Too much climate change?

You don’t often hear greens complaining that the climate crisis gets too much attention. But a group of British-based NGOs and environmentally minded politicians who gathered for a debate in London yesterday, ahead of next month’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, seemed worried about just that: an overload of global warming talk at the expense of other issues in the run up to arguably the most important development conference in 20 years.

It’s certainly true that June’s UN-led meeting goes far beyond carbon dioxide emissions. The conference, known widely as Rio+20 for coming two decades after 1992’s landmark sustainable development summit in the same city, will cover themes from urbanisation to the green economy to poverty alleviation. But in the United Kingdom, many argue, the debate has become narrow and fractured. In the words of Martin Horwood, an MP from the Liberal Democrat party who used to work for Oxfam, “we have made the mistake of thinking the environment means climate change.”

A more holistic approach to sustainable development needs to be rediscovered, he said – one that recognises the enormous number of interlinking issues at its heart: water, energy, resource constraint, biodiversity and more. 

Chair of the session, the broadcaster Jon Snow, said the UK green community itself was failing to delineate the issues in ways people could understand: "One of the problems is that people are no longer clear what we are talking about…Sustainable development has not broken through in the way climate change has."

Listening in, I thought a lot of this made sense – except for one thing. People in Britain don’t seem to be talking about climate change all that much either. Rather than being obsessed with a single topic, we seem to have lost interest in all of it. That’s a much more worrying place to be. 

Dongtan, go away

On a side note, while he had many sensible things to say, Martin Horwood also urged the audience to be inspired by the vision of Dongtan, the Chinese eco-city once intended for the coast near Shanghai. Someone should tell him that a) Dongtan never got built b) it was a dubious idea in the first place given the ecological sensitivity of the wetlands intended to host it and c) it never had the political backing from the centre necessary to push it through. If that’s the vision that’s going to save us, we might as well give up now.