RIO DE JANEIRO (AlertNet) – Brazil’s Amazon region this year saw its worst flooding in over 100 years of record-keeping, just seven years after it suffered its worst recorded drought.
“We are seeing the cycle of climate extremes has changed totally,” observed Eduardo Braga, a former governor of Amazonas state and now chair of Brazil’s Senate. “What was a climate extreme that came every 30 or 50 or 100 years is now much more frequent.”
“In our opinion this is one of the alerts humanity needs to understand,” he warned Saturday during Fair Ideas, a two-day conference by the International Institute for Environment and Development looking at sustainable development solutions.
Inside the negotiating halls at Rio+20, a UN sustainable development conference that marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Rio Earth summit, delegates continue to haggle over the language of what officials hope will be a roadmap to wresting the world’s economy and environment onto a more sustainable path.
Outside the slow and tortuous negotiations, however, there is a growing realization that issues once discussed as future threats are, decades later, quickly turning into serious current problems, and that the pace of talks to deal with them is not keeping up.
“There’s clearly something happening at the stomach level,” said Johan Rockstrom, a scientist and executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
A SENSE OF FEAR
At talks and conferences in and around the Rio+20 summit, there is a palpable sense of fear among experts once optimistic about solving the world’s problems, and warnings about perils facing the world are becoming more blunt and urgent.
“The total picture is one that needs to shake us in our boots,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP). “There is no way 20 years after (the 1992 Rio Earth summit) you can stand before the world and say on any of the indicators we have turned a corner.”
Climate change is bringing more extreme weather and more weather disasters – particularly droughts and flooding – to much of the world, at huge cost to communities and governments, experts say. Worsening shortages of water and other basic resources are poised to drive increasing competition and conflict. And continued rapid population growth, particularly in the cities of Africa and Asia, is set to reverse hard-won gains against poverty and misery and worsen pressures on the world’s natural systems and resources.
“Fertility bulges are often in places where there is the least capacity and greatest needs, where there are serious resource constraints,” warned Paula Caballero, director for economic, social and environmental affairs in Colombia’s foreign ministry.
The problem is that to effectively deal with the threats, the world needs to fundamentally restructure some of its most basic systems, including its economy, the way negotiations are carried out and the consumption patterns of rich countries – changes that so far have proved politically impossible.
ECONOMIC REMAKE NEEDED
An economic system where companies are allowed to become too big to fail - and so in effect take in big profits in good times but transfer costs of big failures to taxpayers in bad times – is not sustainable and is helping drive worsening recessions, said Pavan Sukhdev, an Indian banker who runs Green Initiatives for a Smart Tomorrow, a consulting firm that advises corporations and governments on economic reform.
Markets, borrowing and corporate balance sheets all need to be restructured, and corporations must be better regulated, he and others said.
International negotiations on problems like climate change similarly are conducted much like World Trade Organisation talks, with countries jockeying to achieve the best possible outcome for themselves and little focus on how those positions add up to an overall answer to a global problem – one major reason so little progress has been made, Steiner said.
“The economic discourse of our time has been so driven by the trade agenda,” he said, that it has reduced relationships among nations to a competition for trade advantage. That is why “the negotiations are trapped,” he said.
Now, faced with inaction and worsening problems, “if we do not go into the heart of the economy… we will meet here again (and) we will be even more culpable for not having focused on where real change is needed,” he said.
Similarly, a system of UN negotiations that require unanimous approval of agreements is producing weak, ineffective agreements, or none at all, experts warned. Moving to a majority vote could be one answer to breaking logjams.
Breaking countries out of old established negotiating groups also is important, said Caballero, of Colombia’s foreign ministry.
“The north-south divide is a mirage (and) we have to transcend that. It is not longer us versus them,” she said. “We need to come up with a sense of collective decision making and need for action.”
Finally, rich countries need to accept that “it’s not the consumption patterns of the poor that are pushing us over environmental boundaries,” said Camilla Toulmin, the director of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.
As the world’s problems worsen and inaction to address them continues, there is a growing divide between those who “desperately want action” and those with their heels dug in against it, Toulmin said.
“Sooner or later we’re going to have that battle of interests,” she warned – one that she predicted could be organized and orderly, or chaotic and violent.
With the current lack of progress, “I fear the second is more likely,” she said.