By Bryan Walsh
First the bad news: the planet is in peril. On June 6, an international team of scientists published a study in the journal Nature warning that because of human activity, Earth is reaching a potentially catastrophic tipping point.
Humans have already radically altered 43% of the planet's surface, far more than the smaller changes that helped trigger the last great global shift during the Ice Ages 11,000 years ago. On top of that, a U.N. report released earlier this month found that about 20% of vertebrate species are under threat of extinction, coral reefs have declined by 38% since 1980, greenhouse-gas emissions could double over the next 50 years, and 90% of water and fish samples from aquatic environments are contaminated by pesticides.
Oh, and internationally, significant progress has been made in only 4 out of the 90 most important environmental goals designated by environmental experts.
Now here's the really bad news: we seem to be completely incapable of doing anything about it all. On June 20, thousands of delegates from around the world will convene in Rio de Janeiro for what's officially called the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. It's better known as the Rio+20 Earth Summit, marking 20 years since the original Earth Summit, also held in Rio, at which more than 100 world leaders, including then U.S. President George H.W. Bush, met to address global environmental threats. The challenges were grim, but there was hope that a post–Cold War world could join together to fix them. "We must leave this Earth in better condition than we found it," Bush said in Rio that year. "Our village is truly global."
But 20 years on, Earth is in even worse condition, and the unmanageably large global village is the reason. Take climate change. In 1992, the vast majority of carbon emissions came from developed nations like the U.S., Japan, Germany and the former Soviet Union. While they had their political and economic differences, those countries had the sort of common goals that provided a framework for meaningful diplomacy. Whether it was earlier environmental pacts like the Montreal Protocol, which reduced ozone-depleting substances, or global arms control or trade, back then a relatively small club of nations could sit down together and hash out a deal that benefited all of them. Global cooperation wasn't easy, but it was possible — and ultimately, the U.S., as the sole superpower, could always provide an extra nudge.