Rio+20 and tipping points

This week, the United Nations’ Rio+20 Conference gets underway. The sustainable-development conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, marks the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit held in 1992. That first conference held huge significance for the future of the planet.

This one, not so much.

In 1992, heads of state from 100 governments across the globe came together and created two institutions (the U.N. Convention on Climate Change and the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity) that were meant to tackle global warming and the ongoing human destruction of the environment and natural world.

Sadly, the June 20-22, conference now underway, with both President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the list of no-shows, will serve mainly to illustrate how much hasn’t been accomplished in either of these crucial realms. Greenhouse-gas levels are still rising; species are still disappearing.

A few weeks ago, a team of 22 scientists—including two from UC Davis—reported in the journal Nature that humans may be forcing an “irreversible, planetary-scale tipping point” within a few generations that could wreak havoc on global water systems, agriculture and fisheries.

Yes, you’ve got that right. While scientists are using language about our future that sounds taken from a dystopian science-fiction novel, world leaders at real-world gatherings like in Rio seem incapable of taking action to avoid predicted ruination.

What comes next? We can only hope and work toward another kind of tipping point—one where the Nature study, and activism of citizens, finally serve to wake up governments and speed an accelerated global transition to replace fossil fuels, reduce world populations, and protect us from catastrophe.