This is Part 14 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.
As predicted here for a while, Obama will not be attending the Rio+20 Conference. The U.S. Delegation will include some key individuals: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Head of the EPA Lisa Jackson, Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, and others. There will be over 130 world leaders in attendance, but key leaders from the U.S., U.K. and Germany will not be there.
Although there has been pressure from many quarters for Obama to attend, this does not spell doom for any outcome of the conference. It is not clear what Obama’s attendance would have precisely produced and whether he would be able to negotiate any crucial points of the agenda. U.S. negotiators in preliminary discussions have taken a consistent position that the U.S. has taken for many years: resistant to specific funding requirements, technology transfer specifics, or requirements to reign in U.S. unsustainable practices (such as domestic agricultural subsidies, etc.). Especially, in a situation with a divisive set of negotiations between developed and the developing world, the U.S. position has been quite consistent. Would Obama’s attendance have signaled opportunities to revise U.S. obstinance? Not likely. So, although there was good pressure, this is not going to change the U.S. position significantly.
Just because Obama’s absence won’t doom the negotiations, there are some costs. First, the attention to the conference has been narrowly focused. The environmental communities seem to be the only ones largely aware of the conference; and that is a problem. Preaching to the choir certainly has its time and place, but if we are serious about expanding the green economy then the awareness of the agenda needs to be expanded. Obama’s attendance would have increased the profile of the event and Second, the U.S. position suffers and we are more likely not to get the outcome the U.S. wants. The U.S. negotiation position has been to push for a system where small change done globally works. The developing world position has generally been for a more firm system of big changes: more big funding and big governance. Europe has been similarly pushing for some big advancements: like strengthening UNEP. These are broad descriptions with a number of diverging positions, but the U.S. position requires awareness, institutional transparency, and economic incentives for sustainable action. Obama’s attendance was key to articulating this agenda, convincing other states of its importance, and setting the table for the future development of such a system. Without this, if there is to be any convincing of agenda points, I suspect it will be toward other actor’s agendas. Third, it may be establishing a pattern of non-attendance. Bush II was rightfully criticized for not attending the Rio+10 Conference in Johannesburg. Obama should be criticized equally for not attending this Conference. These are the type of Presidential duties that should be expected of U.S. leaders. But, at this point, the U.S. President has missed the last two large environmental conferences and that may become a pattern of non-attendance that hinders not just current discussions but any future discussions.
I think this announcement changes the likelihood of a major breakthrough at the conference only minimally; it is just as likely now as it was before. But, it does change the dynamics of the Rio+20 Conference and the post Rio+20 world. The U.S. is sending a capable set of negotiators in the delegation and the people who will be doing the hard work of revising the set of ideas to establish a clear aim and institution for the green economy are there. But, one more high profile member wouldn’t have hurt at all either.