For more than 18 years, negotiators representing countries big and small have come together at this time of year under the auspices of the United Nations to talk about how we are going to avoid the worst of climate change. For the 40,000 or so people who attend the climate negotiations each year, it has become something of a holiday tradition -- and as with any family, the global family of nations is ripe with characters and disagreements that never seem to get resolved.
But this year, youth activists from around the world are determined to prevent this reunion of nations from becoming a cheery festival of business-as-usual and deal-swapping with big fossil fuel companies.
As those of us who attended the Rio+20 Earth Summit get back into the daily grind, and those who weren't in Rio have already forgotten it ever happened, we begin to realize the mistakes that were made and the lessons we can learn.
As a young person who will live with the results of Rio+20 for years to come, it is already feeling like a missed opportunity for something much better. The slogan that was bandied about, plastered onto the wall of the conference center, and put at the top of the final "outcome document" was "the future we want," but the "we" clearly didn’t refer to the young people who were at the summit, or the many who didn't even consider going.
Next month, the United Nations will hold a mega-conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -- the Earth Summit, aka Rio+20. In addition to being an international Who’s Who of over 130 heads of state and leaders in sustainable development, it will also be a chance for young people to assert the urgency of the challenges we face and seize the opportunities presented to our generation to address them.
Yeah, I know you're probably still sour about the last global enviro conference that made headlines -- the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations. I understand that bitterness. I was there, a senior in college then, all wide-eyed and hopped up on hope. But in preparing to attend the Earth Summit with other youth leaders, I come with renewed enthusiasm that this conference will be different.
For one, we are all a little more sober heading into Rio+20. Few anticipate that it will produce a sweeping treaty that will plug our smokestacks and curb our passion for plastic. And after talking with U.S. State Department negotiators, I am assured that this is certainly not the course the U.S. is taking. (There are, however, many things that the State Department could warm to with a little pressure from the American public, like including at least one young person on the official delegation to represent American youth.)
Rather, Rio+20 will be a global conversation and test run in 21st century governance, driven by our planet's limitations and need for diverse stakeholder participation. This is an opportunity for those of us energized by the street and internet democracy that has proliferated in recent years to bring our voices to the table with world leaders.
Ellie Johnston is the Lead Now fellowship director at SustainUS, a youth-led organization that empowers U.S. youth to advance sustainable development at UN conferences and back at home. She also works at Climate Interactive, which helps global leaders and citizens explore the pathways to address our climate, energy, and sustainability challenges through simulations and systems thinking.