One year from this week, government leaders, civil society members and representatives of the business community will meet in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the future of the planet. The Earth Summit (also called Rio+20 after the first such global event in 1992) can help lead to a more prosperous world that utilizes natural resources more efficiently and responds to the needs of the most impacted communities of environmental degradation. But only if youth help write the story, and here’s why.
Rio 1992 was a watershed moment for the global environmental conscience. Treaties were signed, commissions created, and action plans drafted. Yet one of the most memorable speeches from the two-week conference was by a 12-year old girl (here’s what she’s doing now).
Now, a generation later, my generation is faced with two seemingly insurmountable challenges: the world is changing at a rate never before seen, and the current governance structures are insufficient to meet even the environmental problems of the 1970s.
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Trustee and former United Nations Development Programme head Gus Speth writes of his “generation of great talkers” in Global Environmental Challenges: “For the most part, we have analyzed, debated, discussed, and negotiated these issues endlessly…On action, however, we have fallen far short…The threatening global trends highlighted a quarter-century ago continue to this day.”
That’s why we’re looking for something different this time around. NRDC is inaugurating our Race to Rio campaign with an initial set of Earth Summit deliverables we would like to see heads of state, business executives and civil society leaders agree to (see more details and climate/energy asks). The criteria are simple, they must be specific and short-term; involve commitments to work together; and have robust monitoring and reporting provisions.
Actions and accountability
Fortunately, as I reported back from the last preparatory meeting, civil society is already focusing on the dual challenges of actions and accountability. This was reflected in submissions (pdf) to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability as well as recent calls for greater ambition.
We as civil society must channel this energy, however, neither wasting precious time pointing fingers at every unfulfilled promise of the last forty years nor demanding that our leaders commit to lofty ideals long after they will be out of office. NRDC President Frances Beinecke thinks we can learn from the Clinton Global Initiative, which has a unique track record for generating real actions on the ground.
As we contemplate what needs to be done in the next five to ten years, though, be sure: from now until Rio 2012 is the most important year. I uncovered a public service announcement from the run up to Rio 1992 calling on every American to send a telegram to the White House asking the U.S. to lead. We need the same passion and pragmatism guiding us toward Rio in 2012.
An open challenge to youth
Our new abilities to tear down planetary boundaries are only surpassed by our tools to tear down cultural and geographic boundaries.
It’s interesting to look at what’s happened in my generation – the generation of billions: we’ve added 1.3 billion new people to the planet (a billion in our cities), two billion Internet users, five billion mobile phone subscriptions, and brought billions out of the worst kind of poverty.
We know that a successful Earth Summit must engage all strata of society, and thankfully we are beyond telegrams and faxes. But, how do we bring the myriad new media tools to bear on the problem of accountability and actions? This is an open challenge for youth to help shape the debate using a new, more effective language. This week, we raise awareness through posts on #earthsummit and #rioplus20, but we need to think beyond.
Some examples already exist. Earth Day Network’s Billion Acts of Green campaign encourages all of us to share our local actions toward sustainability. The European Environmental Agency’s iEnviroWatch app gives local environmental conditions and wants to invite users to submit content. Various youth rapid response networks at UN climate negotiations provide instant accountability to constituents back home.
These and many more need to be scaled up by Rio next year, because it is obvious to UN leaders that the current way of doing things will not survive another twenty years. Our world cannot wait for a Rio+40 to curb climate change, repopulate the oceans and restore lost forests.
We need to blaze a path forward at the same time we ask our leaders to lead.
Michael Davidson was a SustainUS youth delegate to the Cancun climate negotiations in December 2010. He is the China Climate Fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC, where he examines the dynamic U.S.-China energy and environment relationship and supports NRDC’s Earth Summit 2012 campaign. Previously, he was a Fulbright Fellow in Beijing and holds degrees in Physics and Japanese Studies from Case Western Reserve University.