Published on June 19, 2012

See you at Rio+40?

By Rosalie Callway

Rosalie is supporting Involve in looking at the central role of public engagement in delivering sustainable development, identifying new opportunities for engagement, building the evidence base for how engagement can assist changing attitudes and behaviour, as well as ways to scale up engagement.


Rosalie Callway reflects on some of the challenges with getting citizens’ voices into the Rio+20 summit.

Watching a UN Summit from afar is a strangely detached experience. We read about negotiators dithering over previously-agreed debates on the ‘right’ to water and food. The Brazilian government wanting to ‘save’ the process by rushing through a watered-down agreement in time for Heads of State (or their deputies) when they turn up on Wednesday (20 June). There’s no denying that meaningful outcomes are looking increasingly unlikely. Civil society representatives attending the meeting are certainly unimpressed and released “the future we don’t want” e-petition;


We want Governments to deliver the people’s legitimate agenda and the realization of rights, democracy and sustainability, as well as respect for transparency, accountability and the honoring of promises and accomplishments already. Sadly, time is running out. A rushed and weak agreement will be neither acceptable to us nor representative of the future we all want.”


The tragedy is that the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) created out of 1992 Rio Summit had been one of the more innovative global bodies in relation to multi-stakeholder dialogues. Agenda 21, also agreed in Rio, recognised nine ‘major groups’ as vital to achieving to this enigma called ‘sustainable development’: Business and Industry, Children and Youth, Farmers, Indigenous Peoples, Local Authorities, NGOs, Scientific and Technological Community, Women, Workers and Trade Unions. Each year, representatives of these groups were given the floor, in front of governments, to share their view the issues from biodiversity through to finance. They were there to give some ‘reality’ to the actions that governments were trying to agree. Despite this seeming openness, the momentum of the process has slowed to reverse, with a growing unwillingness by governments to actually listen, agree and act upon much of substantive value.


The UN has tried, in the midst of elections, conflict and G20 meetings, to stoke up some public attention for this year’s summit. Nearly 65 million people have signed up to personal actions through the ‘Volunteer Action Counts” website. It also offered an online vote “for the future we want’. The top 10 issues that have come out of the vote are pretty broad statements, including: “Sustainable Energy for All – Take concrete steps to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies” and, “Sustainable Development as an Answer to the Economic and Financial Crises – Promote tax reforms that encourage environmental protection and benefit the poor”.


So the ‘public’, or at least those aware of the online vote, have shown some commitment and given their views but what will governments do with this information? Are they just ‘fun’ popular exercises? On the link to formal process, the UN is silent. Rather than toying with such online tools UN diplomats could be using them much more deliberately, and recognising them as a part of the formal process. They could be working much more directly with the public, helping to bring real media attention and political pressure.


In the mean time, we’re left with three blocks:


  • Inertia – political and personal – the western world remains unwilling to take serious measures to shift our behaviors.
  • Inequality – wealth for west and elites whilst the rest of the world faces enormous need and justifiable desires for growth.
  • Ignorance – a failure by political leaders to take the long view, take the public seriously, listen and then respond with clear and relevant policy.


I don’t envy those diplomats who are trying to bring the world’s nations to some kind of consensus but agreement, however weak, must be reached. Back in 1990 the ex-UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pointed out the obvious; “we are one world. The fact is that you cannot divide the atmosphere into segments and say: “All right! We will look after our bit and you look after yours!” We shall only be able to deal with the problems by a giant international effort in which we all cooperate….”. In her statement, Thatcher concluded “The problems do not lie in the future—they are here and now”. Speech opening the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, May 25th 1990). I hope it won’t take another 20 years to take that point.

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