SENSibility: O Sole Rio

Vancouver, 28 June, 2012. The Rio+20 conference has come and gone, and it is time to engage in punditry. As the dust settles over yet another magnificent failure of the international community to address the most pressing global issues of our time, I am absurdly reminded of the song O Sole Mio which, when translated from Neapolitan to English, is all about sunshine and love. Why am now I reminded of this 1898 version of Here Comes the Sun? Because some observers from the Rio+20 proceedings have found optimism in the energy and commitment of the non-governmental organizations that attended the event, even suggesting that a new era of “ecological citizenship” is upon us. States and governments may have failed, they say, but the people shall take up the cause and make change on their own.

With the greatest of respect, this is rubbish.

Those singing this optimistic refrain can be excused for trying to find some ray of light in a rather dismal outcome, but alas I must rain on even this small parade. If major action on climate change and sustainable development is going to happen, it will require the commitment of governments to implement meaningful policy change at home and abroad. Yes, there are many strongly committed organizations of people at the global and local level devoted to action on these issues. Yes, they have raised awareness of climate change and sustainable development imperatives. Applause is due on both accounts. But their potential for transformative change is limited. They do not represent the majority of people in virtually any country we might pick. The majority will not respond voluntarily to calls for changes in their personal habits or consumption patterns, at least not to the extent now required.  The majority will respond when social and economic incentives or disincentives influence their decision-making and personal choices. That requires action by governments.

It is nice to find a bright spot in almost anything, and to sing about it. O Sole Rio indeed. But let’s not get carried away.

Allen Sens is a Faculty member in the Political Science Department at UBC.

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