The long, steep drop from Rio

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit was a watershed moment in global environmental governance — yet today our weather maps need new colours to illustrate our climate's warming. What happened?

By Michael Berkman
Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Rio Declaration, the Convention on Biological Diversity and Agenda 21 that flowed from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 seem to me to have represented genuine recognition from nations across the globe that governance structures everywhere had failed to impose sustainable limits to development, which represented a genuine threat to earth systems and global biodiversity.

Here in Australia, this global impetus was reflected in the endorsement by COAG of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development in 1992, and a slew of environmental regulation from Governments in every jurisdiction in the following years — the environment movement was given not only cause for hope, but also some legislative teeth.

What happened?

Fast-forward 25 years to Earth Day 2017 and any genuine governmental support for the principles or practice of ESD seems like a distant memory.

Both parties of government are now rushing us desperately towards an environmental nightmare in the Adani mine in the Galilee Basin, a project so demonstrably awful that a once-in-a-generation alliance of environmentalists, scientists, economists and everyday Australians is coming together to put a halt to it. All while the Coalition is attempting to partially bankroll it with federal loans and shred hard-won native title laws to make it easier for this monstrosity to go through, and the Queensland Labor government is passing laws to remove scrutiny of their water licenses and granting 'critical infrastructure' status to the mine. It could not be more clear that these governments are governing for their donors, not their voters.

It underlines how broken our environmental laws are when this mine which, if it were a country, would be the seventh biggest polluter on the planet, can get the tick-off under state and federal environmental laws.  Laws which, a quarter of a century after Rio, have no capacity to weigh the impacts of the emissions resulting from this coal mine, simply because they will be finally vented overseas. This is the same moral fiction that allows our government to dismiss the suffering of refugees trapped in our immigration system simply because their suffering happens offshore.

Blame politics

Our moral obligations do not stop at the horizon. Nor will the consequences. As our weather maps track into new colours and our seasons extend into new months, our jobs and ways of life are threatened by the changing climate that the older parties refuse to act on. Our homes and businesses struggle to rebuild after each once-a-century storm that happen more and more often. The bare bones of our Great Barrier Reef show through more each year and the 69,000 jobs that rely on it become increasingly insecure.

How did we get to this and why, when the evidence was so clear so long ago? A Senate inquiry in 1989 was in no doubt that climate change was real and needed action:
“The experts with whom the Committee met confirmed that there is irrefutable scientific evidence that the composition of the atmosphere has been, and continues to be, altered significantly by human activities”

Politics. In the increasingly derogatory sense of the word. From initially promising moves by the then-Labor Government, we saw John Howard's foot-dragging then begrudging promises to act on climate change, followed by the outright denial of Tony Abbott's reign. And now, under a prime minister who believes in the climate emergency but will do nothing to address it, we see a government contorting themselves, and our parliament, to wave through a juggernaut that will destroy Australian jobs, the environment and in one, terrible stroke, undo global efforts to reign in the extremes of climate change.

And from shuffling their feet meekly at the federal level, to actively bolstering this mine at the state, Labor carries as much blame.

It's up to us

We can regain the optimism of the Rio Summit, but we need to inoculate our politics from fossil fuel money that has so successfully derailed meaningful action. The Greens stand with the thousands of Australians on the frontlines of the fight against Adani, and all the other fights where citizens have to front up to stop their governments destroy their environment. It's time to put some real backbone into our environmental protection regime.

It's time to get coal money out of politics and facts back in.

Michael Berkman is a lawyer and the Greens Candidate for Maiwar at the next Queensland State Election. See his candidate web site for more information.