In the lead-up to the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, boosters branded the event “Hopenhagen.” Along those lines, the Earth Summit this week in Rio de Janeiro might be called “Rio-ality Check.” With just days to go, chaos and disagreement reign: It’s a far cry from the master plan for a global green economy that world leaders promised to roll out. Nonetheless, on the fringes we’re seeing some interesting signs that the gathering here won’t be a complete waste of time.

Despite months of talks at the United Nations HQ in New York City and last-minute jockeying here in Rio, the delegates seem unable to agree on anything of any substance. Hell, they haven’t even been able to provide a consistent wifi connection here at RioCentro, a sprawling, heavily guarded conference center on the far edge of the city where the high-level talks are taking place.

The United States, for its part, has blocked provisions in the sprawling, still-in-the-works “outcome document” about sharing green technology, ecologically friendly manufacturing and consumption, and creating a more powerful United Nations organization to oversee sustainable development, to name a few items. A couple of days ago, a coalition of developing countries calling themselves the Group of 77 objected to language about creating bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. There has been bickering over whether the definition of “green economy” should include the term “environmental protection.” Forchrissake, you’d think this was the U.S. House of Representatives or something.

The situation is so bad that last week, Sha Zukang, the Chinese diplomat who chairs the summit, suggested locking the delegates in the conference room until they produced a final agreement. Delegates work late each evening trying to finish their work before world leaders (aka their bosses) arrive in town on Wednesday, but at last report, they had agreed to language in only 37 percent of the 100-plus-page document. That’s much ado about nothing: Even if a few scraps of substance survive the negotiations, the document lacks any legal teeth whatsoever.

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So what’s to be done? Well, when the kids on the playground can’t play nice, go play by yourself — or better yet find a few like-minded friends and make up your own game. This way, maybe the bullies and boneheads will catch on and join you. Here’s Simon Zedek, an outside observer and blogger, in a recent post:

The most powerful force in today’s global political economy are unilateral decisions taken by countries and regional groups in pursuit of their own economic interests … Those attending the Rio+20 Summit should embrace this promising, if awkward, strategic opportunity.

Think of it as a kind of sustainability arms race — a race that has already started. In the last four days, we’ve seen some worthwhile developments from countries and organizations that abandoned the consensus model that drives the U.N. talks and decided instead to push ahead alone, or with a few friends. Among the announcements so far this week:

  • Last Thursday, Australia announced it was creating the world’s largest marine reserve, protecting 3.1 million square kilometers (1.2 million square miles) of ocean from commercial fishing and fossil fuel exploration.
  • On Saturday, the heads of 37 banks, investment funds, and insurance companies — mostly in the developing world — pledged to consider ecological impacts (or “natural capital”) in their business decisions.
  • And Sunday, just to prove that international cooperation was possible, American and Chinese youth delegations signed a joint statement calling on governments to invest in education, create alternative measures of economic health, and advance peace and nonviolence. Eat it, gray hairs.

You can expect dozens more announcements like these of varying significance in the coming week, including a few from the leaders of the world’s cities, where some of the most inspiring sustainable development work is taking place. As for the official talks, it’s no surprise to anyone that things seem to be unraveling. As Jacob Sherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council told me a few weeks ago: “The U.N. has one foot in the 21st century, and one foot in the 1960s. Rio will be the true test of whether it can remain relevant.”

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There is still a glimmer of possibility that world leaders could at least renew their commitment to meet existing promises. For bonus points, they might even set some loose guidelines for sustainable development going forward. Either way, the results will only be words on paper. The real work falls to individual countries and people on the ground.

In reality, a total diplomatic collapse could be better in the short run than any half-assed agreement. Failure could fuel both a sustainability arms race and a citizen’s movement.

“We’re all here in good faith, because we believe we should be able to work with our governments,” said Severn Suzuki, who kicked some serious ass as a 12-year-old at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, during a panel today. “We will see in the next couple of days if that’s true. If the system doesn’t work, then after Rio, we need to raise some hell.”

If I were a betting man, I’d be putting my money on hell-raising time. Then again, maybe the Earth Summit will inspire enough action around the edges to keep us all blissfully apathetic for a while longer.

The Earth Summit is dead. Long live the Earth Summit!


For all of Grist’s Earth Summit coverage, click here.