RIO DE JANEIRO - The environmental movement won the ideological battle with the growth of awareness on climate change. Environmentalists are no longer seen as "loonies" or granola-eating hippies: the people seen as on the fringe" now are the climate skeptics who deny that global warming is caused by human activity.
Increasingly frequent extreme weather events and rising sea levels have helped convince people to take the warnings seriously, rather than dismissing or playing them down like in the recent past.
The term "sustainability" has even become part of the business jargon, and consumer rights campaigns urge companies to sign corporate social and environmental responsibility agreements, promising not to buy wood or beef produced at the expense of the Amazon rainforest, for example.
But the scientific legitimacy of environmentalists' claims and demands does not translate into political influence when it comes to decision-making time, such as at the international conferences that try to establish a global treaty to curb global warming.
The virtual consensus that the planet is heading for catastrophe if urgent measures are not taken is not accompanied by the necessary political clout to bring about actions considered indispensable for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The momentum achieved in the 1990s by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and the Kyoto Protocol signed five years later in Japan seems to have been lost, despite the increased knowledge about the threat to humanity.
The environmental crisis is one of the challenges to the survival of democracy in the 21st century, according to a group of intellectuals brought together periodically by the International Research Institute on Civilization Policy (IIRPC) in Poitiers, France to discuss pressing global issues.
Democratic regimes do not appear to be capable of adequately addressing the issue of climate change, because of the short-term political dynamic, since environmental problems take decades to solve, said Elimar Pinheiro do Nascimento, director of the Sustainable Development Centre at the University of Brasilia, who participates in the seminars in Poitiers.
Democracy is about freedom, and protecting the environment is about survival, said Nascimento. For that reason, he added, a growing number of intellectuals believe humanity would choose survival over the fight for democracy, if it had to choose between two mutually exclusive options.
The efficacy of the mechanisms for the adoption of international agreements in the U.N. system has also been called into question.
The Kyoto Protocol, which went into effect in 2005 and was to expire at the end of 2012, set a binding target for 37 industrialized countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent, from 1990 levels, by 2012. But it failed to achieve its goal.
The Protocol was limited from the start by its timid targets and rejection by the U.S., at the time the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas.
It is difficult to reach agreement on international treaties at U.N. conferences due to the requirement of a consensus among all the parties – 193 in the case of the climate change convention. And effectiveness is not guaranteed, as there are generally no penalties for non-compliance, and approval depends on ratification by national legislatures.
It is at the parliamentary level that the weakness of environmentalism is often reflected, especially when it gets tripped up over economic interests that block the negotiation of international treaties or undermine their impact, as in the case of the Kyoto Protocol.
Green parties are generally tiny and have little influence on national politics, with a few exceptions like Germany. And many of them abandon their principled stances when they get involved in the electoral process, like in Brazil.
Other instruments in the struggle, like protest demonstrations, media campaigns and various forms of social pressure, also appear to be insufficient to bring about the necessary changes.
A reform of the forest code headed for approval in Congress runs counter to national efforts to reduce greenhouse gases in Brazil, recognised as a champion of climate change mitigation by the executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, Achim Steiner.
The overwhelming parliamentary support for the forest code reform, which will ease environmental requirements and make it easier for landowners to clear Amazon rainforest for agriculture, has demonstrated the impotence of environmentalists - and of scientists who have demanded that their voices be heard in the debate.
Defenders of the forest code, which has protected Brazil's woodlands since 1965, suffered an overwhelming defeat in May, when the reform was passed by 410-63 votes in the lower house of Congress, and on Dec. 6, when it was approved in the Senate by a vote of 59-7.
The bill has now gone back to the lower house of Congress, where it is expected to pass easily within the next few months.
Environmentalists are now worried that the final version of the bill will be even more negative for the environment, because the members of the lower house of Congress are even more closely aligned with the interests of large landowners.
The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the UNFCCC, held in Durban, South Africa Nov. 28 to Dec. 11, was a "setback" because it merely approved "a promise" to take action as of 2020, Marina Silva wrote in a Dec. 16 article in the Brazilian daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo.
"Statespersons are needed, leaders who can push through the necessary changes at times of crisis," said Silva, who was environment minister under left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011).
But how likely is it that leaders capable of standing up to political and economic interests in order to guarantee humanity's survival will emerge?
It will probably be necessary to come up with new mechanisms for approving policies with a long-term focus, which are required to solve environmental problems.
There is a disproportionate imbalance of power in favor of the economy. Central banks, for example, have the autonomy to adopt often unpopular monetary measures in many countries, even despite pressure from national governments.
During financial crises like the one currently affecting the industrialized world and many developing countries, specialized economists reach the highest level of government. But no one can imagine similar power in the hands of environmentalists or climate experts.
When she became environment minister of Brazil in 2003, Marina Silva tried to get the government to accept a cross-cutting approach to environmental issues in all cabinet ministries. But she resigned in May 2008, saying she did not have the political backing needed to protect the rainforest against powerful business interests and their allies in the government.