In less than 3 months, I will embark to Brazil to serve as a US youth representative at the United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit on Sustainable Development. You probably haven’t heard much about the summit; Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games has gotten a lot more attention than this conference. Yet, Rio+20 is arguably much more important for our global society than either the World Cup or the Olympics. Our world is at a critical turning point, facing the convergence of environmental, social, and economic crises. In short, we need to make some big changes, fast. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in January,
“We mined our way to growth. We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences. Those days are gone… We have to be prepared to make major changes - in our lifestyles, our economic models, our social organization, and our political life.”
So what exactly is Rio+20? In brief, Rio+20 is a giant conference for the world to collectively examine the progress (or lack thereof) we have made on global sustainable development. It is also an opportunity for the world to embark on a very different path, by committing to significant actions that will move us towards a "Green Economy" and a just and sustainable future. The “Rio+20” title comes from the twenty years since the original Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro. The 1992 Earth Summit resulted in a host of international treaties, including the well-known United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Although Rio+20 will not likely result in any new politically binding international treaties, conference organizers say the 2012 Earth Summit could be even larger than in 1992, possibly become the United Nations’ largest conference ever.
Rio+20 is especially important for young people, as my generation will face environmental devastation if our society does not soon take prudent action to curb climate change and other sustainability crises. Deputy Secretary of State Dan Reifsnyder, who will represent the U.S. at the summit, commented that Rio+20 should be called “Rio for twenty somethings” because young people have the biggest stake in what is being decided. For more on Rio+20 and youth, here’s a short video from the Rio Plus Twenties group:
Rio+20: an introduction for children and youth from Rio+twenties on Vimeo.
While the US Youth Climate Movement has directed much of its international attention towards the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) climate negotiations, Rio+20 is about much more than climate. Ideally, the conference will serve as a catalyst that moves world leaders from merely posturing about global sustainability to actually implementing real solutions to our pressing crises. However, for the conference to shift global policy, the whole world must be engaged. While many countries have been mobilizing throughout the past year, North Americans still remain mostly clueless about the conference. And with the 2012 election looming, there is little chance that President Obama will attend Rio+20 or make truly sustainable development a priority.
Although the US government might not make Rio+20 a priority, citizen engagement can play a huge role in making the summit a success. Youth around the world have mobilized to demand ambitious action at Earth Summit, holding large summits in Africa, Europe, and Asia. North America is up next, with the US/Canada Citizens Summit happening next weekend at Yale. I’ll be attending the conference and will be live blogging and tweeting throughout (here’s my Twitter handle: @arhasz).
If we are serious about transitioning to a truly sustainable society, we need to dramatically change our approach to global development. The Rio+20 Earth Summit presents a great opportunity to do just that. But it won’t happen unless us members of civil society, especially young people, get engaged and make the Rio+20 process own.