In case you haven’t heard yet, a massive United Nations conference just been wrapped up in Rio de Janeiro. This Earth Summit, AKA Rio+20, was the largest UN event in history, with 150 Heads of State and 50,000 visitors, including diplomats, journalists, businesspeople, politicians and environmental activists. The mission of this Earth Summit? To save the world by charting a course for a livable future through sustainable development. That was also the mission for the original Earth Summit in Rio 20 years ago, and in Copenhagen in 2009, and in Durban this past winter, and at every other similar conference over the past 20 years. The outcome? Another unacceptable document, weak on ambition and lacking the urgency we need. In other words, failure.
So why are we still here?
We’ve been spinning our wheels for decades. There has been some progress, but nowhere near the response that science demands. The truth is, one group of players keeps dragging us back: big business and industry. They control the political process and policy decisions at every level. This is true around the world to varying degrees, but here in the US, it’s worse than it has ever been. Multinational corporations have unprecedented control over our elections, our politics, and our laws. This also means that they dictate the positions our country takes at these crucial negotiations.
Recently, I got involved in the UN process as a United States youth delegate with SustainUS. The youth are an official, integral, and much-needed constituency at these negotiations, and some of the most inspirational people I will ever meet. I’ve worked alongside passionate, determined young people from around the world: young engineers from Zambia, Maori activists from New Zealand, budding scientists from the Maldives, medical students from China, and scores of committed US youth. We’ve worked together as a global coalition, throwing our energy, ideas, innovation, and our relentless hope at the greatest problems facing our species and our planet.
But over time, I’ve also seen the changes—in body language and demeanor, brought on by fatigue and resignation. Some people become jaded after only a year or two. Some even drop out of the process entirely. One brilliant young delegate told me that she would never come back, that it’s clear who’s running the show, and who pays the price at the end. It was her first conference. Many of us stay on, but instead of boldly pursuing the policies we actually need, we plan our strategies around what is politically feasible. That’s reasonable—except when what is politically feasible bears no relation to a livable future on planet Earth.
Failure to lead
Why do some countries (US, Canada, etc) keep obstructing progress? Do they not like the environment? Do they not like human rights? Do they not want a future? In Durban, US youth delegate Abigail Borah made headlines when she stood up and called out the US negotiators, administration, and the “obstructionist Congress” for blocking progress at the climate negotiations. She was right to call them out. But how can they be accountable to the people of this country if their responsibility to corporate interests takes precedence? It’s time to talk about the real issue. Our political process, our democracy, won’t let us make real progress, from the local to the international level, until we get the money out of politics.
Assault on reason
In the past months, conservative think tanks, oil companies (such as ExxonMobil), and billionaires (like the Koch Brothers, who have their hands in nearly everything, including the Keystone XL pipeline) have stepped up their attacks on climate science and the global warming “hypothesis.” Maybe you saw the Heartland Institute’s recently pulled “I still believe in climate change—do you?” billboard add featuring mass murderers like Osama Bin Laden. Yes, that’s the same Heartland institute who was paid by Phillip Morris to assure Americans that smoking was perfectly healthy. Today, they get contributions from companies like Exxon-Mobil to deny climate change.
The admitted goal of these campaigns is to generate skepticism and disbelief around climate change, and try to drag the conversation backward a few decades. With Rio around the corner, it couldn’t come at a worse time. It’s not hard to understand the motives of these groups. Not only are they making unprecedented profits from fossil fuels, but they have a staggering amount of financial interest invested in the industry. Those are their interests, not ours. Their profits come at our expense.
Get the money out
It’s time to start calling it like it is. In the US, big money interests are ruining not only our democracy, but our chance at a sustainable future. By throwing millions of dollars into this debate, they change the conversation. They actually dictate which possibilities will be put on the table. They use rulings like Citizens United to shell out unlimited money to elect candidates who support their interests. Until this changes, we simply won’t be able make real progress in time to save our country or our planet.
When money equals speech, special interests are able to drown out the voices of the other stakeholders: scientists, farmers, indigenous people, women, the poor, the middle class, the youth, everyone else on this planet. All of us.
When the US speaks, the world listens. It’s impossible to overstate the power and influence the US wields at global negotiations. When the fossil fuel lobby controls the Congress, the US is forced to be the bad guy of the climate negotiations, obstructing progress and condemning the world to increasingly catastrophic scenarios. The fossil fuel lobby, by changing the conversation, radically changes the outcome of conferences like Rio+20, and therefore, the future we will live to see. When they obstruct progress, the whole planet loses. We can’t afford to lose. Let’s start winning, together.
Help reclaim our democracy and our future! Demand action! Sign the petitions to get money out of politics in the USA. Sign the Occupy Rio+20 petition and Friends of the Earth petition to help end corporate capture of the United Nations. They have the money, but we have people power. Our voices must be heard. The future we want starts right here, right now. The future we want starts with you.
Follow the Rio+20 aftermath on twitter: #rioplus20 #futurewewant #mgcy
You can also join the campaign to end fossil fuel subsidies here, and on twitter: #endfossilfuelsubsidies