Global relationships in urgent need of warming

“The main thing that struck me is the problem of the shape of the conversation ……”

These were the opening words of today’s early morning panel discussion moderated by the BBC’s environment correspondent, Richard Black.

I’m not sure what they mean but we keep being told by important people at the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference that conversation shape is what stands between us and sustainable development.

It was Professor Nigel Cameron who lapsed into the mantra. As if to correct the blemish, he thoughtfully added an explanation:

It seems to me a reshaping of the conversation in which the major leaders in the business community and in government are involved as parties round the table week by week, conference by conference, is going to be necessary.

I get it now. Decision-makers have failed to turn up to this conference to learn from the experts, just as the other Cameron is a no-show for the UK delegation at Rio+20. It’s more about the absence of dialogue than its shape.

I couldn’t help reflecting how the science and development communities are themselves inclined to go about their business without speaking to the very people whose input is most relevant. Whichever way I looked at the proceedings today, examples painfully reared their heads.

None more so than the special theme of urbanisation which the organisers thrust before us. Reams of material conveyed visions of sustainable cities – “the planet can’t afford not to urbanize.”

The relevance of rural communities tends to be forgotten by the urban geographers. It was left to Professor Bina Agarwal, Director of the Institute of Economic Growth at Delhi University, to straighten things out at the press conference:

I think we cannot just talk about urbanisation without talking about the entire rural sector. It’s particularly important to remember that 60% of the population in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa still live in villages. That’s where people grow the food…..we have a great deal to learn from what happens in villages in how we live in cities.

Not that Bina herself was squeaky clean today on this curiously humanitarian version of Chinese walls. Her conference speech was an impeccable argument for achieving food security in rural India from the bottom up, through the formation of farmer cooperatives, preferably led by women.

But it was as though her vision floats in a world in which there are no large private or corporate holdings of land, no agricultural machinery bigger than a tractor and no products of biotechnology with their sophisticated western patents.

The case for a key role of the smallholding in a sustainable planet, as put forward by Olivier de Schutter, Bina Agarwal and others, is compelling. It will become more compelling still if they can show how it coexists with the globalised world of agribusiness, as it must.

Tomorrow, it’s the turn of Sir John Beddington and his Commission to complete the jigsaw.

The science community was rather more up front with its own communication barriers in the developing world. There was plenty of self-flagellation in the papers presented to this afternoon’s session “Making climate science useful.”

humanitarian and community users remain frustrated with the types of scientific information available. They have had little opportunity to inform scientists about the type of information they require

and more:

the absence of dialogue between climate modelers, national forecasters and vulnerable communities in the region is a major barrier to the use of forecasts for climate change adaptation

These are familiar examples but none the worse for renewed discussion. As so often, I wish these conferences would engage more with financial issues. How are the Aichi Targets and the Nagoya Protocol going to be funded in developing countries?

These long awaited achievements of the Convention on Biological Diversity carry a price tag way beyond the world’s purse of public funds. The science and development NGOs know that perfectly well but when it comes to the private sector….

….I guess the problem is the shape of the conversation.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK