The Ongoing Farce of the Green Summits

By Alexander Cockburn

June 22, 2012 6 min read

The predictable word is in from Rio de Janeiro: failure. The conference 20 years on from the huge 1992 Earth Summit in Rio has been unable to produce even the pretense of an energetic verbal commitment of the world's community to sustainable principles.

The reason? These conferences have always been a fraud, lofted on excited green rhetoric and larded with ominous advisories that "this time we cannot afford to fail" and that "the tipping point" is finally here. But failure has been a loyal companion, and many a tipping point has tipped without amiss. There is no such thing as a world "community." There are rich nations and poor nations, and the former will never accede willingly to the agendas of the latter, however intricate the language of the final windy "declaration." The word "sustainable" has long been drained of all meaning.

The general absurdity of these Earth Summits — Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, Durban and now Rio again — is summed up in what the green forces hoped this time could be a concluding declaration to which enough nations could fix their name and declare victory for the planet. Originally, it was to be the commitment to a "green world" but not enough nations cared for that, so the fallback face-saver was a plan for a U.N. treaty to protect the international high seas.

To the greens' utter astonishment, early on Tuesday, it turned out that the U.S. and Venezuela were vetoing this plan. Whatever Hugo Chavez's motives, the reason for the U.S. veto was obvious and should have been from the moment the plan was mooted. The International Treaty on the Law of Sea was ratified in 1982, and the U.S. has always refused to sign it.

The Brazilians threw in the towel, insisting on a spineless final declaration. Like some Trollopian parson, somehow surviving the bureaucratic infighting was the Commission on Sustainable Development, which had been leading a quiet and unassuming life in some U.N. back office. Now the hitherto toothless commission will be elevated to a high-level body and charged with monitoring and enforcing sustainable development goals and will report to the U.N. General Assembly. Among its possible areas of concern: food security and sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy for all, water access and efficiency, sustainable cities, green jobs, decent work, and something called social inclusion.

Welcome once more to the fantasy land of the green conferences, touchingly evoked last Sunday by the Guardian newspaper's sustainable business editor who wrote from Rio: ? "While the politicians are finding it difficult to find common ground, we are elsewhere witnessing the movement... to multi-dimensional collaborations. This is probably one of the most exciting developments we are likely to see coming out of Rio-plus 20 and will offer the first tantalizing evidence of the ability to start taking projects to scale."

A friend of mine, based in the Middle East, came to know Yemen's minister of the environment. A large portion of the Yemeni's duties, decently remunerated by the U.N., was attending not just the big green conferences, but also the preparatory ones, four times a year. He was, of course, only too happy to get out of Sana'a. Now multiply our Yemeni and his diminutive delegation by the 170 odd nations whose platoons of green delegates consume hundreds of thousands a year of U.N. money in travel fees, accommodation — often lavish — and of course, payments. We can safely assume that many of these conferees form stimulating personal relationships, which only increases their loyalty to the process as it loiters through the decades.

These and other conferences continue, year by year, a kind of fiscal stimulus for nongovernmental organizations and the hospitality industry. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, himself, admits nothing useful will be agreed on in Rio, but he says calling such conferences "junkets" is irresponsible. Ban Ki-moon says: "If you can find any alternative, please let me know."

The role of the left has been influential in the formation of this itinerant, gabby pantechnicon with its dramas, deadlines and final null termination. They've grown to love huge international assemblies, preferably located in pleasant surroundings, in which to discuss issues of the economy, democracy and so forth. No less than 50,000 attended Rio-plus 20, earnestly mooting a thousand green schemes in the conference seminars. Part of this is a reflection in the relative powerlessness of the left on its respective home turfs.

For their part, the western governments are prepared to take a moldy cabbage or two tossed at them by disappointed greens. They've done nothing substantive in 20 years. Why should they start now?

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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