This is Part 3 of a series of blog posts leading up to the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 20-22. The full series is available here.
A host of NGOs, Facebook groups, and analysts have been calling on Obama to attend the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. President George H.W. Bush in 1992 attended the original Rio environmental conference and reiterated throughout negotiations that “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.” President George W. Bush in 2002 did not attend the Johannesburg Summit and instead sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the conference, with less than stellar results. Should Obama attend the Rio+20 Conference and with what expected results?
The Obama administration has a negotiation philosophy at Rio+20 rather than key specific negotiation goals. Stewart Patrick, at Foreign Policy Magazine, writes that:
The Obama administration is placing its faith in more creative “bottom-up” innovations that may percolate up from a variety of actors. The time has come to “go beyond traditional models for global cooperation centered on government to government meetings and formal institutions,” reads the official U.S. submission to the Rio summit. Translated from diplomatese into plain English, the United States believes that new communication technologies enable civil society, the private sector, and governments to learn from each other and develop new methods.
This broad goal is to: 1. make environmental performance, of companies and governments, transparent and responsive and 2. create a global political order allowing civil society to pressure other actors and develop innovative solutions. One wonders how such a system would function in the very problematic authoritarian states (namely China and Russia). Stewart continues that “The U.S. approach relies, implicitly, on public pressure. It hopes that after putting national commitments online, and making them globally available, citizens across the world will pressure governments or private companies to fulfill them.”
What would be the necessary conditions for such a system to be achieved?
- Specific Agreements. The Millennium Development Goals, Biodiversity 2010 Target, and a lot of other current global governance agreements rely upon voluntary agreement. Many are vague and nonsubstantive, and although all seem to provide improvement, few have been reached. Agenda 21 has parts which are extremely vague. In order to have a system of enforcement on standards, we need to have clear standards for civil society to push states on the issues. Even if there were some voluntary criteria, established criteria would be Step 1 in achieving the U.S. goal at Rio+20.
- Reporting and Monitoring. The current corporate sustainability reporting system is not working. There is no effective compendium on state environmental performance, although in many matters this would be quite effective. If we are to actually create a system where we can hold worst practices accountable, we need a significantly increased system. Corporate sustainability reporting must require actual investment decisions by companies to reduce their environmental impact. State environmental reporting must include significant reporting on the environmental conditions in the country. Let me reiterate: The system does not exist now, it must be created. And Rio+20 is the next opportunity.
- An active NGO community. The U.S. approach requires an NGO community that can evaluate, target, and continue pressure on corporations and states. This requires that they have funding, general public awareness, and corporate interests in responding to pressure. While other international aid organizations have been crucial in fostering NGO reporting and monitoring of corporate behavior, USAID has only recently took on the issues but enthusiastically. However, awareness needs to be a crucial aspect of this project and that is going to require trusted NGO campaigns and general public awareness to assist in this.
Missing any of these components means that the new U.S. global environmental philosophy will be problematic, if agreed to at all. And that is the reason Obama should attend the Rio+20 meeting. It is up to the negotiators in the U.S. team to create the first and second components, but awareness and an active NGO environment are up to the President and political leaders. A lot of political leaders are not going to take up this issue, but if our issue is not to disrupt the conference but to actually push a new bottom-up order, awareness is crucial. Obama’s attendance is crucial to the U.S. position. If we want to continue the top-down agreement approach that has been used on other issues, then Obama can stay at home; however, if we want to create a new global environmental political order, Obama’s attendance might be necessary.
To President Obama: Attend the Rio summit, not for anyone else’s agenda, but for your own.