Summit this week to show cooling trend on warming targets
Since the Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago, the politics of saving the planet have moved full circle. In 1992, the world was four years into the era of global warming. When world leaders meet in Rio this week, it will be 2½ years after the collapse of attempts to agree to a global cap on greenhouse emissions at the December 2009 Copenhagen climate talks.
No country illustrates this more dramatically than Canada — a case of first in, first out. More than any other country, Canadians took the lead in formulating the ideas that became “sustainable development” — the most successful political-branding exercise of the last half century.
The genesis of sustainable development goes back to 1972 and the first UN conference on the environment at Stockholm. Canada’s Maurice Strong was appointed to head the preparations for it after the Swedish government feared the conference was heading for disaster. Developing countries prioritized their economic development and felt threatened by Western environmentalism, as it might infringe their sovereignty and constrain their development.
After Strong got wind of a potential Third World boycott, he convened a seminar of leading thinkers from the development movement. Together they thrashed out the basis for an accommodation between environmentalism and the Third World’s development ambitions: Economic growth is good for the environment of poor countries but bad for the environment of rich ones. Sustainable development had something for both: sustainability for the greens, development for the developing world. That it harbored a fundamental contradiction was not in the interests of either to explore.
It did the trick. The Third World came. Thanks to Strong’s persistence, Indira Gandhi gave the keynote speech at Stockholm. From then on, the global environmental agenda has been tied to the economic agenda of developing nations. It received a further boost with the North-South Brandt report of the early 1980s and was the central message of the 1987 Brundtland report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.
Other than Brundtland herself (a past and future prime minister of Norway), the commission had a distinctly Canadian feel; as well as Strong, who was on the commission, Jim MacNeill, a key participant in the pre-Stockholm seminars, was its secretary. The report lists all the people and organizations that made submissions. There were 77 from Scandinavia and Finland, 35 from the U.S. and 51 from the Soviet Union. The Third World was well represented, including 96 from Indonesia and 88 from Brazil. But one country, Canada, stood out with 207 including from societies and clubs, environmental organizations and governments, academics and students. No other country was as deeply involved. (By contrast, there were precisely zero from Australia and New Zealand.)