Preparing for the Rio Earth Summit

It’s official! In five days I leave for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Yes, I won the blogging contest sponsored by, with this winning blog post. Thanks to all of you who commented on the post; the judges were amazed by the liveliness of the conversation that ensued. (So was I!) My passport is in hand, Brazil visa in place, letter of admittance to the conference already printed out.

So what will I be doing in Rio?

First of all, I will be attending the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20. It’s been twenty years since the world’s leaders gathered in Rio to hammer out agreements to address climate change. The last twenty years haven’t gone so well. The Earth is heating up, the seas are rising, and it’s clear that the ways we’ve been thinking about ourselves and Earth are not helping us turn toward preserving life on Earth as we know it.

World leaders recognize this, which is why a new paradigm is emerging. The “green economy” and “sustainable development” are the models being discussed. The green economy emphasizes market-based solutions to climate change, especially the possibility of assigning dollar values to what the Earth provides in terms of life-sustaining ecosystems. By knowing the economic value of those Earth services, proponents say, we can structure the market more fairly to use fewer resources and  address problems of poverty and inequality. Sustainable development emphasizes human development that does not deplete the Earth’s resources.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon says,

For too long we have tried to consume our way to prosperity. Look at the cost: polluted lands and oceans, climate change, growing scarcity of resources from food to land to fresh water, rampant inequality. Nature has been kind to human beings, but we have not been kind to nature.

The conference program and especially the schedule of side events shows a lineup guaranteed to make your head swim. I’m picking my way through the program and taking notes on panels I’d like to attend—from a rights of nature panel first thing the morning after I arrive to discussions on phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. My friends at the Big Picture Agriculture blog have called attention to the many food and ag panels.

But the UN conference is only half of the picture. As if a gathering of world leaders were not enough for one trip, another enormous event is taking place across the city, the People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice. Here people critical of market-based solutions to the climate crisis will gather to dream up new solutions and new paradigms. “Come reinvent the world” is the theme of this gathering, which at its last meeting two years ago in Cochabamba, Bolivia, drew tens of thousands of people. Participants will seek alternatives to the mainstream economic practices—new models that emphasize justice, fairness, and the intrinsic, life-giving values of Earth, which cannot be quantified.

As Audrey Shenandoah, Clan Mother of the Onondaga Nation, says,

There is no word for nature in my language. Nature, in English, seems to refer to that which is separate from human beings. It is a distinction we don’t recognize.

The People’s Summit also includes a robust gathering of youth taking place this week before I get there. In Rio I hope to meet a hometown Boulder ambassador from Earth Guardians, the eloquent twelve-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. Check out this powerhouse of a speaker and musician calling on kids and adults to take better care of the Earth:

In Rio I will blog from as many events as I can physically manage to take in. You can find me in the Climate Voices section of the tcktcktck website, and I will cross-post articles here at home as well.

What can you do to support this worldwide meeting to address climate change?

Ask President Obama to attend. The most recent word is that he is not planning to travel to Rio in spite of the fact that this country’s leadership in fossil fuel use has created a great deal of the climate crisis and this country’s leadership in addressing it could make an enormous difference in whether or not the climate will be livable for human beings (and other life as we know it) twenty, fifty, or a hundred years from now.

Recently, more than twenty large environmental groups plus the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to attend.

You too can sign the NRDC’s petition. Urge President Obama to attend the Rio+20 Earth Summit. (Link no longer available.)


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