Commentary: The Rio+20 Earth Summit: A chance to set our planet in the right direction

Special to McClatchy NewspapersJune 18, 2012 

We are two aging environmentalists with more than 80 years between us spent advocating for a cleaner planet and healthier economy. Even from our well-worn perch, what will be taking place at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil this week has the makings of a potential game changer.

The summit is the largest ever organized by the United Nations and is expected to draw more than 50,000 people from 190 countries, including 130 world leaders. The last time the UN organized a conference of this magnitude was 20 years ago in Rio de Janeiro – thus the conference nickname, Rio+20. Just as it did two decades ago, the UN is bringing together governments, international institutions and other major groups to consider a range of measures that will promote economic stability while restoring the delicate balance of the earth's diverse ecosystems.

If anything, the stakes are even higher today.

We've seen the effects of the cumulative impact of over-consumption, over-reliance on fossil fuels and the unending push for material growth at any cost. At the same time, we are facing growing wealth disparity and increasing poverty across the globe. World economic and environmental policy can either come together to support an ecologically sensible future or pull further apart, threatening the health and well-being of our planet and all living beings for generations to come.

At this critical juncture, Rio+20 offers an important opportunity for action. We should start by recognizing that saving our planet is not only essential – it is absolutely doable. Our organization, Foundation Earth, reviewed more than a dozen scorecards that grade nations on major issues effecting sustainability. We found examples of countries that are excelling in critical areas:

* Germany leads the world with more than 20 percent of its electricity supplied by renewable resources such as wind power and solar. It is on a path to reach 100 percent renewable energy perhaps as soon as 2035, precipitating the shutdown of all the country’s nuclear power plants, generating hundreds of thousands of jobs and creating a model for a vibrant green economy.

* Ecuador became the first country to include a Rights to Nature provision in its constitution in 2008, giving people the legal authority to enforce the right of ecosystems to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.”

* And the Dominican Republic has strove since 2003 to increase the country’s forest cover, which is critical to ecosystem health, water supply and weather stabilization, from 32 percent to nearly 40 percent.

Rio+20 also offers a unique opportunity to learn from past mistakes – and vow not to repeat them. Notably, Brazil, the summit’s host country, is fast becoming a microcosm of what not to do as it follows in the footsteps of other nations whose rise to world economic prominence has been accompanied by an increase in degradation of the planet.

Brazil’s leaders seem determined to hinge the nation’s economic future on becoming a dominant player in world agriculture. To that end the country is poised to sacrifice the Amazon rainforest, the world’s greatest, through extensive industrial agricultural expansion of food and biofuel crops and massive dam building. The result will be catastrophic weather disruption in Latin America where the Amazon acts as its own rain-making machine and weather regulator.

In January Brazil’s new president Dilma Rousseff expedited plans for 20 major dams in the Amazon by removing protection of natural areas. The huge Belo Monte Dam will displace more than 20,000 indigenous people, inundate forests, ruin fisheries and release massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Brazil has now graduated to second place as the world’s second largest destroyer of rivers, after China.

The summit offers Brazil’s leaders the perfect opportunity to reverse course on recent actions to weaken the country’s Forest Code, which, among other things, gave landowners the right to significantly decrease rainforest preservation.

Again, this is not an insurmountable task. The U.S., once the world’s greatest river destroyer, is now a global leader in restoring free-flowing rivers. Since 1970 more than 250 rivers in the U.S. have been put off limits to damming and diversion and more than 1,000 dams have been removed to restore fisheries and water quality.

Of course, all these measures are simply pieces of a larger puzzle. Taken together they have the potential to spur critical action toward the creation of a global green economy. The first Rio summit in 1992 led to the implementation of the “Kyoto Protocol” on limiting greenhouse gases, a measure that has unfortunately not lived up to its initial promise. Let’s not squander the opportunity this time to ensure that 20 years from now our planet will be headed in the right direction and that Rio+20 will be a model of collective resolve in reaching our ultimate goal – an environmentally and economically sensible future.

ABOUT THE WRITERS

Brent Blackwelder is president emeritus of Friends of the Earth and founding chairman of American Rivers. Randy Hayes is the founder and former executive director of the Rainforest Action Network. They recently formed Foundation Earth, an advocacy think tank working for a sustainable economy, and just released “The Economic Rethink,” a report that grades the world’s nations on their progress toward sustainable economies.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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