Scientists prepare to nudge Rio+20

A major science conference to be held in London next month aspires “to provide major recommendations to the Rio+20 Summit.”

However critical the ecological threat, however eminent the conference participants, can the organisers be serious?

The closing date for submissions to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) passed over three months ago. A draft outcome text for the June summit has been published and the first round of intergovernmental negotiations will be over by the time the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference starts on March 25th.

Undaunted, the programme for the opening morning of the conference promises a speaker on behalf of “United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit” followed by a key session to introduce “white papers and policy briefs for Rio+20.” These policy briefs offer enough recommendations to keep the CSD occupied until Rio+40.

There may be some method in this madness. Summits do occasionally veer off in surprising directions and politicians are notoriously reliant on short term memory.

And there’s been no shortage of conferences tackling similar subject matter over recent weeks. It may be informative to take a look at their chosen posture towards Rio+20.

The first week of February saw the 12th Delhi Sustainable Development Summit. This is an annual event organised by TERI, a research institute headed by one of the world’s best known scientists, Dr Rajendra Pachauri.

Although describing itself as “an important milestone in the context of global negotiations in the realm of sustainable development,” the 2012 DSDS offered no prescriptions for Rio+20.

Its outcome document prefers to name-drop its participants – “global leaders and policy makers from across 29 countries,” including the Indian prime minister. This is the art of conference by VIP networking rather than by resolution.

A further variation emerged earlier this week at the conclusion of the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The theme of the event, “Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society,” was introduced by identifying the relevant issues – climate change, energy, agriculture, health, water, biodiversity and ecosystems, population growth, and economic development.

Sure enough, these closely mirror the subjects of the policy briefs for the Planet Under Pressure event. There’s even a graphic of their interconnections, highlighting the central water-energy-food nexus.

But throughout the vast agenda of the AAAS show, I can find only one obscure reference to Rio+20, and two to sustainable development. This may be mischance but it feels like reluctance to engage with the global political agenda on the part of American scientists.

In Germany, they do things differently. In November, the Federal Government summoned an international conference on “The Water Energy and Food Security Nexus…… as a specific German contribution to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development”. Leaving nothing to chance, the organisers appointed six “outcome ambassadors”, a formidably senior group tasked with patrolling the proceedings to ensure a coherent outcome.

These experts have subsequently been engaged to promote the conclusions of the Bonn conference within the corridors of the Rio+20 preparations. Food, water and energy duly appear at the top of the list of 15 priority areas for action in the draft Rio outcome document.

It’s generally accepted that political and economic circumstances will condemn Rio+20 to be a shadow of its 1992 predecessor. Yet it’s also surely true that, in their hearts, the politicians know that continued inaction condemns the planet and future generations to big trouble.

Here we have a prime case study for nudge theory, the idea that a small but telling modification of the decision-making context can save the politicians from making bad choices. With time running out, how might next month’s London conference deliver the nudge? A few suggestions…..

The snowball effect – this is boring but relies on adding to the crescendo of doom-laden verdicts on the state of the planet. Sooner or later the media, the public and then the ministers will flip. Planet Under Pressure 2012 has a wonderfully varied agenda and could pile on the pain of terminal diagnosis if it so chooses.

Back a winner – this is a positive version of the snowball effect. Make a strong recommendation for a course of action that everyone else recommends. One favourite in this context is the call to abolish subsidies which are harmful to the environment. But this is the territory of economists and does not feature strongly in the London conference material.

Announce a game-changing discovery – this is easier said than done for scientists whose research tends to be incremental rather than radical and must be subjected to peer review. However, I’ll be watching out for the sessions dealing with planetary boundaries and tipping points. There were huge uncertainties left hanging in the landmark 2009 paper on this topic.

There’s talk in the programme of a “new” planetary boundary. The conference is well armed with heavyweights from the Stockholm Environment Institute which was behind the original research. Professor Johan Rockström, lead author of the 2009 study and executive director of SEI, will speak on the final day.

Do something memorably creative – the idea that the creative arts could succeed where decades of scientific reports have failed is being taken very seriously amongst environmentalists and global justice campaigners. One creative image, emotive speech or moment of visionary inspiration could make the difference. Alas, a science conference is not the place to start. There’s a conspicuous absence of NGOs in the programme, let alone the campaigning activists, who trade in creativity.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK