From Rio to Rio: NGLS interview with M.K. Dorsey, Assistant Professor at Dartmouth College

In this interview, NGLS speaks with Michael K. Dorsey, Assistant Professor at Dartmouth College and Director of Dartmouth’s Climate Justice Research Project, about his experience in Rio in 1992 during the United Conference on Environment and Development and how he is engaged in the current Rio process.

NGLS: Rio 1992 and Rio 2012: two similar high-level meetings on sustainable development – or – do you find significant differences between the goals and the “ambitions” of these conferences?

M.K. Dorsey: There are tremendous differences between the two Earth Summit meetings. The two summits differ in goals and ambitions, as well as in terms of their scope, aspirations, and even in terms of their basic design.

Rio 1992 sought to operationalize the Brundtland Commission’s idea of sustainable development at the multilateral level. In 1992 no comparable process had been undertaken at the level of the UN system that simultaneously sought to involve all Member States to plot a course to achieve sustainable development. Further on, the 1992 Rio process co-produced the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – together, we now call these the Rio Conventions.

Critically, the 1992 process provided unprecedented access and opportunities for NGO participation in formal and informal conference processes. The conference set the standard for NGO engagement in multilateral processes. Regrettably, few UN processes to date (the CBD and UNFCCC are two cases in point) have truly tapped the interest and capacity of NGOs. Despite repeated failures to advance the climate negotiations, the UNFCCC secretariat has since COP15 at Copenhagen restricted and otherwise curtailed the participation of NGOs. No viable process has yet been communicated or put in place to fully engage or best utilize NGOs.

NGLS: What was your role during Rio ’92 and how are you currently involved in the preparatory processes of Rio+20? How has your engagement changed?

M.K. Dorsey: In 1992 I was an NGO delegate on my country’s delegation (US) to the official process. I represented an organization called the Student Environmental Action Coalition. We worked with student counterparts in the global South and other diverse networks like Third World Network to showcase how the emerging hegemonic economic system of the day, neoliberalism, was simultaneously facilitating global economic inequality and undermining ecological and social systems. Many centrist commentators received our analysis with open disregard or dismay. They pointed out how neoliberalism helped collapse the old Soviet Union, drive development in the global South and much else. We instead focused on what we called the “unsaid at UNCED:” the uneven balance of trade; the manner in which military budgets dominated economies (especially in the global North and the US in particular); the lack of fair and frequent access to green technology; the overwhelming emphasis on conservation by NGOs from developed countries, and an often open disregard for coupling ecological conservation with development strategies.

On the road to Rio+20 I am now an academic outsider, at best an analyst and a commentator of the policies and processes unfolding. Beyond my capacity as a scholarly observer, I also advise the Stakeholder Forum – an international organization working to advance sustainable development and promote democracy at a global level. Given the arc of my participation over the past two decades, I have been able to remind people of old concerns that have gone unanswered, like many of the issues that defined the “unsaid at UNCED.”

I have been asked by various UN agencies, countries, and non-governmental organizations to share these views. The persistent and growing economic inequality and lack of social mobility we face now is largely a by-product of the policy decisions and positions States and multilateral agencies took and concretized two decades ago. At a minimum I have tried to remind policy makers of this and suggest a wealth of alternatives on the road to Rio+20.

NGLS: What are some of the main differences between the two preparatory processes? What similarities and/or differences do you see in terms of civil society motivation and engagement?

M.K. Dorsey:Some of the largest differences between the 1992 and the Rio+20 processes are the time allocated for negotiations and the infrastructure enabling the process.

The Rio 1992 preparatory committee meetings (PrepComs) were four weeks long and the period in between PrepComs was considerably longer. The preparatory process for Rio+20 is about half as long and twice as fast. The final five month sprint – that will start with formal negotiations for one week per month in 2012 – is approximately the equivalent of one PrepCom during the 1992 process. Further on the Rio 1992 process had a secretariat based in Geneva, as opposed to New York.

Civil society had considerably more input into the formal process in 1992 than it does today. This is ironic and worrisome, given the resolute failure of States (e.g., on multilateral climate change policy options; and economic malaise and inequality) or their lack of major breakthroughs in many other areas (e.g., protection of biodiversity, transboundary waste trade, inter alia). To date, no country delegations have taken on official NGO participants or observers during the official preparatory process. We live in an epoch when social movements have driven the processes to move countries and whole regions away from caustic and destabilizing economic neoliberal practices, have advocated for “mother earth rights,” and have sought a variety of bottom-up, inclusive responses to myriad State failures across social, economic, and ecological policy landscapes. As a consequence, in the midst of tremendous social media technology options, one major shortcoming of Rio+20 will be its failure to properly harness and co-leverage such civil society energy.

NGLS: Are there things governments could still do to further strengthen civil society participation in the lead-up to June 2012?

M.K. Dorsey: Governments still have a chance to co-leverage the fantastic powers of civil society. Whether or not they opt to do so, civil society will continue to be on the leading edge of ideas and action. Long before the Arab Spring, over the two decade arc from Rio to Rio, civil society, seemingly quietly – albeit with tactical eloquence and persistent struggle – worked tirelessly to reconfigure political, economic, social, and environmental policies and practices across other regions, namely Latin America. While the process there is far from perfect, it is a work-in-progress. On many levels, the changes in Latin America and elsewhere are a result of both a dialogue and legitimate struggle between governments and civil society. While the UN may not be the ideal site for struggles with civil society, governments can and should open and create easier pathways for civil society input and dialogue. The UN’s DPI-NGO conference [held in Bonn in September 2011] was one such dialogue space on the road to Rio+20. Regrettably it emerged arguably too late in the Rio+20 process, in the last eight months before the 2012 summit, as opposed to in the year or two before the 2008 UN General Assembly resolution that inaugurated Rio+20.

NGLS: Do you think civil society has carried forward any lessons learned from Rio ’92 concerning the most effective way to engage in Rio+20 and influence its outcome?

M.K. Dorsey: Civil society has done much more than carry forward lessons from Rio 1992. Civil society drives the cutting edge of innovation and agitation for realizing sustainable development in the fullest sense of the term. The present global protests by the proverbial 99% against the 1% and the rising income inequality they spurred and its quasi-unilateral imposition of hegemonic, narrow economic policies are the best examples of civil society’s vanguard leadership and robust vision. The civil society proffered concerns over the “unsaid and UNCED” two decades ago mirror those today by those questioning and actively resisting narrow economic policies that empirically exacerbate social injustice and undermine environmental protection, thereby failing to produce sustainability.

What is uncertain is the extent to which civil society will effectively influence the outcomes of Rio+20. One key domain is the realm of the green economy. At present many of the official proposals for a green economy, from myriad agencies and governments, overlook the wanton empirical failures of a narrowly focused market-myopic economy. Accordingly these proposals make calls to reinvigorate failed carbon markets, advance payment for ecosystem service schemes, and boot-strap heretofore beleaguered carbon and biodiversity offsets initiatives. Myriad civil society configurations, like the Reflection Group and others, consistently admonish such market triumphalism. They make the case that market policies alone are not enough to secure social justice, let alone sustainability.

NGLS: In your opinion, what was the greatest achievement of Rio ’92? What should the needed and necessary outcome of Rio+20 be?

M.K. Dorsey: The greatest achievement of the first Rio Earth Summit was formally inaugurating the concept of sustainable development. As fraught as the concept may be, it compelled many to at least consider how to deliver economic prosperity, alongside environmental protection, both firmly anchored in equity oriented toward increasing social justice.

The challenge for Rio+20 will be to architect genuine processes and policies that deliver on sustainable development, by simultaneously redressing growing economic inequality, fostering broader social justice, and enabling robust environmental protections. Such processes and policies will not be driven by a dysfunctional global marketplace that presently fails to adequately govern the world’s economies, and all the while disproportionately enrich ever narrower swaths of elites. On some levels, Rio+20 must seek to foment sustainability for the 21st century deeply rooted in an ethos of social and economic justice. To do so, in part, Rio+20 must consolidate and abandon old institutions and erect a new multilateral infrastructure to secure such outcomes oriented towards “sustainable justice.”

Further information on Dartmouth’s Climate Justice Research Project is available online.