U.S. Preparations for Rio+20
Sep 9, 2011
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Photo from US Department of State

Governments around the world are gearing up for Rio+20. On September 7th, a conference to discuss the preparations on behalf of the U.S. Department of State, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Security Council, signaled the U.S. is becoming serious about Rio. But to what extent?

Celeste Connors, Director for Environmental and Climate Change at the National Security Council/National Economic Council, spoke about the Obama administration’s goals for creating well-being in the context of development through social and natural capital. According to Connors, Obama’s plan to integrate global health and climate change is the first time any administration has attempted to conquer such prevalent issues and he should be applauded for the effort.

But there was no attempt to define the Obama administration’s exact process of achieving these ambitious goals. She emphasized broad-based economic growth, democracy, responsibility, and governance as being guiding principles to such ends, but skimmed over the process of creating social and natural capital, terms which are broad in themselves.

Michelle DePass, Assistant Administrator at the EPA, followed, touting the importance of Green Economy and good governance. While DePass did stress the importance of involving civil society, business, local government, and non-governmental organizations in sustainable development, it was mostly through the lens of a healthier economy and greener business. DePass stated “countries can create jobs while cleaning up the environment, as long as it is sustainable.”

Highlighted in her speech was the U.S. Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability, which will apply a combination of the above goals to the whirlwind of events scheduled to pass through Rio de Janeiro; Rio+20, FIFA World Cup and the 2014 Olympics. How Green Economy specifically will fit into this ambitious initiative and how it will be implemented in Rio de Janeiro was not discussed.

Finally, Lawrence Gumbiner, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Environment at the U.S. Department of State, addressed an important aspect of Rio+20 which has yet to be emphasized by many; how to inspire an entirely new generation and “bring the global community to Rio even if they are not physically there.” This, he noted, cannot be done through lengthy speeches and documents, but with real dialogue which produces short, focused documents. It was the first call for innovation and development in Rio+20 itself.

Gumbiner also drew on the gaps left by the previous speakers by saying integration of society, environment and economy is “easier said than done.” Rather than simply praising the idea of Green Economy as the lofty intersection of sustainability and economic profit, Gumbiner said such a strategy would have to “resonate with countries at all levels of development” by giving them policy options and a list of best practices to apply to their own circumstances. He pinpointed data collection as essential to this integration.

While it is commendable that all three government representatives are planning for Rio+20, it was less clear how the U.S. government will develop policies and programs on sustainability in the practical sense. The U.S. should be specific about their goals for the conference by honing in on the details; what does sustainable development actually mean for the U.S, are there specific development goals that will be supported, and how can we integrate global health and climate change into a detailed policy? Most importantly, what institutions, policies, or practices do we need to implement to involve citizens in the process?

Information from conference call with the U.S. Department of State sponsored UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) briefing on Wednesday, September 7 from 2:00-3:30 p.m.

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