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COP27 and ‘sustainability’ that is unsustainable

1. COP27 1
(File photo: AFP)
1. COP27 1

Ruba Saqr

The writer has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

Sixteen years after Al Gore’s historic documentary “An inconvenient truth”, UN Secretary General António Guterres told world leaders at the opening of the COP27 in Egypt on Monday: “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”اضافة اعلان

Sadly, though, the UN itself has had a hand in the miserable state of affairs we find ourselves in today. By abandoning the original language and intent behind Gore’s warning about a looming “planetary emergency”, the UN fell, in effect, in the trap of extreme capitalism, while touting a sustainable future.

In 2006, Gore took the Democratic party’s environmental message to the next level with his famous slideshow-based documentary, through which he aimed to open the world’s eyes to the imminent threat of global warming. But Gore’s influence started long before this award-winning film. While serving as vice president under Bill Clinton for two terms, from January 1993 to January 2001, Gore’s environmental thinking was all over the US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Jordan, which was negotiated during the Clinton administration’s time in office, but came into force some 11 months into George W. Bush’s presidency, in December 2001.

On Gore’s watch, the Clinton team insisted on adding two clauses to the FTA to get guarantees from the Kingdom with regard to environmental protection and labor rights.

To honor its commitments, Jordan ended up establishing its first-ever Ministry of Environment, in 2003, essentially expanding on the mandate of a small environmental directorate with limited scope under the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.

In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration’s environmental approach and language were quite straightforward and in a sense purist. As such, negotiations with Jordan were in the same spirit, explicitly about “environmental protection”, which was the focal terminology used to seal the FTA.

But this started to change once Bush’s Republican administration took over. UN agencies operating in Jordan started asking reporters writing about the environment to use the term “sustainable development” instead of the previously widely accepted purist terms that underscored the need to protect the environment.

As a reporter covering the environment beat in the early 2000s, I can still remember receiving a phone call from one of my contacts at a UN agency asking me to start using suitability-focused vocabulary when reporting on projects with an environmental edge. At several events afterwards, local reporters received repeated guidance to avoid making the “mistake” of using language that advocated for environmental conservation.

The rationale appears to have been influenced by Bush’s ruling Republican party and its emphasis on unbridled economic and industrial development. Till this day, members of the GOP continue to lend support to coal, oil and gas companies, showing lack of interest in transitioning to clean energy.

The UN, being largely influenced by US domestic politics, seems to have decided to take the middle road, by marrying the party lines of both Democrats and Republicans.

These changes have affected everything, from the international body’s actual approach to global warming to the language UN agencies like the UNDP used in the irrelevant communiqué.
This obsession with political differentiation and partisanship without the slightest concern for humanity’s overall welfare has cost us all dearly, especially those of us living in the Middle East and suffering from the direct effects of climate change.
“Environmental preservation” slowly disappeared from the lexicon in favor of “sustainability”, a non-committal expression that, strangely enough, sounds commercially appealing (because of how misleading it is to the unsuspecting consumer).

This reflected directly on Jordan. During the Clinton era, Jordanian governmental and non-governmental environmentalists were more purist in their messaging. One of the scenarios they envisioned for the role of the Environment Ministry was to obligate “polluters” in the local industrial sector to outfit their factories with filters to curb air pollution.

Shortly after Bush took office, the language started to change. Words like “pollution” were substituted in press releases and public statements with phrasings that avoided putting the onus on the industrial corporations and nations causing lasting environmental deterioration.

Even now, at COP27, countries have been pledging “zero carbon emissions”, which is another way of tiptoeing around the notion that certain industries pollute the environment uncontrollably, and irreversibly affect biodiversity and ruin people’s health.

Unfortunately, in polarized politics, everything becomes political, even global realities that are substantiated by research and evidence. Even though climate change is visibly upon us (with floods, fires and drought ravaging several parts of the world), Americans and Europeans in the right-wing camp think it is a hoax — just because global warming is a key agenda topic for the Democratic party in the US and like-minded leftist groups in the EU.

This obsession with political differentiation and partisanship without the slightest concern for humanity’s overall welfare has cost us all dearly, especially those of us living in the Middle East and suffering from the direct effects of climate change.

Real climate action should affect semantics as well as actual policies. Just like it was important to craft a language of ambiguity 20 years ago, to address environmental concerns in a way that watered down the perils of pollution and the abuse of natural resources, today the UN needs to correct course by adopting a straightforward and purist vocabulary that puts people’s health and the environment at the core of its communications and overall lexicon.

Simply put, “sustainability” has proved to be unsustainable, or else why are we here today grappling for salvation?

Facing the globe’s current realities starts with truthful language that reflects an honest political will to reverse the ill-effects of climate change in an unapologetic manner, before it is too late.


Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.


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