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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Anticipating Rio +20

Air Date: Week of

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff recently vetoed portions of a controversial forest code and, in effect, postponed any final decisions until after Brazil hosts the Rio +20 environmental summit in June. Host Steve Curwood talks with Professor William Moomaw of The Fletcher School at Tufts University about how to make this conference more productive than previous environmental summits.


CURWOOD: The Brazilian Congress recently passed a bill that would reduce protection of forests in the Amazon. So activists appealed to President Dilma Rousseff.

Brazil’s most popular cartoon characters were enrolled to call for a forest code veto. (Photo: Divulgação)

SCHWARTZMAN: Now, you had everybody from the Brazilian Academy of Sciences to, literally, the Brazilian equivalent of Bugs Bunny saying ‘veto this bill. We are against more deforestation in the Amazon and this bill is going to cause that. ‘

CURWOOD: Steve Schwartzman is director of Tropical Forest Policy for the Environmental Defense Fund. Environmental groups, scientists, and a groundswell of the Brazilian public all called for the president to veto the entire bill. In the end, she struck down 12 individual clauses of the new code with a line item veto. The most controversial clause would have given amnesty to all landowners that illegally deforested before 2008.

President Dilma modified the bill to only give only that amnesty to small landowners. But Steve Schwartzman says if any illegally deforested areas are still being used for agriculture, they wouldn’t have to be reforested.

SCHWARTZMAN: The best analyses that I’ve seen are suggesting that upwards of 90 percent of those illegally deforested lands from before 2008 are really not going to be required to do anything.

CURWOOD: Also at issue: the green corridors along the many rivers of the Amazon Basin that are crucial for species to travel between pockets of rainforest surrounded by soy and cattle. Congress called for just 30 feet of forestland near rivers, but President Dilma increased that to more than 300 feet.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff recently vetoed 12 clauses of the forest code passed by congress. (Wikimedia Common)

Now, all of the president’s changes will go back to Brazil’s Congress, giving the legislators the chance to accept or override the line item vetoes. Observers say not much is likely to happen with the Forest Code legislation until after the more than 50,000 representatives of government, non-governmental organizations, and others gather in Brazil late in June for the Rio +20 Earth Summit.

[MUSIC: Various Artists/Bossacucanova “Eu Quiero Um Samba” from Traveler 06 (Six Degrees Records 2006) .]

CURWOOD: Well, in advance of the upcoming Rio +20 Conference, William Moomaw has published an article in the journal Climate Policy that outlines a different approach to the challenge of climate change.

William Moomaw (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

He's a professor of environmental international relations at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a lead author of several climate science chapters for reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He says an alternative approach is necessary in a world that has plenty of economic problems and different national interests. Professor Moomaw, thanks for coming in to the studio.

MOOMAW: Thank you.

CURWOOD: It's been 20 years since people gathered in Rio, said we should have a climate change treaty, we got a treaty, the U.S. ratified it, and nothing has really happened since Rio. What went wrong? What should we have been doing all this time in terms of negotiating a climate treaty?

MOOMAW: Well, the treaty, as it’s designed, is really a pollution control treaty, and that leads negotiators to talk about burden sharing. Now, think about this for a moment: if I’m a negotiator and I go to a meeting on doing something about climate change and I come home and say to my government and my people, ‘I have brought a burden to share with you.’ That is not exactly a formula for success.


MOOMAW: And, in fact, the emissions are the result of the choices that we’ve made to build our economies by burning fossil fuels. So, what we really have is a development problem, and what we need is a development treaty to address it.

CURWOOD: So, what should we do instead in terms of developing a development treaty, as you say?

MOOMAW: Well, I think we really need to do is shift the focus away from where the commas go and who should do what and blaming other countries for the emissions, and realize that we are arguing a false dichotomy. We are saying that somehow more carbon dioxide emissions from burning more fossil fuels equals more economic wellbeing. In this paper we quote five world leaders and they all say things like, ‘We can’t do more because it would cut development potential. It would cost our jobs and damage our industry.’

Now, those comments come from people from developed countries and developing countries. Our own George Bush the first, who was at Rio 20 years ago basically said, ‘Our lifestyle is not up for negotiation.’ So, basically, everybody is seeing more emissions as tied to more economic growth and that’s not really true. Most of Western Europe produces as much GDP per person as we do. They do it with half the emissions that we do.

CURWOOD: How would you frame this as an opportunity for all countries instead of a burden to be avoided? How would it be an opportunity?

MOOMAW: The opportunity to make something new, to develop whole new industries, would transform the economies of the world into something that is far more productive. And if we actually set as a goal, as this paper suggests, the provision of clean energy services for all- that’s a huge market. It’s an enormous market that would probably keep our economies running for the next 50 years. That would get us over the climate problem, and I think that it would also get us over our economic problem.

CURWOOD: What’s the role of big international agreements in dealing with climate change, in your view?

MOOMAW: Well, if we look at what the current treaty did was it got us on track. It basically said the governments of the world agree this is a huge problem and that we should address it. So, it’s motivational, it’s inspirational, perhaps, but it’s not going to get the job done. The job is going to be done at a much more local and regional level; it’s not going to be done by dictates from on top.

CURWOOD: So, things like the REDD, which is Reducing Emissions of Degradation and Deforestation – finding a way to get money in the hands of people to keep them from chopping down the tropics, those kinds of elements are what you are talking about?

MOOMAW: Yes. Those and those may come in a treaty, but they don’t need to be coming in a treaty. If you look at it right now, there’s a huge amount of money coming from the Prince of Wales and his foundation, money coming from Norway, not through the treaty, but separate from the treaty. And each of those is in the billions of dollars range. You know, it’s big!

Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood with Tufts University professor William Moomaw. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

We have the World Bank putting seven or eight billion dollars a year into various kinds of climate-focused development agreements. This system did not exist until fairly recently. And so we keep thinking in terms of this kind of traditional diplomacy, when in fact we’re into this new diplomacy which goes beyond just the role of national governments.

CURWOOD: The Rio +20 Summit…


CURWOOD:… at the end of June, what’s your best hope for what might happen there?

MOOMAW: I guess my best hope actually rests with the side events and not with the governmental portion of the meeting. That is, there will be a lot of really good ideas that will come out of that. The governments will meet for their three days; they will try to paper over the failure to get a climate treaty, among other things, and they will try to talk about some new way of looking at things that will make what we haven’t accomplished not look so bad.

There will be some governments that will be out there pushing hard. At the Durban climate meeting, for the first time, African countries lined up with small island states and basically said, ‘We’re not buying this argument that we have to wait around until the big polluters go first. We really need to see action soon.’ And so, I expect that the blocking countries – the United States, China, India – that are trying to undermine progress on this, some of the oil producing countries, will find themselves in a minority there.

CURWOOD: William Moomaw is professor of International Environmental Policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Thank you so much for coming in, Professor.

MOOMAW: Thank you very much for having me.



Click Here for Our Recent Coverage of Changes to Brazil’s Forest Code

Rio +20 Website


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