issued a statement following the conference: “We do not have another 20 years to lose,” he said, encouraging international collaboration to form long-term solutions. 

Rio+20 ended with little hope for the U.N. to become the organization to inspire global change in the name of sustainable development.  Capitalism still dwarfs the environment in terms of political priority.  Nations still act in self-interest. The only positive effect of Rio+20 might be the awareness it raised that our leaders, fearful of possible conflict, aren’t yet ready to fix our planet’s most pressing problems. With political inaction, we can only hope for civilian action. 

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