As international environmental conferences often do, it began with great hopes but ended in frustration.
Twenty-three years ago, countries from around the world met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to hammer out the details on the UN Framework Convention in Climate Change. Yet rather than focus on the growing science of global warming and how humankind could stem its worst effects, the conference quickly devolved into debates over politics and money.
Intense conflicts surfaced between the wealthy countries and the poorer countries of the Global South over the former’s historical responsibility in putting so much more carbon into the atmosphere and their need to fund the Global South’s transition to greener methods of development. “The key issue” in Rio, said the conference’s head organizer Maurice Strong, “was to give the developing countries access to the new technologies they needed and to additional resources to integrate the environmental dimension into their national development activities.” But exactly how to do so became a subject of fierce debate. Though many observers around the world held high aspirations that the Rio Earth Summit might lead to an agreement to curtail global climate change, the conference frustrated participants as it ended with a non-binding framework and little resolution to the question of how to manage North-South financing.
This December, the world will meet again, this time in Paris, with the hopes of crafting a binding, international agreement to cut carbon emissions stem global climate change. Pledges over this past year by the United States and China – two powerful holdouts from previous agreements – have raised expectations for a major breakthrough in global climate politics. But to focus simply on these powerful countries’ pledges elides the important fact that North-South financing disputes still hinder climate negotiations.
My book, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century, provides insight into why these conflicts in international environmental politics emerged in the first place and how they evolved over the past seventy years. In the book, I explore how environmental activists, international civil servants, development experts, and national leaders attempted to reconcile the Global South’s desire for economic growth with environmental limits over the second-half of the twentieth century.
I begin by revealing how environmentalists struggled to persuade developing countries to protect the environment during the 1950s and 1960s. Leaders in developing countries often interpreted environmental protection as imperialism in a new guise. They saw it as a tool by wealthy countries to undercut their development and invade their sovereignty. They claimed protecting the environment was a “rich man’s game,” something to do only after their basic needs had been met.
In the 1972 Stockholm conference, the first major UN gathering dedicated to international environmental problems, this North-South conflict pervaded discussions. When the wealthy countries or environmental activists demanded global environmental protection agreements, the countries of the Global South demanded “additionality” (additional aid to pay for environmental protection) and “compensation” (lost revenue for switching to environmentally friendly development).
The Stockholm Conference, I show, set the stage for all subsequent UN environmental meetings, from the Rio Earth Summit to this year’s Paris Summit. In the intervening years environmental activists created many ways to reconcile environmental and ecological goals – from promoting new forms of technology in development, reshaping the ways in which the World Bank and U.S. government lent development aid, and articulating a concept of “sustainable development” that linked Third World development to conservation – but throughout the tensions of North-South politics remained strong.
My book ends with an extensive chapter on the international politics of the Rio Earth Summit. As this excerpt shows, the Rio Summit came at a moment of optimism in international environmental politics, but participants there – much like their counterparts in Paris now – struggled to redress long-simmering tensions between North and South.
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