Bjorn Lomborg on the Rio Green Summit: Poverty Pollutes

A message from Bjørn Lomborg to organizers of the Rio+20 environmental summit: poverty pollutes.

The upcoming United Nations green summit in Rio de Janeiro is in trouble—and with good reason. The planners of the mammoth event have been unable to agree on just what to say in the outcome document, ironically called “The Future We Want.” This week, dignitaries are meeting in New York City for a final attempt to find common ground.

It won’t be easy. Over the past four decades, the U.N.’s concern for “green” issues has moved ever closer to the fashionable concerns of rich Westerners and away from the legitimate concerns of the overwhelming majority of the earth’s people.

It wasn’t always like this. Forty years ago, the first U.N. environmental conference in Stockholm helped to crystallize the global need for sound environmental policy. Over the next 20 years, however, the emphasis became much more driven by Western concerns. Whereas Stockholm had been a conference on the “Human Environment,” the theme of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was “Environment and Development”—and development took the back seat.

This summer, 20 years further on, dignitaries from around the world are again heading for Rio, and development has almost entirely slid off the negotiating table. While paying lip service to goals such as poverty eradication, Rio+20 (as the gathering is known in U.N. parlance) will focus on “sustainability.” It’s a word that used to be about human needs. The classic U.N. definition, published in the world body’s 1987 Brundtland report, put it this way: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But today the term is code for global warming and similar concerns. In a remarkably honest Reuters interview, Brazil’s chief Rio+20 negotiator, Ambassador André Corrêa do Lago, says the summit’s “sustainable” branding is deliberate: “Sustainable development is an easier sell globally than climate change, even though sustainable development is a way of tackling global warming and other environmental issues.”


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