20 years on from the Earth Summit

Hey, remember how at the first Earth Summit in 1992, the US & Japan governments blocked action on carbon taxes and binding global targets on greenhouse gases, saying that such things would push oil to above $30 a barrel? Remember George HW Bush saying, “The American Lifestyle is not up for negotiation”? Remember the horror stories of possible $45 oil, and how that would destroy the world economy? (And yeah, I know that austerity is never a winning platform, and these governments were just hand-puppets of the big car and oil companies. But imagine if they had taken leadership in convincing the companies of the long-term benefit of the simple, elegant solutions already being proposed at the time — like a harmonized carbon tax across developed countries.)

And remember the activist groups who saw climate talks as an opportunity to load in every pet issue, from dismantling the World Bank to increasing aid for poor countries to stopping free trade agreements, rather than just focusing on the task at hand, which was to reduce fossil fuel consumption? (And yeah, I’m as holistic as the next guy, but no, poor countries wouldn’t have been hurt by a carbon tax — at least not as much as they’ve been hurt by the last decade of volatile oil prices. Indeed, some of the biggest success stories in the developing world, such as Brazil and Chile, have high fuel taxes, while the countries like Venezuela and Bolivia that subsidize fuel as a path to development have struggled.)

Anyway, thanks, everybody. There’s another Earth Summit coming up in Rio in June. This article (a couple months old already) gives a good sense of the prospects — which can be summed up by saying that we are on track to join other “dominant” species.

PS: At the first Earth Summit, I was the only person to arrive daily by bicycle. On that, at least, we’ve made some progress.

6 thoughts on “20 years on from the Earth Summit

  1. westslope

    setty: Don’t blame government and big oil. Blame people. Government and big oil do not force our fellow Canadian citizens to sit in their cars in mild temperatures with the engine idling for half an hour…… Or voting against tolls on bridges into Greater Vancouver or running leaf blower and gasoline-powered lawn mowers in the Fraser Valley air shed.

    BC socialists value equity over clean air. Equity is more important than preventing their fellow citizens from dying from bad air trapped between the mountains.

    Harmonized carbon taxes? How about just getting the USA to increase excise taxes on gasoline, diesel, etc? How about getting western governments to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies for farmers? There is no obligation to treat farmers like the Israelis of the global eco-system….

  2. Dr. Faustus

    Will an increase in the levels of carbon dioxide be comparable to dinosaurs and their methane gas? Doesn’t the decay of the Amazon rain forest release most of the earths CO2 into the air? It’s an interesting topic. By the way, I think most methane gas released into the atmosphere comes from cows and termites,….really.

    1. sapitosetty Post author

      The big deal in climate change isn’t whether the temperature ends up similar to in the dinosaurs’ time. It’s just the pace of change, which is driving many species extinct and likely to cause lots of volatility and instability in our own species too.

      As far as the sources of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, yes, most comes from decaying organic matter and cows. But that doesn’t make it “natural” or “sustainable.” The decaying organic matter is fine as long as the forest is regenerating and soaking up carbon as fast as it’s releasing it. That is happening in the US, for example, where forests are recovering fast, but not so much here in South America or western and northern Canada. Cows may be lovely, even, according to the Hindus, even sacred beasts, but functionally, they are just another human-built factory, converting grass, grain, water and energy into protein and waste products that include large amounts of methane. They cause about 20% of greenhouse-gas emissions.

      A carbon tax would be unlikely to have much effect on cattle production, and no effect on termites. But was and is the most elegant way to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fund transitional technologies.

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