The Action at Rio+20 is in the Sideshows


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John Dernbach of Widener University's law school describes how the most meaningful events at the Rio + 20 meeting were those out of the limelight.

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The Action at Rio+20 is in the Sideshows

  1. 1. A “Your Dot” dispatch from the Rio+20 meeting for Dot Earth from John Dernbach, co-director of the Environmental Law Center at Widener University:The U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development here in Rio de Janeiro will produceunofficial outcomes that are at least as important as the official outcome. Theseunofficial outcomes come from the hundreds of side events occurring all over the city—not only at Rio Centro (where national delegates meet) but at also at Athlete’s Park, theBotanical Garden, Flamengo Park, and in dozens of other locations. They cover everyimaginable subject—including cities, agriculture, energy, climate change, business, andindustry, higher education and the role of women. The organizers of these side events,too, have a range of ideological perspectives, including folks who tend to see business asbad and others who see business as a necessary part of the solution. They use these sideevents to showcase achievements and lessons learned, identify problems and determinewhat to do next. It is difficult to imagine a richer learning opportunity. One can fullyexperience the conference on any given day here in hundreds of different ways.These side events can have lasting consequences for those who attend them. At theoriginal Earth Summit here in 1992, I attended an event at which two World Bankofficials explained projects that the newly created Global Environment Facility wasfunding in Mexico, Bhutan and elsewhere. These projects, they explained, were creatingjobs, building local economies and protecting the environment. It was at that side eventwhere I first understood what sustainability could mean in practical terms. No matterwhat side event one attends, all are trying to answer the same question: how can we makemore progress? My new book, “Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating theTransition to Sustainability,” attempts to answer that question for the United States.Here’s a relevant excerpt:How do we build on the progress made to date, overcome these obstacles, and thusaccelerate the transition to sustainability? Four broad approaches are needed. First, weneed better sustainability choices—options that make even greater progress towardsustainability than currently available options, and more options and tools for a greaternumber and variety of activities. Second, the United States needs to move from an almostexclusive reliance on environmental regulation to a greater variety of legal and policytools, including economic development, the repeal of laws that foster unsustainabledevelopment, and the like. In addition, the United States needs to adopt legislation thatdirectly and fully addresses climate change.Visionary and pragmatic governance for sustainability is a third needed approach—at alllevels of government. This kind of governance requires a bipartisan national strategy thatcan guide the nation’s sustainability efforts over a long period, an equally strongcommitment to research and development of innovative technology, an intensified focuson public education, and greater public participation in decisionmaking for sustainability.Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, to achieve the kind of effort needed to create asustainable America, we need a national movement that builds on the many local, state,organizational, and sector-specific movements described in this book.