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Environment Update: Rio+20 and Election-Year Inattention

by Newsteam Staff
June 22, 2012

A worker next to the logo of the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro June 18, 2012 (Nacho Doce/Courtesy Reuters). A worker next to the logo of the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro June 18, 2012 (Nacho Doce/Courtesy Reuters).

Back from the G20 summit in Mexico, President Barack Obama headed back to the United States instead of to Rio de Janeiro for the UN’s Rio+20 summit on sustainable development, leaving analysts to discuss how much meaning environmental issues have this election year.

Touted as one of the biggest summits in UN history, the meeting is supposed to be a follow on to the 1992 summit attended by President George H.W. Bush during his campaign for reelection. The 1992 summit lead to a number of high-profile treaties–most notably one on climate change, which included numerous international mandates for action. But with the ongoing financial crisis the appetite to vigorously pursue such treaties have diminished.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, one of the chief architects of the first Rio Earth summit in 1992, said the absence of Barack Obama, David Cameron, and other major leaders (Guardian) from the 2012 Rio+20 “are not good and they don’t look good.”

“The election scene is an obvious factor in the decision by Obama not to be here. The climate issue on the American scene has been really difficult for years and in many ways it is worse now than three or four years ago,” she said. “The Republican right – the Tea party, etc – are building around climate denial. In that sense, the American scene is deteriorating on these issues.”

But CFR’s Julia E. Sweig said sending Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in Obama’s stead was a good political move in an election year that is focused on the economy and little else. “Would showing up in Rio bolster his standing at home or improve the summit’s outcome? Likely not. Secretary Clinton’s global stature—arguably every bit as mega as her boss and in many ways more tuned in to related issues of development, gender, and security—more than satisfies,” she writes.

Experts at a Brookings event on the role climate change and energy are playing in the 2012 campaign noted that environmental concerns are not a big issue this election cycle and are not likely to be at the top of the next president’s agenda no matter who wins.

But that isn’t a view shared by all. Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe in a recent press release and video complained (NRO) about the conference’s “radical global-warming agenda” and warned that President Obama will be back to pushing his “far-left global-warming agenda a top priority” if he wins in November.

For more on the candidates’ positions on the environment check out CFR’s Issue Tracker on The Candidates on Energy Policy.

Suggested Other Reading:

In this video, CFR’s Michael Levi discusses what the next president faces on climate change.

The Hamilton Project held a conference exploring new directions for U.S. energy policy and how it could strengthen the economy and alter the relationships between our energy choices and health, climate change, and national security.

–Contributing Editor Gayle S. Putrich and Senior Editor Toni Johnson

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