Twenty years after the first UN Earth Summit in 1992, the world’s leaders have once again descended upon Rio de Janeiro to talk about the planet. At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, more commonly referred to as Rio+20, they are slated to spend three days (June 20-22) deciding how to address the interrelated evils of poverty, hunger, energy shortages and environmental degradation. Although it is the largest event ever organized by the UN, as Valentine Pasquesoone from French newspaper Le Monde pointed out yesterday, the media's coverage of the high-level meeting has been permeated with a sense of cynicism that seems to hang over the Earth Summit like a cloud of smog.
Among the 50,000 participants, 191 UN members and 86 presidents and heads of government gathered in Rio are Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A New York Times article published online on June 18th, however, focused on the faces that would be missing from the official photographs: those of US President Barack Obama, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Headlined “Global Economy Limits Expectations at Earth Summit in Brazil,” the article attributed the absence of these key figures to their preoccupation with domestic politics and European financial chaos, and claimed that, in consequence, the conference would commence with “few expectations for concrete actions.”
A second pessimistic voice in the lead-up to the summit was that of Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace, who was quoted in a press release dated June 19 (and then widely in the media) calling Rio+20 an “epic failure.” The statement continued: “we were promised a green economy, the Future we Want, but all we can look forward to is three more days of Greenwash.”
Beyond the economic crisis, much of the frustration reflected in the press was directed at the draft agreement that is hoped to come out of Rio+20, which was made public on June 18th, and is to be decided upon on Friday. “The Future We Want,” prepared by the conference’s Brazilian hosts, has been widely criticized for being noncommittal in its terminology (the word “encourage” appears 50 times but “we will” only five, and while “support” appears 99 times there are only three uses of the word “must,” according to the Guardian) and for lacking measurable targets, timelines or methods of moderating progress. On Twitter, Naidoo called the text "the longest suicide note in history."
The Guardian speculated that the “watered-down” text was an attempt to avoid repeating the disaster of the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009 where no deal was reached. In a separate article, the newspaper quoted Jim Leape, the director of the World Wildlife Fund, as calling the text “pathetic” and saying “If you saw this document without knowing what it was supposed to be, you might think that Rio+20 was convened as a seminar.”
Perpetuating the glass-half-empty outlook, an article appeared on Time magazine’s website the day the draft was made public titled "The Rio+20 Summit: Don’t Expect Much," which offered two strong doses of bad news. First, it confirmed that the “planet is in peril,” and second (the “really bad news”) it asserted that “we seem to be completely incapable of doing anything about it at all.” Due in part to the “fear of a pending global economic catastrophe,” and because there are too many divergent interests at stake, “the Rio+20 summit won't get the attention its predecessor earned,” the article predicted.
Despite the positive attention it earned back in 1992, Rio+20’s predecessor also drew downbeat coverage from the press this month. On June 6th, an international team of scientists published a report car for the original Earth Summit in Nature magazine that awarded “F” grades to its top three treaties, based on their implementation over the past 20 years. “The agreements that emerged in 1992 at the first Rio summit were good ones: thoughtful, far-sighted, public-spirited, and focused on global priorities. Yet they have not saved us,” elaborated Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, in a June 19 Al Jazeera editorial. Taking a turn toward pragmatism, Sachs advocated abandoning the idea of a new treaty altogether, and instead seeing Rio+20 as a “global call to action.”
In an example of such action, and one that makes optimistic use of press pessimism, Gustavo Faleiros, the Knight International Journalism Fellow in Brazil, launched a data and mapping platform called InfoAmazonia on Sunday. The tool is intended to help reporters keep tabs on the deterioration of the world’s largest rainforest - one of the issues that sent thousands of protestors marching through downtown Rio today.
Image Credit: Stakeholder Forum