Politics & Policy

The U.N.’s Rio+20 Agenda

The “sustainable development” agenda will harm health, welfare, and nature.

Twenty years ago, the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit proclaimed that fossil-fuel-induced climate change had brought our planet to a tipping point, civilization to the brink of collapse, and numerous species to the edge of extinction. To prevent these looming disasters, politicians, bureaucrats, and environmental activists produced a Declaration on Environment and Development, a biodiversity treaty, Agenda 21, and a framework for the Kyoto climate-change treaty.

In developed nations, government responses to the purported crisis sent energy prices soaring, which increased the cost of everything we make, ship, eat, and do — crippling economic growth, killing jobs, and burdening families by restricting access to affordable fuel. In developing countries, governments limited access to electricity and other technologies, forcing the world’s poorest families to eke out a subsistence living the old-fashioned way: turning forests into firewood, cooking over wood or dung fires, and living with rampant disease.

This year, recognizing that the public is no longer swayed by claims of climate cataclysms, the organizers of Rio+20 repackaged their familiar agenda to emphasize “sustainable development” and the need to preserve “biodiversity.” To garner support, they profess a commitment to poverty reduction, “social justice,” and the right of all people to “fulfill their aspirations for a better life.”

However, environmental concerns that are mostly far-fetched or exaggerated remain the organizers’ focal point, and they are willing to address today’s pressing needs only to the extent that doing so will not “compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

Of course, no one can foresee what technologies future generations will develop, or which raw materials those technologies will require. Sacrificing the needs of the current generation for the sake of unpredictable future needs makes little sense. Moreover, preventing energy and mineral exploration in millions of acres of wilderness, parks, and other protected areas today could foreclose access to raw materials that will be vital for the technologies of tomorrow — itself a violation of sustainability dogma.

It is equally difficult to determine which resource uses are “unsustainable.” If changing economic factors, new discoveries, or new extraction methods (such as hydraulic fracturing) mean that we now have 100 to 200 years of oil and natural gas, for example, hydrocarbon use may prove to be quite sustainable — it will last at least long enough for innovators to develop new technologies and sources of vital raw materials.

By contrast, “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” may be incorrect designations for wind, solar, and biofuel projects: They affect millions of acres of wildlife habitats, require converting millions of additional acres from food crops to biofuel production, and kill millions of birds and bats.

Of equal or greater concern, activists have repeatedly abused the label of “sustainability” to justify policies and programs that obstruct economic development, and thereby prevent people from fulfilling their “aspirations for a better life.” Set forth in a 99-page report, the U.N.’s latest “blueprint for sustainable development and low-carbon prosperity” continues this practice.

“Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing” (“RP2”) calls for a global council, new U.N. agencies, expanded budgets and powers, greater control over energy development and other economic activities, and “genuine global actions” by every nation and community — supposedly to foster “social justice,” poverty eradication, climate protection, biodiversity, “green growth,” renewable energy, an end to “unsustainable patterns of consumption and production,” and other amorphous and often contradictory goals.

RP2 also seeks to prevent “irreversible damage” to Earth’s ecosystems and climate, as defined and predicted by U.N.-approved scientists, activists, and computer models. Reports by the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and similar groups support the campaign. To ensure that they have sufficient funds to implement their agenda without having to rely on dues or grants from developed nations, the Rio+20 organizers also seek the power to tax global financial transactions and other activities, with revenues flowing directly to the United Nations.

Rio+20 is clearly not about enabling countries, communities, and companies to do a better job of protecting the environment while helping families climb out of poverty. Instead, it is about using sustainable-growth pieties to target development projects, limit individual liberty and market-based initiatives, and provide sufficient wind and solar power to make modest improvements in the developing countries’ living conditions — all the while ensuring that poor families never become middle class, and that communities never conquer poverty, misery, and disease.

Advancing “social equity” and “environmental justice,” as Rio+20 aims to do, will result in perpetuating poverty for developing countries and reducing living standards in wealthier countries. The goal is to ensure more equal sharing of increasing scarcity — except for ruling elites.

The real “stakeholders” — the world’s poorest people — are barely represented at Rio+20. The proceedings are controlled by bureaucrats who do not know how to generate wealth, who generally oppose efforts by those who do know, and who see humans primarily as consumers and polluters, rather than as creators and innovators, protectors and stewards.

If Rio+20 achieves what its organizers have set out to accomplish, citizens of now-wealthy nations should prepare for new assaults on their living standards. People in poor nations should prepare for demands that they abandon their dreams for better lives.

This is neither just nor sustainable. The radical Rio+20 agenda must be rejected — and constructive alternatives found.

— David Rothbard serves as president of Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. Craig Rucker is CFACT’s executive director.

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