U.S. State Department Briefing on Rio+20

On a rainy Wednesday, September 7, 2011, as part of our MobilizeUS! campaign, the Human Impacts Institute attended the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Policy Dialogue Series Briefing on the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). The briefing was a chance for administration officials to converse with citizens about the US government’s ongoing preparations, ideals, and goals for the conference.

The panel included Ms. Celeste Connors, National Security Council Director of Environmental Affairs, Ms. Michelle DePass, the Assistant Administrator for the Office of International and Tribal Affairs at the Environmental Protection Agency, and Mr. Lawrence Gumbiner, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the State Department, who all made remarks and took questions. The three officials underscored the potential of Rio+20 to re-energize sustainable development and create a new paradigm, as well as to inspire a new generation of environmental leaders.

Ms. Connors reminded the audience of the President’s Global Development Policy as an example of the United States’ global work on these issues, and as indications of policy directions in which the U.S. is likely to move at Rio. Important among these is a focus on the green economy, a theme of the conference. According to Ms. Connors, the United States understands the role it can play in revitalizing economic growth and innovation as we move well into the 21st century.

Ms. DePass underscored, among other things, the role that cities play as the vanguard in the march toward a sustainable future, and called the audience’s attention to the joint US-Brazil Initiative on Urban Sustainability. She noted that the city of Rio de Janiero will be at the forefront of cities’ efforts, especially in light of how much money will be pouring in over the course of the next few years, as it hosts the 2012 UN conference, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Mr. Gumbiner noted that the Rio+20 conference itself should be a “new kind of meeting… [which is] dynamic and inclusive,” engaging all levels of society from the community upward, and which is supported new web media technology. He reiterated that only one of the three pillars of sustainable development is the environment, and that society and the economy must be incorporated into the picture as we move forward. He also emphasized several ideas which will inform the U.S. position, including the primacy of science and data collection for decision making, and the importance of funding and disseminating technology and best practices. Mr. Gumbiner remarked that achieving “actionable deliverables” on the economy and international sustainable development framework was of utmost importance to the U.S..

Following the opening remarks was a question and answer period. At this time, several notable issues were addressed, and interesting notions raised:

The panelists rejected the notion that global environmental governance is in need of a new institution. Even in light of the failures of the Council on Sustainable Development, there will be no push from the United States for a new agency of the UN, or a World Environmental Organization of any type, but only for reform. However, Mr. Grumbiner did say the U.S. was in support of strengthening the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Panelists were interested to hear a suggestion from participants that the government fund a competitive grant program to support civil society travel to the conference. In view of their acknowledgement that access to the conference is often difficult, and considering the importance they placed on inclusiveness, this response was encouraging.

They were also supportive of efforts by US civil society to engage the U.S. public, in particular our youth, women, and state and local governments. Groups engaged in such efforts were encouraged to liaise with the State Department.

The panelists were insistent that the U.S. government sees the issues of climate change and sustainable development as separate matters for consideration by the international community, intertwined as they are in practice. They were thus not open to speculating on how the upcoming Durban climate change conference may influence the proceedings at Rio.

A final question from Professor John Dernbach provoked an enthusiastic response, though. He asked if Rio was not an excellent opportunity to reflect and magnify the conversation at Rio+20, especially as it concerns values and the environment, back to the US. In this way, the conference could open a new dialogue and inspire action in our own country. The potential for such an outcome, it was clear, was close to their hearts.

This briefing is part of a period of public comment before the U.S.’s submission of its conference objectives on November 1, 2011. Interested parties are encouraged to submit their thoughts before that date. The government is likewise soliciting partnership with civil society organizations, especially for public outreach. As one State Department official put it, they can’t do it by themselves. This is just the space that MobilizeUS! looks to live in as the conference draws near, and we look forward to the ongoing conversation.

By Alex White, Human Impacts Institute Director of Outreach and Advocacy

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