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Insiders: Global Conferences Becoming Obsolete

Presidents and dignitaries pose for the group photo at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Bottom row, from left, France's President Francois Hollande, Sha Zukang, Secretary-General of the Rio+20, UN General Assembly Nassir Abdulaziz Al Nasser, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf, Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.(AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

photo of Olga Belogolova
June 20, 2012

This week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is heading up the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Rio+20 Summit on sustainable development, but no one seems to be paying much attention. Part of the problem is the collapse of public confidence in the U.N. process and the inability of recent global conferences such as Rio to produce measurable results. 

In light of this trend, most National Journal Insiders say that it’s time for negotiators to trade in mammoth environment and climate summits for smaller, focused meetings that might yield more results.

Fifty-three percent of Insiders say that the world should forgo the high-profile conferences like Rio+20 and the U.N. climate summit later this year for smaller, more incremental meetings. 


Recent global environmental summits have seen divisions between developed and developing countries and clashes between those with big goals and those with smaller appetites for action. The result has been few meaningful agreements, and most Insiders say they don’t expect much more from Rio this week. 

Big conferences, Insiders said, are unmanageable and too ambitious. Too often, they are “used more for grandstanding rather than focusing on narrow regional issues that can actually be practical and drive down greenhouse-gas emissions,” said one Insider. 

“Little of substance has been accomplished in these conferences. It’s time to pursue a different strategy,” said another Insider. 

Some Insiders went so far as to argue that U.N. conferences, as a whole, are obsolete, calling the process a “manufactured and failed apparatus.”

“For years, these conferences have been a boondoggle,” one Insider said. “The world would be better off [if] the geniuses at the U.N. stopped having meetings [altogether],” said another.

Still, 47 percent of Insiders argued that global conferences serve an important purpose. Without the high-profile nature of these meetings, pressure for change will slacken and there will not be any incentives to achieve results on environmental problems.

“Without the periodic high-profile conferences, there would be no impetus to achieve progress in the smaller incremental meetings,” said one Insider.

Another Insider added that “smaller, more incremental meetings would still be ineffective, since they would be attended by lower-ranking officials with even less decisional authority.”

Some Insiders said that the small meetings will work only if they are alongside ambitious, major conferences. 

“It is not an either/or choice,” explained one Insider. “Large events are important for galvanizing interest, but only in closed small-bore settings can we expect results.”

Another Insider summed it up this way: “The world needs to continue talking about these issues if it [is] ever going to come up with solutions.” 

Regardless of some support for the overall U.N. process, 100 percent of Insiders still agreed that the Rio+20 Summit going on this week will not yield any meaningful results. Insiders cited the global financial crisis, arguing that it will hold back countries from making commitments or keeping them. 

"With the world focused on global economic issues, there is not enough oxygen left in the room to make meaningful progress on environmental issues," said one Insider. 

"The world isn't in a position to agree to much right now," added another. Even if there is any progress, Insiders said that it would be minimal.

Given the lack of results from a variety of United Nations conferences such as the Rio+20 UN sustainability conference going on right now, should international negotiators forgo the large, high-profile conferences like this and the U.N. climate summit later this year for smaller, more incremental meetings?

(32 votes)

  • Yes  53%
  • No  47%



“The stage is too big, and used more for grandstanding rather than focusing on narrow regional issues that can actually be practical and drive down greenhouse-gas emissions.”

“How about they forgo the entire manufactured and failed apparatus? The only negotiations that matter are those that happen bilaterally or multilaterally, country to country. The U.N. is beyond obsolete in terms of environmental and energy cooperation and is now an actual barrier to progress.”

“Equivalent or greater progress can be had at more focused meetings at the ministerial level, with a smaller number of key nations.”

“With the global economy on the brink of falling back into recession, nations should focus on more focused meetings with more narrow, achievable goals.”


“Keeping the global pressure up is important to eventual success”

“This represents a milestone event that set the stage for a range of globally significant issues. That said, more progress has to be made in the future by working on regional and more incremental initiatives with business, NGOs, and governments at the table.” 

“There are smaller, incremental meetings in these international processes, and the drive for progress, even if currently limited, comes from the higher-profile meetings.” 

“The issues are too interrelated to be broken down and addressed independently.”

“The world needs to continue talking about these issues if it [is] ever going to come up with solutions.”

The Rio+20 conference has a broad agenda, with sessions on climate change, oceans management, food security, deforestation, and a host of other issues. Do you expect any meaningful agreements to be reached on any of the problems being discussed?

(32 votes)

  • Yes (Which ones? Please specify in comments)  0%
  • No  100%



"The global financial crisis led to protectionism and isolationism that has widened economic divisions between industrialized and developing nations as donor states' willingness has decreased and recipient states' needs have grown. That leaves room for little but symbolic agreement."

"If progress were actually made, there would be less need for follow-up conferences. Did someone say Bali in 2013!?"

"The world economy, political gridlock in the United States, and the intransigence of China and India are huge barriers to additional major international agreements on greenhouse-gas emissions. Negotiators would no doubt be better off focusing on incremental achievements."

"I suppose they might agree on some lower-priority issue so they can claim at least some success."

"This is the inverse of the banking rule, Rio+20 and the like are too big to succeed."

"The meeting may serve a purpose by fostering further dialogue, and keeping these important issues in the public's view, but we are not likely to close the deal on meaningful agreements while the world economy is a big question mark."

"Rarely, if ever, have these conferences produced any 'meaningful' agreements. This year will be no different."

"Sadly, even if practical, consensus-based agreements could be reached, conservatives would only ridicule them as 'evidence' of foreign encroachment."

"No meaningful agreements can be expected in these areas, there is no consensus, there are winners and losers, and no crisis or pressure-point-forcing decisions."

"And even if they say they have meaningful agreements, they will be broken almost immediately upon leaving the meeting."


National Journal’s Energy and Environment Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of energy policy experts. They include:

Jeff Anderson, Paul Bailey, Kenneth Berlin, Andrew J. Black, Denise Bode, Kevin Book, Pat Bousliman, Michael Bromwich, David Brown, Neil Brown, Stephen Brown, Kateri Callahan, McKie Campbell, Guy Caruso, Neil Chatterjee, Paul Cicio, Douglas Clapp, Eileen Claussen, Steve Cochran, Phyllis Cuttino, Kyle Danish, Lee Dehihns, Robbie Diamond, David Di Martino, Bob Dinneen, Sean Donahue, Tom Dower, Jeff Duncan, John Felmy, Mike Ference, David Foster, Josh Freed, Don Furman, Paul Gilman, Richard Glick, Kate Gordon, Chuck Gray, Jason Grumet, Christopher Guith, Lewis Hay, Fritz Hirst, Jeff Holmstead, David Holt, Skip Horvath, Bob Irvin, Bill Johnson, Gene Karpinski, Joseph T. Kelliher, Brian Kennedy, Kevin Knobloch, David Kreutzer, Fred Krupp, Tom Kuhn, Con Lass, Mindy Lubber, Frank Maisano, Drew Maloney, Roger Martella, John McArther, Mike McKenna, Bill McKibben, Kristina Moore, Richard Myers, Aric Newhouse, Frank O’Donnell, Mike Olson, T. Boone Pickens, Thomas Pyle, Hal Quinn, Rhone Resch, Barry Russell, Joseph Schultz, Bob Simon, Scott Sklar, Bill Snape, Jeff Sterba, Linda Stuntz, Christine Tezak, Susan Tierney, Andrew Wheeler, Brian Wolff, Franz Wuerfmannsdobler, and Todd Young.

This article appears in the June 21, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.

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