Quick answer- No. Now don’t get me wrong, is the current system working? No. Are minor fixes the most effective strategy all the time? No. Are the challenges being faced daunting? Yes. But do these three add up to the need for an overhaul…I’m not so sure.
It seems many are approaching the Rio+20 Conference with the same criteria set leading into the Copenhagen Climate Summit: All or nothing. A number of expert analysts are emphasizing that Rio+20 symbolizes a ‘Constitutional Moment’ (see: here, here, and my analysis here) where opportunities for significant overhaul of the system are possible. The UN Foresight Panel similarly emphasized institutional overhaul as crucial to stopping the range of environmental destruction and disruption. A recent article quoted Laurence Tubiana, director of IDDRI in Paris, as saying that “In the past 20 years, the landscape has completely changed…Today there is a crisis of multilateralism, conflicts and absence of leadership.” There is thus a loud call for the need for overhaul, and increasing despair that such overhaul might not be accomplished.
Action is urgent. I agree with all of the authors linked above that environmental action needs to be urgent and high on the agenda. I think the environmental services provided to a mass of the world’s population is in a particularly precarious situation and that large transformations (climate change, loss of biodiversity, tropical deforestation, and ocean destruction) will shatter these systems. So I will not make any plea for just sitting back and accepting the least common denominator solutions that will be presented to us. That road is heading off a cliff.
However, while agreeing that action is urgent, does that necessarily mean that overhaul is necessary. This is where I start questioning the argument. Human action and reform is urgently needed to prevent (mitigate) large-scale environmental collapse; can our current institutions achieve this? I don’t see why not. Changing practices can occur through treaties, laws passed by countries, emission targets, governance supported pollution credits, etc. But can’t they be changed in other ways as well? Education, improved governance accountability, and small changes of priorities may be just as effective. This is an empirical question and, I think, largely one about costs. Treaties are monetarily cheap but require expenditures of political capital (Tubiana’s leadership). Broad-based changes are cheap in terms of political capital, but expensive in terms of money. That’s the trade-off.
The best system would probably be one with both aspects of governance: Treaties and broad-based changes. But failure in one aspect does not necessarily mean failure over all. If Rio+20 generates significant funds for the institutions created at the first Rio summit (whether this is the maturing Convention on Biological Diversity, the efforts of the Convention Concerning Desertification, or the Global Environmental Facility), this may be worth far more in our efforts to deal with the urgent needs of the environment than any overhaul (particularly, any overhaul that is possible in the divisive environment).
Don’t mistake this for blind optimism….It looks rough. However, if we start from the point where overhaul of the system is the only pathway for effective action, we are liable to quickly be disappointed (or need to believe the broad platitudes of the eventual Rio+20 Declaration). If we keep the focus on the end goal of changing humanity’s relationship with the environment, we may be able to push for significant monetary support rather than institutional overhaul. The main concern of this post is that if we peg our hopes on Overhaul or Nothing, we may end getting nothing. If we peg our hopes on significant action setting the agenda for more collective efforts in the future, we may end up getting a very different outcome from Rio+20. Let’s not just focus on overhaul, if we can achieve things in multiple ways.
Looking only at one pathway to changing human interactions with the environment may blind us to some of the amazing opportunities available at Rio+20 for changing this interaction.