Monday, 17 September 2012

International UNCooperation?

William Mudford's forthcoming article in peppercorn the ANU law student magazine

While at Rio+20 it struck me how under-connected and under-cooperative the international diplomatic and legal negotiations are. However, the civil society parallel conferences made me think of the potential for something so much better. The differences between the events were so stark both physically and emotionally...

The official conference
The official conference was a two hour bus ride out of town in a place much like Exhibition Park. The negotiations occurred within pavilions with temporary rooms erected inside, with a massive diesel powered air-conditioning system and harsh fluorescent lighting. To get into the conference you had to have pre-registered with your passport and through an organisation officially accredited with the United Nations. The accreditation gave you a pass to get into the preparatory conference where the text was being negotiated prior to the plenary session with all the world leaders. There was no clear program as to where the different parts of the negotiations were occurring. The state parties spent their time locked in these rooms fighting about the details of the text, with long periods spent negotiating about whether commas should be included, or whether single words should be included. Despite the rhetoric the state parties were not genuinely discussing how to fix the three big problems that the world is facing of environmental destruction, economic crisis and extreme poverty.

The parallel civil society conferences
There were several other parallel conferences I attended. Each was in the centre of Rio or on the metro line. They were held in buildings where you could see natural light, had interesting speakers, and provided great opportunities for meeting a wide variety of people. To get in all you had to do was turn up and each provided ample opportunities for a variety of people including myself to participate. At each of the conferences we were discussing the big topics that the state officials should have been addressing at the official UN conference. For me the greatest thing that came out of each of the conferences that I attended was the genuine connections I was able to make with such a variety of people from across the world, even across language and cultural barriers.

The potential
There is a challenge for us, but one that we have so many tools to deal with. Right now the world is facing a set of human induced environmental crises including climate change, biodiversity loss and lack of access to safe water. There is currently enough food around the world to meet the needs of the world’s people. The problem for those who are starving is that the food is not distributed in a just and equitable fashion. The world’s farmers are not adequately connected to all the world’s people. However,at Rio+20 I saw that we, the people of the world, have the knowledge, the potential, the physical resources and the connections to address these sorts of issues. I say let’s make it happen.

But you say: what's stopping us?
Rio+20 revealed writ large two of the big forces that are subduing or preventing the potential international action that we need to address the multiple crises that our world is facing. These two distinct but connected classes of international actor are corporations and inactive state parties. Many corporations such as Petrobras, the Brazilian oil company and Coca Cola bottling company sponsored the official conference but contribute significantly to the multiple crises that we face. Petrobras makes money off the continuation of the destructive and exploitative fossil fuel industry. Amongst other things Coca Cola has cornered many markets in safe drinking water, a basic necessity of life that everyone should have free access to. The presence of these corporations at the conference, at best, had a pacifying influence on the state negotiators, and, at worst, had thoroughly destructive connections to them. One of the Australian government's key negotiating positions was to get ‘mining for sustainable development’ included in the text. The pretence behind such a position was that mining in Australia is safe and sustainable and that we should export such practices to our region. This, and other untruths, were peddled by destructive state parties with vested corporate interests. We can create something better.

How do we overcome this?
We as young people need to continue to go to international events, to connect with people in genuine ways. We need to cooperate and work together on the common ground that we have with so much of the world’s people. We need to be doing everything we can. We need coalitions of the world's willing people, which need not include the uncooperative governments of nation-states. It is through the connection, the sharing of knowledge and the sharing of resources that we can truly create a world that protects the environment, distributes resources and stops the high levels of inequality and poverty experienced by people across the world. This may not happen instantly, and I do not have a magic formula. However, what I have experienced is that together we can create the alternatives that we want, and divided we will lose against the inactivity caused by large corporations and the officials of state parties with vested interests. It is through the process of working together and creatively developing the alternatives as we go that we will address the issues that we face.

How can you get involved?
The students who went to Rio+20 as part of the ANU student delegation are hosting an event during October to discuss some of these issues of sustainability that the world is facing and help us to connect the global to the local. To find out more you can check out our blog for the Rio+20 project

Sunday, 16 September 2012

A Multilateralist’s Manifesto

Multilateralism[1] may be out of fashion as a way of addressing our global environmental problems, but the way forward is in its reform, not its abandonment. 
Failures at Copenhagen climate summit, and more recently at Rio+20 have led to a loss of faith in the multilateral system throughout society.  I was at both of these summits, and the disappointments of multilateralism are all the more potent when you are personally engaged.  But despite these emotional roller-coasters (which are mostly downs), I believe in multilateralism.  I believe in multilateralism because there are no real proven, realistic or fair alternatives.  I believe in multilateralism because as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, I am reminded of how the recipe of international environmental agreements can work once we use the right ingredients.
                In fact, it is the only real logical recipe to apply to our global problems.  On a basic level, international ecological issues like climate change are a “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin, 1968) and it is widely accepted that such collective action problems require cooperative solutions and decision-making (Ostrom, 1990).   The basic economics of “public goods” logic suggests that collective action must be organised at the scale of the problem or externality that must be addressed (Olson, 1971).    In other words: global problems require solutions organised at a global level.  The most effective and proven method of doing so, while building up trust and reducing free-riding, is through multilateral frameworks.   Despite this, the political inertia within environmental negotiations has proven overwhelmingly disillusioning.  We are facing a death by a thousand conferences.
                However, multilateralism as an idea is not out of date, our processes and institutions are.  Consensus is an archaic decision-making tool, our methods of negotiating and diplomacy lack transparency or effectiveness and the bureaucratic structure of the UN and other international institutions are clearly lacking.  We need to resurrect multilateralism, not bury it. 
                Despite this logic, it is still a rare day that I’m not questioned, by friends or colleagues on the validity of multilateralism and the pointlessness of negotiations.  Even at a recent seminar panel one of the other speakers, a world renowned climatologist whom I deeply respect, couldn’t help but declare that the time of multilateral environmental treaties was over and we were better off solving climate change through a nation-based “green” industrial revolution.  It seems a little odd (although poetic) to attempt to solve a problem with the same thinking and processes that created it in the first place.  The Industrial Revolution was driven by greed and competition and resulted in the perverse and pervasive structural inequalities which now plague the world.  This is a mismatch with sustainable development which must be based on cooperation and a thorough repair of our unbalanced structures.  Even if we did solve climate change through such a state-based, business-focused paradigm, what about the other problems like biodiversity loss? 
This bottom-up revolution is also short-sighted.  We are already locked into some degree of climate change, and it is unlikely that such an approach will foster the form of cooperative, cohesive governance that is needed for international society to adapt to the coming environmental changes.   But then the multilateral sceptics point to the numerous states, provinces and nations that have adopted carbon prices despite the absence of a global climate treaty. Well that is just fantastic, but how have overall global emissions been going?  Oh right, record levels…  
                I don’t say this to detract from the bottom-up approaches.  Minilateralism and regional forums have proven useful (look at the EU’s environmental policy, or the outcomes of the recent APEC summit), but not all regions have integration and those that do still require global coordination.   Civil society is also a great tool, but I have yet to see a trans-boundary pollution problem which has been solved primarily by NGOs. Regional governance, local initiatives and non-state actors (both NGOs and businesses) are valuable as contributors to a larger international framework, not substitutes.  The bottom-up is not antithetical to the top-down.   On the contrary, the bottom-up feeds into the top-down, creating the necessary momentum and pressure to construct effective international agreements.  Yet some wish to stop this momentum, and they are the exact same states blocking the process.
                While I usually believe that it is important to address the message, not the messenger, in this case it is important to look at the proponents and their motives.  The proponents of a bottom-up (particularly a pledge and review) system within climate change are the primarily the US, Canada and Australia.  Those who wish to persist with a multilateral approach: The EU, and the least developed and most vulnerable nations (small island states, the African Union etc.).  In the red corner we have the laggards and in the blue corner the leading progressives with the highest targets and most to lose.   The contrast is telling to say the least…..
                Let’s take a lesson from the birthday convention- the Montreal Protocol, which provided a holistic approach to a complex problem.  Effective compliance mechanisms, skilful political leadership (surprisingly from the US), efficient decision –making procedures (double qualified majority voting), incremental membership (we don’t need to have everyone’s involvement to start with), the support of businesses, clear scientific advice, mass NGO pressure and an adequate financing system are what solve global environmental problems, not by giving in to the laggards by primarily focusing on the lowest levels of governance and promoting ‘flexibility’. 
                I write this defence of the multilateral approach of international treaties not out of a personal or academic endearment.  I don’t even do so on the grounds of procedural justice and international ethics (although there are some valid points here).  I stand by the multilateral approach because it offers us the best hope of managing both our current international environmental crises’ and rectifying the inequality that exists in the world.  The principles of Sustainable Development declare that one cannot be done without the other and I see no evidence to suggest that the flexible, bottom-up approaches can solve either, let alone both.  We live in a globalized and interconnected world.  Multilateralism is not a choice we can turn away from, it is a necessity.  The future lies in persisting with multilateralism and its reform with courage, innovation and political skill.  Perhaps, with that, in another 25 years the Montreal Protocol may not be the only successful treaty with cake at the table. 


[1] I refer to multilateralism as the top-down approach of international governance and frameworks of an essentially globally nature.  Not the classic definition of "the practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three states or more".

Monday, 3 September 2012

From Global to Local: Delegates Going Bush in Australia

From Global to Local: Delegates Going Bush in Australia 

By Julie Melrose

Despite the overwhelmingly negative media coverage about the weak outcome document that came out of the Rio+20 conference, ANU Rio+20 delegates returned home more motivated than ever to work on sustainability projects and initiatives, particularly wishing to get more students involved in local projects. Rio+20 basically highlighted how much the international community had failed to honour its commitments to reduce environmental harm under international environmental law over the last two decades since the first Rio conference in 1992. We all experienced frustration, even tears at the conference in the face of the magnitude of the challenge ahead for our generation. So what does a small group of students from Australia do about this? 

Several forums and discussions have been held at ANU, we have debriefed with the Australian Government and met with academics and public figures to discuss Rio outcomes. But we want to go the extra mile and try something new. Forums, while important and informative, sometimes seem to be "preaching to the converted" and result in no real gain for the environment or in really inspiring young people and students to dedicate their career to working towards sustainable development. 

In a recent meeting with Richard Denniss, CEO of the think-tank the Australia Institute, he reminded us that we are in a battle against rampant consumption, economic growth and environmental destruction on all fronts - and we are on the losing side. He challenged us to do something different in our post Rio activities. 

We talked about the principle that you protect the things you love - but you can't love something unless you know it first. Going bush and getting back to nature, strips away the layers of society that sometimes cloud us from the reality of environmental catastrophe that the world is facing in the present time. 

Reflecting on the process of coming back to Australia after a large international conference, we have decided to get right back down to the local level and embark on a bushwalking expedition to Tasmania in Feb 2013 - where the Australian environmental movement was born. In the hope of finding some grounding, solitude and inspiration for our work ahead, going bush seems like a really good idea.

An Expedition to walk Tasmania's South Coast Track 

Tasmania's South Coast Track is situated in the Southwest National Park and takes you through the heart of over 600, 000 hectares of wild, inspiring country. The track is more remote than other walks in Tasmania, and is 85kms in length running from Malaleuca to Cockle Creek. The trek will take 6-8 days with full packs. 

The team will gather footage from the walk about our personal experiences as young people reflecting on global to local environmentalism, as well as interview leading conservationists and those involved in the birth of the Tasmanian environmental movements. This footage will add to our material and interviews gathered at Rio+20 in Brazil to hopefully lead to a student sustainability documentary! 

The Australian Environmental Movement - Franklin Dams Case 

According to leading environmental law Barrister Chris McGrath and many others in the Australian legal profession, the Tasmanian Dams Case is the most famous and influential environmental law case in Australian history. It was also a landmark in Australian constitutional law. In this case, the Commonwealth Government prevented the construction of a large hydro-electric dam proposed for the Franklin-Lower Gordon Rivers in South-West Tasmania. They were able to achieve this win by relying on their powers under s 51 (xxix) of the Australian Constitution to make laws in relation to their international obligations under the World Heritage Convention. For more information on the case click here.

Island Bend, Franklin River

Interested in getting involved? 

Other interested students are encouraged to get in touch if interested in the trek, or helping out with the documentary project! Contact or join "The ANU Rio+20 Project" on Facebook to keep up to date with our planning and other activities. 

Oceans at Rio+20 - article in ANU ILS magazine "The Advocate"