“…in this moment, I am all children, your children, the world’s 3 billion children. Think of me for these short minutes as half the world. I stand here with fire in my heart. I’m confused and angry at the state of the world, and I want us to work together now to change this.
These promises (at the first Earth Summit in 1992) are left – not broken, but empty. How can that be? All around us is the knowledge that offers us solutions. Nature as a design tool offers insight into systems that are whole, complete, that give life, create value, allow progress, transformation, and change.
We, the next generation, demand change. We demand action so that we have a future and have it guaranteed. We trust that you will, in the next 72 hours, put our interests before of all other interests and boldly do the right thing. Please, lead. I want leaders who lead. Are you here to save face? Or are you here to save us?”
– Brittany Trilford, a 17-year-old New Zealander speaking to world leaders at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June.
I’m glad I didn’t go.
For a while this spring, I considered attending the United Nations’ “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. It was a crucial follow-up to the original Earth Summit, held twenty years ago in Rio, when major promises were made by many world leaders (including a reluctant President George H.W. Bush) to make substantial progress in improving the planet’s environmental fate.
The promises weren’t kept. Here’s one example: global carbon emissions are up 48% over 1992 levels, despite original Summit’s pledge to send emissions the other direction. That’s why this Summit, called Rio+20, was so critical, many observers said. Twenty years on, we are really, truly beginning to run out of time, especially on the climate/carbon front. The time to act is now – as Ms. Trilford so poignantly pleaded.
I considered attending because fellow ‘carbon ranch’ compatriots were thinking of going. Many had been deeply involved in run-up conferences, especially on the important question of carbon sequestration in global grasslands. There was hope, I was told, of getting meaningful language into the Final Document at Rio that would help ranchers, farmers, and pastoralists of all stripes develop a regenerative ‘carbon economy.’ This sounded exciting and since I’ve never been to a major world conference (or to Rio), I put the Quivira Coalition’s name into the accreditation process with the U.N., and crossed my fingers. I also began looking for a hotel room – which, I was told, would be vastly more difficult to achieve than accreditation!
It took a long time, but both U.N. blessing and locating a place to stay in Rio finally happened. By this time, however, I had decided not to go. Financial considerations were part of the reason – it would have been a very expensive trip – but by late May it had become painfully clear that very little was going to be accomplished at the Summit. Expectations were falling like stones down a dry well, echoing dispiritingly. When my friends dropped out, I let the flat we had intended to rent go.
It was a good decision. In the end, Rio was a bust. The Final Document had been watered down to nothingness. One observer described it as “283 paragraphs of kumbaya that “affirm,” “recognize,” “underscore,” “urge” and “acknowledge” seemingly every green initiative and environmental problem from water crises and creeping deserts to climate change and overfishing.” But nothing was binding. No meaningful targets were set. No Grand Plan – or even a Modest Plan – for international cooperation to improve our environmental future was forthcoming. Not at Rio, and possibly not ever.
“A failure of epic proportions” was the verdict from Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International. “An outcome that makes nobody happy,” said Sha Zukang of China, the Rio+20 Secretary-General.
An editorial in a German newspaper said: “The Rio+20 conference, which really should have provided a new spark, has instead shined the spotlight on global timidity. Postpone, consider, examine. Even the conference motto — ‘The Future We Want’ — sounds like an insult. If this is the future we want, then good night.”
The list goes on. I didn’t read what Ms. Trilford had to say after the Summit – I’m not sure I want to. However, author and climate activist Bill McKibben did report some good news: a walk-out by 130 young people, protesting the Summit’s inaction.
“The youth-led demonstration violated all the U.N. rules,” wrote McKibben, “Security squads surrounded us at the first sound of controversy, announcing that our gathering was “unsanctioned” and if we didn’t stop immediately we’d lose our accreditation…We were eager to surrender our badges, because then we wouldn’t be part of what had turned into a sham.”
So much for the value of accreditation.
The Summit’s failure “meant a future filled with clouds of carbon,” McKibben concluded. “After Copenhagen’s failure people felt sad, disempowered. But now people seemed to feel mad — and ready to fight where it counts, out in the real world. Out where we need to change the political dynamic if international negotiations are ever going to matter.”
Fight or not, I suspect the failure of Rio+20 means the end of big international gatherings, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Clearly, they haven’t worked so far – and as this Summit’s anemic results suggest, they never will. In contrast, apparently there was a great deal of productive talk on the sidelines of Rio among NGOS, private companies, local government officials and the like. There were even a few surprise announcements, such as the one by Microsoft, which said it would adopt an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries as part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. The Italian oil company Eni said it would reduce its flaring of natural gas. A Latin American soft-drink bottler said it would obtain 85 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources.
Good stuff, of course, but it begs the question: is it enough? The quick answer looks to be “no” – not if governments refuse to curb greenhouse gas emissions at some point, which doesn’t look likely. We can’t say that for sure, but after Rio, it’s looking like a long shot.
“We, the next generation, demand change. We demand action so that we have a future and have it guaranteed…Please, lead. I want leaders who lead. Are you here to save face? Or are you here to save us?”