Reflections from Rio+20
Special Issue EcoMotion Network News
by Sierra Flanigan, EcoMotion Campus Services Director
How It All Began
My journey to Rio+20 began almost two years ago when I met Monica Willard from the United Nations in the line of a sandwich shop in Providence, Rhode Island. It was September 21st and she was in town to promote the International Day of Peace.
We instantly became friends and since then have kept in close touch.
When Monica was looking for a youth representative for a Rio+20 panel, she signed me up!
The panel was called “Aligning Awareness and Action to Create the Future We Want." What could be more appropriate? My boyfriend Everett and I were going to Rio!
The Adventure Starts
Plane tickets were no problem, but housing was pretty tough with all Rio hotels and hostels booked, and we got lucky. A Brazilian whom Everett had met traveling in India hooked us up with his family in Rio de Janeiro. His mother, Marise, and his sister, Soyan, graciously took us in. I flew down a few days early.
As we pulled away from the airport, Marise showed me the lay of the land in broken English. Even while I was oohing and aahing in the back seat, the sprawling favelas (shanty towns) across the Brazilian landscape made clear the social disparity in Brazil. Some have it all; some so very little.
My new home was in Freguesia, an inland suburban area conveniently located near Rio Centro. I listened to sounds of the tropic city as I took in the view outside my window. Colors were even more vibrant in the urban rainforest of Rio. Early the next morning, Soyan helped me navigate my way to Rio Centro. I arrived bright and early, ready for the conference!
Rio de Janeiro is the second largest city in Brazil with a population of 6.3 million people. It is well known for its beautiful beaches, people, and the annual Carnival festivities. Its growing economy is attracting attention as it hosts the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.
At the Conference
Outside the Rio+20 gates, hundreds of soldiers and police, more than I had seen in my whole life, lined the entrance in full gear- bulletproof vests, riot shields, and big guns.
Intimidated and oddly empowered (I was allowed in!) I walked to the entrance, greeting each one of them with a small smile. One or two may have cracked the tiniest of grins back, but for the most part, these guys were all business. Straight-faced and cross, these Brazilian guards had an important assignment: to protect some the most influential people in the world.
Twenty years after the original Earth Summit (and two billion people later), Rio+20 was centered around the theme of sustainable energy for all and the creation of a green global economy. The conference was focused on ensuring growth while reducing poverty and protecting the environment. No small potatoes! Painted across the conference walls were the words, “Creating the future we want.” Jumbo screens listed side event titles and locations. I found T-4. I was first to arrive, awe-struck by the production, and anxious.
The panel consisted of five social thought leaders from around the world. We discussed awareness, consciousness, intention, behavior, and action and their influence in creating the future we want. It felt exhilarating to deliver my talk with conviction and to contribute to a meaningful conversation. Headsets were available for non-English speakers, written translation was projected onto a big screen to the right of me, while an interpreter communicated in sign language to the audience on my left.
We talked about the underlying disconnect inhibiting sustainability, the power of choice and pursuing creative solutions. Quoting the Sustainability Director from University of New Hampshire, I urged the audience to shift the global conversation from “What is sustainability?” to “What sustains us?”
To make sustainability relevant, we must first make it personal. We are all stakeholders in the future and each of us has a unique contribution to make.
As the conference progressed, this perspective made sense at every turn.
At a session focused on the role of tertiary education, one panelist talked about her experience as a student camping out on the quad at the University of Sydney. She and her peers wanted the administration to take climate change more seriously. And she got results when the University invested one million dollars in climate research! There were many inspiring stories like these.
The conference reminded me of what I know so well. There is a unique capacity that colleges and universities – and especially students – have to pave pathways in this global transformation toward sustainability. Rio+20 invigorated me. I made invaluable connections at this event, reminded of the importance of my work in New England and its impact around the world.
Perhaps the most controversial session was called Black Gold and the Green Economy. It was moderated by the current President of the Carbon War Room and hosted by the United Arab Emirates and Norway. The panel featured the oil executives’ responses to climate change and their responsibility for mitigating it. Sitting among the oil reps was the World Wildlife Federation climate spokeswoman who challenged their optimism.
There was much said about carbon sequestration and offset, but the panel left me with a dizzying array of emotions as I realized the source of the problem has many faces. As I walked into the cafe, Ahmadinejad was up on the big screen talking about sustainability in the context of Iran, calling on Western nations to give up their materialistic pursuits in favor of spiritual endeavors.
Outcomes of the Conference
The outcome of the Conference was a document titled The Future We Want. The goal of Rio+20 was to renew political commitments in this document that came out of the original Earth Summit declaration in 1992. Optimists saw this document as a platform for progress. However, human rights and environmental groups criticized the document as a missed opportunity and failure to act on the growing global challenges we face today. The “outcome document” -- The Future We Want -- can be found here
When the outcome document was unveiled, many people at the conference expressed their disappointment. A rally congregated in the patio inside the conference, voicing disapproval of the weak, watered down, international agreement. In “Occupy” style, a speaker yelled “mic check, mic check” at the top of her lungs, the crowd echoed the words. Security tried to break up the assembly but soon realized there was little its forces could do.
One little girl, with cameras in her face and reminiscent of Severn Suzuki who challenged the world leaders to care for her generation’s future twenty years ago, tore up the resolution. Others, including Bill McKibben and indigenous tribes people, condemned the outcome and the conference itself as a mockery of sustainable progress. A walkout ensued with people chanting, “The future we want is not found here!”
At a session hosted by the Turkish Government called Beyond GDP, we heard from the Prime Minister of Bhutan. He presented the Gross National Happiness, a promising solution that is gaining traction in the international community.
Gross National Happiness is a compilation of infant mortality, job satisfaction, and other indicators besides GDP, and provides a more comprehensive method of measuring growth and progress. Those Bhutanese sure do have it down!
At another event hosted by the President of Korea and the Prime Minister of Norway, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reminded us that change is gradual and that we all must remain committed. He recalled being a boy growing up in Korea, studying by candlelight because his family – like 1.3 billion people today – had no access to electricity. These leaders, with their hearts in the right place, gave me a renewed sense of hope.
Later, I squeezed into the session Making Islands Carbon Neutral, put on by the Carbon War Room. On the panel was the U.N. Secretary of Climate Change Christiana Figueres, her brother and former President of Costa Rica, Jose-Maria Figueres, the President of Aruba (who had committed his island to carbon neutrality,) and Sir Richard Branson (gasp! a personal hero!) talking about climate change and the peril of the island nations.
Christiana looked at Sir Richard and her brother and goaded: “Now, I know you two love a challenge, and I am going to challenge you. I want to see ten island nations running on renewable energy by 2020.” As you can see from this picture, the boys were game for Ms. Figueres’ challenge. What a moment, inspired by the people, the partnerships, the collaboration happening around me.
The last event we attended was Youth at Rio with young delegates from 23 nations participating in a conversation about how to move forward. Many people entered the room frustrated; many left feeling empowered. The youth share responsibility to act in the face of great uncertainty and in the absence of bold international leadership. We concluded that the future of our planet boils down to the choices we make in the present and it is up to each of us to maintain a balance between global awareness and local action.
Rio+20 reinforced my convictions and bolster my optimism. Together we have the solutions, we just need courage and dedication. Every challenge represents an opportunity in disguise. While struggling today, we are making the connections to build the future we want. For me, Rio+20 did not close the curtain, but bountifully set the stage for meaningful, collaborative sustainable action. For the rest of our time in Rio, we drank cocos and played frisbee on the beach.