This post was written by Michael Davidson.
One block from my office in Washington, DC, young people frustrated by the lack of accountability and democracy in corporate America have gathered to demand and demonstrate change. I hear many voices of my generation as I walk through McPherson Square, but our concerns are unmistakable: unemployment, corruption, massive subsidies to established industries, corporate irresponsibility and—inherent in all these problems—environmental injustice on a global scale. Given the increasingly precarious world that we inhabit, there is much to do at next year’s Rio+20 Earth Summit on sustainable development. What is certain: The status quo is unsustainable, unacceptable, and we need to tell the United Nations so, in strong, clear words.
Young people everywhere are worried about what climate change will mean for their lives. They, more than anyone else, understand how urgently we must find solutions to our global environmental problems. Already the health and wellbeing of hundreds of millions of youth are at environmental risk. For example, up to 30 percent of young people in many African and Asian nations do not even have toilets and decent sanitation services, further compounding the threat of climate change-intensified diseases. The links between the health of our environment and the socio-economic challenges inspiring youth to take to the streets are clearer each day.
That’s why this week NRDC is stepping up its “Race to Rio” campaign. We are working with civil society around the world on a global call to the United Nations, telling governments that they need to do much more to protect the planet and its youth (over three billion under the age of 25). November 1 is the official deadline for formal input into the outcomes text process before countries start negotiating in the build up to the Earth Summit. If we don’t raise our collective voice now, nations will spend months arguing about abstractions that do little more than maintain the status quo, when they could be working toward ambitious, measurable goals.
If you want a sense of what the status quo means for your future, check out the Carbon Tracker Initiative: The world’s stock exchanges have already invested in five times more fossil fuel reserves than we can burn while warming the planet by less than 2 degrees-C, a dangerous tipping point. In other words, we’re sitting on a huge “carbon bubble,” financially speaking—an investment in fuels we shouldn’t burn—and my generation, of young people hoping to retire around 2050, is going to be left footing the bill for these sunk costs. Such rampant, shortsighted investment is further exacerbated by ecological scarcity and perverse subsidies that reward rapid and irresponsible resource extraction. Globally, fossil fuels were subsidized by $409 billion in 2010, and these gratuitous grants are not all going to the world’s poor: only 8 percent went to the poorest 20 percent of Earth’s population. It is clear that the current environmentally-insensitive, under-performing economy cannot ensure employment for the next generation.
Meanwhile, governments consistently fail to recognize that our planet has limits. We have already exceeded three of nine planetary boundaries identified by leading scientists (those boundaries related to climate change, biological diversity, and nitrogen release into the biosphere). Yet leading economists seem content to continue predicting infinite growth on a finite planet. Nor do our national growth plans account for natural capital—those vast, tangible benefits we derive from ecosystems and biodiversity—which is being depleted by trillions of dollars per year. These stark trends must change.
We deserve an Earth Summit that does more than just deliver yet another agenda with lofty, imprecise goals for the distant future. Not unlike those in McPherson Square, young people around the world in preparation for the summit have denounced the weak implementation, corruption, and lack of accountability of the existing set of rules – which for sustainable development includes hundreds of commitments, pledges, treaties and action plans. Instead, during next year’s Rio+20 Earth Summit—our summit—we want our national and subnational governments, as well as businesses and non-government groups, to take science-based, measurable and transformative actions to correct our course on Earth. We have some concrete ideas, and there are many more.
“The Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is one of the most important meetings in UN history,” declared UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, recently. “It will help to determine our collective future. Young people can and must play a central role in bringing dynamic new ideas, fresh thinking and energy to the Rio+20 process.” Let’s respond to his call to action.
Image: NRDC, Earth Boy