New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, right, and Babatunde Fashola...

New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, right, and Babatunde Fashola of Lagos, shake hands during the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (June 19, 2012) Credit: AP

Don't expect much from the Rio+20 Earth summit in Brazil this week. Despite a dazzling display of more than 100 heads of state and 50,000 environmental activists, business leaders and policy-makers, most analysts agree there will be much more disagreement at this United Nations meeting than agreement.

The meeting is called Rio+20 because the UN is trying to reinvigorate the progress sparked by a highly successful meeting on climate change it held in Rio two decades ago. It was known as the Earth summit.

The timing of these two global events, and the global news cycle this time, are quite different. In 1992, there had been no global recession, Europe was not in fear of financial meltdown and no Middle East dictator was slaughtering innocents.

Country representatives at the Earth Summit made palpable progress on climate change and deforestation. The summit also prepared the way for a global treaty on biodiversity, which in turn became the precursor to the 2005 Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gases.

Since 1992, the environment is worse off in almost every measurable way. For one thing, major countries like ours (and Canada) refused to ratify the treaty, so we never even made an effort, as the treaty would have required, to lower greenhouse gases.

As a result, carbon monoxide emissions have increased -- from 357 parts per million volume in 1992 to 389 last year, the UN reports.

These emissions are caused mainly by combustible use of fossil fuels, gas flaring and cement production, all of which have increased more quickly in recent years. Carbon emissions trap heat in our atmosphere and increases Earth's temperatures.

Over that period, the UN also reports, the global mean temperature rose by 0.4 degrees Celsius. That may not sound like much, but it is enough to raise sea levels along the Bay of Bengal enough to put millions of people's former habitat underwater.

Sea levels rose between 1992 and 2011 about 2.5 mm per year. Why? The ice caps and Greenland ice sheets are melting.

I don't want to drown readers in a sea of numbers. You get the picture. More people, more cars, more construction, more fuel usage and so on.

Which brings me to my last point: population. Between 1992 and 2010, the world's population grew by 1.5 billion people to a total of 7 billion. Human consumption and population growth have pushed the planet to its perilous environmental state. We simply cannot continue like this.

Last week in England, leading scientific societies issued a statement calling on the UN to address population and consumption as two factors exacerbating climate change.

The Guardian newspaper quoted Charles Godfray, a fellow of the Royal Society and chair of a working group of the InterAcademy Council, a global network of science academies, as saying: "For too long, population and consumption have been left off the table due to political and ethical sensitivities. These are issues that affect developed and developing nations alike, and we must take responsibility for them together."

The scientists were realistic in recognizing that political correctness -- my phrase, not theirs -- will inevitably trump scientific assessments. How dare the United Nations consider human population, or more accurately, overpopulation, as a factor in climate change? Further, how dare the UN try to take away Bubba's truck or the Saudi prince's jet? But if we don't start doing something soon to curb consumption in developed nations and lower population (or at least population growth), nature will take over and do it for us. It will melt the ice caps, raise sea levels and in the process destroy lavishly constructed cities and kill millions of people.

As long as the current political climate prevails, I doubt the United Nations at Rio+20 or the United States will do anything serious about these most pressing of problems.

Bonnie Erbe, a TV host, writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. Email


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