With gasoline prices spiking, a presidential election looming in the fall, and recent failures at reaching sweeping global agreements on environmental policy, the Obama Administration is heading into this summer’s Rio + 20 Conference on Sustainable Development with modest goals, looking for areas of broad agreement and civic engagement that can be touted as populist environmental progress.
“We consider it an aspirational meeting,” a U.S. State Department spokesman told Fox News.
“This is a good, positive meeting,” in which “we go forward in as pragmatic a way as possible.”
The apparent aim is to turn the June Rio + 20 Conference –a nostalgic reference to the last environmental summit Rio de Janeiro hosted in 1992-- into a festival of global greenness, in order to create the widest possible sense of participation around the planet. In short, something like a global Green Woodstock, this time enhanced on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Nevertheless, the long-term goal of Rio + 20 remains the same: to push the world as fast as possible toward a drastic reordering of social, economic and industrial policies, reorganize global distribution of food and water supplies, and engage in mammoth international financing exercises and new exercises in “global governance” to make the whole scheme work.
Only now, the emphasis is on cooperation rather than hard bargaining—especially in the wake of the failure last December of another U.N. effort in Durban, South Africa, to create a new global environmental deal to replace the Kyoto Accord on greenhouse gas suppression, which expires at the end of 2012. The Durban failure followed the even more highly publicized failure to achieve the same thing at a summit in Copenhagen in December, 2009.
Yet another reason for soft-pedaling the discussion is the U.S. presidential elections in November. A happy-face summit in Rio that mobilizes environmental enthusiasm around the world is definitely more to the advantage of the incumbent Obama Administration than a strident meeting that ends in failure or fizzle. The recent spike in gasoline prices in the U.S. is also likely to dampen domestic enthusiasm for environmental mandates that would likely make carbon-based energy even more expensive.
Hence the need for a new strategy. Or, as a U.S. diplomat put it at a U.N. session last month to begin considering the “zero draft” of a communiqué put it: “We should focus on partnership, inclusion, and cooperation rather than false distinctions between countries.”
A first round of “informal-formal” negotiations on the draft is slated to begin in New York City in mid-March, immediately after a major preparatory meeting for the Rio conference that starts on March 4. Negotiations over the outcome document will like continue through the Rio summit itself, which is scheduled for June 20-22.
Conciliatory themes very much lie at the center of U.S. notions concerning the Rio communiqué, chief among them being to keep any broad, sweeping statements about the summit aims short and sweet, and concentrate as much as possible on engaging a global audience.
Indeed, at a preliminary meeting on the draft in December, the U.S. declared that the zero draft “should provide a political statement no more than five pages long. We do not see the need for chapters in a concise political document.”
So far, the zero draft, entitled “The Future We Want,” isn’t there: it is 19 pages long, and broken into five chapters.
One approach for Rio that the U.S. government is strongly backing is to engage as many people, institutions, businesses and governments as possible around the world to sign onto a “Compendium of Commitments” –in effect, a set of green goals of their own devising—that will create a groundswell of activity in line with the conference’s aims.
“These are voluntary, non-regulatory commitments that any party is willing to put forward,” a State Department spokesman who is knowledgeable about the process told Fox News. “It would not require a negotiated resolution on behalf of the U.N. community. “ It could be, say, a beverage company that promises to cut water usage over the next ten years.”
“This is what we really see as valuable.”
To that end, a flotilla of senior Obama Administration officials descended earlier this month on Stanford University, for a two-day conference entitled US Rio + 2.0, on using “connection technologies,” meaning social media, “to advance sustainable development solutions in the fields of health, the environment, agriculture, and sustainable economic growth.” The conference aimed at highlighting a fast-mutating array of high-tech opportunities to create new solutions to social and economic problems—akin to the Compendium approach that the U.N. is now advocating for Rio + 20.
At the Stanford session, Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson declared that “The Internet and social networks give citizens from across the globe the ability to participate in the push towards sustainability in their own communities. We should challenge ourselves to find creative new ways to apply existing technologies, and look ahead to emerging technologies and their potential impacts.”
Jackson’s statement is now linked prominently on the State Department’s own Rio + 20 website page.
But even while discussion of the Rio + 20 outcome is being framed in feel-good, futuristic terms, the old, tough issues of the global green economy debate linger in the bureaucratic langue of the middle passages of the zero draft document.
Among other things, the document as written includes an agreement to “provide new, additional and scaled up sources of financing to developing countries,” without going into details. It also includes a need to “gradually eliminate subsidies that have considerable negative effects on the environment and are incompatible with sustainable development”—rhetoric that could justify such controversial measures as the Obama Administration’s new, proposed tax bias against oil and gas companies.
Moreover, the document contains a time line that, in veiled terms, continues to call for more efforts to overcome the failure to produce a comprehensive global agreement on “sustainable” development by 2015 that would take increasing effect over the following 15 years.
It also argues that “strong governance at local, national, regional and global levels is critical for advancing sustainable development,” and says strengthening this “institutional framework” should involve identifying “specific actions in order to fulfill the sustainable development agenda through the promotion of integrated decision making at all levels.”
When it comes to what specifics the U.S. delegation favors, a State Department spokesman told Fox News that “what happens will be coming into focus in the next few months.”
In the meantime, he said, “we are listening to a lot of views.”
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News and can be found at Twitter@GeorgeRussell
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