Expectations were extremely modest for the Rio+20 Earth Summit that ended last week--and the best thing that might be said about the conference is that it managed to clear that very low bar. Despite the presence of more than 50,000 people and about 100 heads of state and government--though not, notably, U.S. President Barack Obama--the summit produced very little of note. The final statement that was negotiated at Rio--titled "The Future We Want"--was 253 paragraphs of affirmations and entreaties that added up to little more than a plea for something better. The Chinese diplomat Sha Zukang, who headed Rio+20 for the U.N., called the statement "an outcome that makes nobody happy," while environmental NGOs were blunter: "A failure of epic proportions" said Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, adding that the statement itself was "the longest suicide note in history."
It's tempting to use the failure of the Rio+20 conference as evidence that international environmental summits and accords are simply unworkable. But it's hardly only environmental issues that are gridlocked at the global level. Just a few days before Rio, the leaders of the world's most powerful countries failed to make much progress on either the European financial crisis or the violence in Syria--two problems that are more immediately pressing than climate change, water shortages, endangered species or just about any other big-picture issue that was kicked around in Rio. If the leaders of the world can't come together to avert what could be the next great global recession or a growing Syrian bloodbath, fixing the infinitely more complex problem of climate change seems all but hopeless.
So how worried should we be? There's no shortage of frightening studies that tell us we're headed for a climate tipping point--we've covered them here at Going Green. But we've heard warnings about imminent environmental collapse before, and they haven't yet been right, as the Danish economist and environmental contrarian Bjorn Lomborg points out in an essay in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs.
Lomborg looks back to an influential 1972 report calledThe Limits to Growth, by the Club of Rome--a blue-ribbon collection of business leaders, scholars and government officials convened at the time by the Italian tycoon Aurielo Peccei. Based on forecasts drawn from computer models developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Club of Rome predicted that the world was about to hit a wall on vital natural resources like food and energy, even as it was choked by pollution. A TIME magazine story on the report, headlined "The Worst Is Yet to Be?", captured the grimness, laying out a nightmarish scenario of mass starvation, deindustrialization and general collapse--all to happen within our lifetimes.
Obviously that hasn't occurred. On the whole, humanity is significantly healthier and wealthier than it was 40 years ago--especially in developing nations like China and India, which have seen hundreds of millions of people lifted out of abject poverty. The Club of Rome predicted that the world would effectively run out of vital natural resources like aluminum, oil and natural gas; nothing of that sort has happened either, and some of those resources have actually become less expensive. While there are still 1 billion people who go to bed hungry each day--a number that has crept up recently after falling for years--global calorie availability since the Club of Rome report has increased by more than 25%. "Over the past 40 years," Lomborg writes, "the fraction of the global population that is malnourished has dropped from 35% to less than 16%, and well over 2 billion more people have been fed adequately." When famines and mass starvation do occur, as they have recently in parts of Somalia and Sudan, war and political unrest bear more of the blame than farming failures or environmental degradation.
This isn't to say that the world is better in every way than it was 40 years ago--not remotely. The number of endangered species continues to grow, as do extinctions, so rapidly that some scientists believe we may already be entering the sixth great extinction event. (The last great extinction event occurred 65 millions years ago, when the dinosaurs died off and made way for the mammals.) And while the environmental alarmists have been wrong in the past, there's no guarantee they'll be wrong in the future. Some problems--like carbon emissions--are growing even faster today than the pessimists would have predicted a decade or two ago. The 7 billion people on Earth--led by the 1.2 billion people who live in the rich nations of the developed world--are changing the planet so rapidly that we're entering a new geological age called the Anthropocene, one in which humans are dominant force on the global ecosystem. That puts a lot of responsibility on our shoulders to manage the planet, and as the Nature Conservancy's Rob McDonald put it with elegant understatement in a recent essay, "our track record of such management thus far is not encouraging."
So if tackling environmental problems globally seems impossible for now, what should we be doing? For one thing, Lomborg thinks, we should take some of the attention and money that goes to fight climate change and instead put it towards environmental threats that are killing people right now: namely, the lack of clean water and sanitation, as well as ordinary air pollution. Nearly a million people die annually due to outdoor air pollution from sources like coal-fired power plants and traffic fumes, while as many as 2 million people--nearly all in the developing world--die from indoor air pollution that mostly comes from cooking and heating in poorly ventilated huts. "We need to focus on those practical problems," Lomborg told me in a recent interview. "That's where a difference can be made now."
To those who fear that we might be standing on the brink of planetary collapse, concentrating on clean-burning stoves might seem like straightening the pictures while the house burns down. But if there's one lesson we can take from Rio, it's that top-down problem solving isn't an option any longer. Maybe the best we can do for now is try to solve the small problems--and hope that the big ones are less big than we fear.