David Suzuki on Rio+20, “Green Economy” & Why Planet’s Survival Requires Undoing its Economic Model
As the Rio+20 Earth Summit -- the largest U.N. conference ever -- ends in disappointment, we're joined by the leading Canadian scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster David Suzuki. As host of the long-running CBC program, "The Nature of Things," seen in more than 40 countries, Suzuki has helped educate millions about the rich biodiversity of the planet and the threats it faces from human-driven global warming. In 1990 he co-founded the David Suzuki Foundation which focuses on sustainable ecology and in 2009, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award. Suzuki joins from the summit in Rio de Janeiro to talk about the climate crisis, the student protests in Quebec, his childhood growing up in an internment camp, and his daughter Severn's historic speech at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when she was 12 years-old. "If we don't see that we are utterly embedded in the natural world and dependent on Mother Nature for our very well-being and survival ... then our priorities will continue to be driven by man-made constructs like national borders, economies, corporations, markets. Those are all human created things. They shouldn't dominate the way we live -- it should be the biosphere. And the leaders in that should be indigenous people who still have that sense that the earth is truly our mother, that it gives birth to us. You don't treat your mother the way we treat the planet or the biosphere today."
AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. conference on sustainable on sustainable development known as the Rio+20 Earth Summit has concluded with few successes to report. Negotiators unveiled an agreement that sets new development goals and lays the groundwork for future talks. Many groups working on environmental and poverty issues have criticized the agreement for being too weak. Greenpeace called it "An epic failure." Politicians such as Nick Clegg of Britain called "insipid," and some protesters protested final text by ripping it up and renaming the summit "Rio minus 20." The gathering came 20 years after the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio when leaders pledged to protect the planet by endorsing treaties on biodiversity and climate change. At that meeting, a 12-year-old Canadian girl named Severn Cullis-Suzuki made a riveting plea to world leaders.
SEVERN CULLIS-SUZUKI: My dad always says, you are what you do, not what you say. Well, what you do makes me cry at night. You grown-ups say you love us, but I challenge you, please, make your actions reflect your words. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Severn Cullis-Suzuki, then the age of 12, delivering her famous address at the 1992 first Earth U.N. Earth Summit that took place in Rio. Two decades later, Severn was back in Rio, this time as a veteran international environmental campaigner and mother of two. Democracy Now! spoke to her from Rio on Friday and asked her about what progress had been made since 1992.
SEVERN CULLIS-SUZUKI: 20 years have passed and everybody wants to know, what have we done? How have we progressed? Well, last week, scientists released a report in the academic journal, Nature, that suggested that we are pushing for a tipping point in the earth’s biosphere, that we are attacking our ecosystems that sustain us and all life on this earth in so many ways and levels that we are pushing for a state shift like what was seen 12,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age, but this time it will be human-caused and it will be order of magnitude faster than the 1000-year transition that happened last time. I mean, that report released on the eve of this world summit is clear that we have not achieved the sustainable world we knew we needed 20 years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Severn Cullis-Suzuki, now mother of two. She delivered the famous Rio address in 1992 at the age of 12. Today we bring you our interview with Severn’s father, David Suzuki, one of Canada’s leading environmental lists. We spoke to him just after speaking with Severn. He is perhaps best known as host of the long-running CBC program, The nature of things, see in over 40 countries. In 2009 David Suzuki was awarded the Right Livelihood Award. His latest book is, "Everything Under the Sun: Toward a Brighter Future on a Small Blue Planet." I began by asking David Suzuki if anything has changed since his daughter delivered that famous address 20 years ago.
DAVID SUZUKI: Absolutely not. We’re going backwards. Certainly from the standpoint of my country, Canada, said that it was playing a leadership role at Rio '92. Here there's just been no question, Canada is a laggard. We are a global outlaw, renegade country. But, overall, the science is in, the planet is in terrible shape. The difficulty is that meetings like this are doomed to fail because we see ourselves at the center of everything. And our political and our economic priorities have to dominate over everything else. If we do not come to gather and say, look, let’s start with the agreement that we are biological creatures, and if you do not have air for more than three or four minutes you are dead, if you don’t have clean air you are sick, so surely, air, the atmosphere that provides us with the seasons, the weather, the climate, that has to be our highest priority before anything economic or political. That has to be the highest priority. But what you’re getting is a huge gathering, as we saw in Copenhagen two years ago, a huge gathering of countries trying to negotiate something that does not belong to anyone to through the lenses of all of the political boundaries and economic priorities, and we try to shoehorn nature into our agenda. It simply is not going to work. A meeting like this is doomed to fail because we haven’t left our vested interests outside the door and come together as a single species and agreed what the fundamental needs are for all of humanity. So we’re going to sacrifice the air, the water, the biodiversity all in the sake of human political and economic interest. They’re doomed to.
AMY GOODMAN: David Suzuki, in 2008, you urged McGill University students to speak out against politicians who fail to act on climate change and said "What I would challenge you to do is put a lot of effort into trying to see whether there is a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail because what they’re doing is a criminal act." Do you still feel the same way today? What exactly are the crimes being committed?
DAVID SUZUKI: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think there are a number of — You can charge people who are at a scene, where someone is being murdered, and if you do not do anything to try to help that, you can be charged with criminal negligence. If something is going on that you should know about and you ignore it deliberately, then that is called willful blindness. That is a legal category for taking people to court. I think what we have to also find is a mechanism to judge people and to make them accountable for the implications of what they do or do not do for future generations. That is, there should be a category of intergenerational crime. You come here 20 years later, how many of the political leaders that were here in 1992 are now here again? Very, very few, if any. So, these guys come, they make a lot of nice words and they say, we care about this, we’re going to do that. Nobody holds them accountable because they go out of office, they go on to become billionaires or whenever they do. But who is accountable for the lack of any kind of profound activity?
AMY GOODMAN: When Democracy Now! was at the U.N. Climate Change conference in Durban this past December, I spoke with Marc Morano who published Climate Depot, a climate website run by climate denier group, Committee for Constructive Tomorrow. I asked him about President Obama’s record on climate change. This is what he said.
MARC MORANO: His nickname is George W. Obama. Obama’s negotiator, Todd Stern, will be here today. They have kept the exact same principles and negotiating stance as President George Bush did for eight years. Obama has carried on Bush’s legacy. So as skeptics, we tip our hat into President Obama in helping crush and continue to defeat the United Nations process. Obama has been a great friend of global warming skeptics at these conferences. Obama has problems for us because he is going through the EPA regulatory process, which is a grave threat. But, in terms of this, President Obama could not have turned out better when it came to his lack of interest in a congressional climate bill and his lack of interest in the United Nations Kyoto Protocol. So, a job well done for President Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Marc Morano of the climate denier group Committe for a Constructive Tomorrow saying President Obama is basically their best ally, calling him George W. Obama. Do you share that assessment, David Suzuki?
DAVID SUZUKI: You know, Obama was signaled sea-change in the American politics in the United States. Unfortunately, he’s held hostage and he made some fundamental opponents right from the beginning that were fantastic, really top-notch scientists heading NOAA, heading the Energy Department. This was a sea-change. You think of a Nobel Prize winner being appointed the minister, or what ever you call him, secretary of energy. These are huge changes. The reality though, is he is held hostage by an absolutely dysfunctional congress. And he is held hostage by the corporate agenda, which is still a primary obligation that politicians have, even though has been very successful at getting that grassroots support. The fact is that corporations hold a huge hammer over the heads of our elected representatives and they are calling the shots. The economic system is the driving force that is destroying the planet, but now it is the corporations that are setting the direction and they’re calling the shots. I think that it is not that Mr. Obama is like George Bush, because he is definitely not, but he is held hostage by the same system within which Bush operated.
AMY GOODMAN: I want ask about the Canada Keystone XL pipeline. Just two months after President Obama rejected the project after mass protests where more than 1200 people were arrested around the White House last summer, he announced his support for TransCanada to build the southern leg of the pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas. In his remarks, President Obama said his administration has authorized enough gas pipelines to encircle the earth.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: There is a bottleneck right here because we cannot get enough of the oil to our refineries fast enough. If we could, then we would be able to increase our oil supplies at a time when they are needed as much as possible. Right now, a company called TransCanada has applied to build a new pipeline to speed more oil from Cushing to state-of-the-art refineries down in the Gulf coast. Today, I’m directing my Administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority to go ahead and get it done.
AMY GOODMAN: TransCanada has reapplied for a permit to build a 1,200 mile segment from Alberta, Canada to Steel City, Nebraska, just this past Friday, the U.S. State Department said it would conduct a new environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline. Talk about the significance of the project, the role of activists in stopping it, then President Obama being slammed afterwards. Republicans in congress said it would pass legislation in Congress because he, in a very poor economy, was stopping people from getting jobs to build it. David Suzuki, your answer to jobs versus the environment.
DAVID SUZUKI: That has always been the dichotomy that’s thrown up. But we have not looked at the real job opportunities that lie from taking a completely different direction. Obama’s statement shows that he is captain of the oil industry as are most governments on this planet. He had an opportunity to really offer Americans the real job creator, which is in renewable, sustainable energy, greater energy efficiency, getting us off the oil addiction that we have. It is going to run out. It’s going to run out. We are going to more and more extreme sources of energy. This is the moment that we should create the opportunity to go down a different path.
I just came back from Japan where they had an absolute disaster that was an opportunity. They have shut down every single one of the 54 nuclear plants they have. They have an opportunity to take a totally different path. Japanese people cut their energy use by 25% immediately after Fukushima. They showed there was huge opportunity there. Instead, the government simply wants to get those plants up and running again. The nuclear industry, the fossil fuel industry have an enormous hammer over our elected representatives and it really is up to civil society.
I think in the U.S., you’re in deep trouble right now because of the huge support for parties that want to take us back to the past, the Tea Party and all of that are taking us away from having an opportunity for civil society to really contribute. I think we are really in a crisis when Sir Martin Rees, one of the leading scientists in Britain, the Royal Astronomer, was asked on BBC, what are the chances that human beings will survive to the end of this century? This is whether we will still be around. His answer was, 50/50. 50/50 that human beings will avoid extinction? I mean, surely to goodness we ought to be on an absolute crisis mode and getting off all of this rhetoric being fostered by the fossil fuel industry and nuclear industry and get on to a truly sustainable path.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, French President Francois Hollande held a brief news conference and said he saw in green economy a path to overcome the economic crisis.
FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: Some people say there’s an economic and financial crisis and therefore the issues related to the environment and sustainable development may be set aside and may be treated separately, and that there would not be much pressure. This is not how I reason. I believe that the lasting development, the environment, which will also call green economy, is also a means of overcoming the crisis.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the new French president, a Socialist, Francois Hollande, speaking at Rio+20. David Suzuki, to you feel there is a counterweight to the corporations and the climate change deniers?
DAVID SUZUKI: The green economy will simply allow the corporations to make a shift. You can see it in Exxon. Exxon, one of the companies that have spent tens of millions of dollars denying climate change, denying any responsibility, taking government subsidies on a massive scale, now their ads are all about, we want a clean future, we’re looking at clean energy and all that stuff. Sure, the green economy is just about being more efficient, being less polluting, being less energy intensive, but still it’s a system built on the need to continue to expand and grow. The true economy has got to come back into balance with the very biosphere that sustains us. I think a lot of people just see the green economy as a different way of allowing the corporate agenda to continue to flourish.
We have got to change the economy and we have to do what we did in 1944 when governments came to Bretton Woods in Maine, and said we have got to develop an economic system for a post-war world. And they designed, they institutedGATT, the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade. They invented the World Bank, the IMF. They tied world currency to the American greenback. But they left out the environment. It’s time for a Bretton Woods II. We have got to overhaul the economy. You cannot change nature, but you can change our inventions like corporations and the economy. They have got to change. So, greening the economy that is itself a totally destructive system because it is bent on exploiting resources unsustainably and growing forever, that is got to be overhauled, it doesn’t work.
AMY GOODMAN: Leading Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki. We will continue our interview Canada’s environmentalist just after our break. You can visit www.democracynow.org for in-depth coverage of Rio+20.