World leaders gather next week at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to talk about creating a green economy for the planet. But don’t go thinking this is the first international eco-bash. Bigwigs from the far corners of the globe have been talking about Saving the World for four decades now. Here’s a quick romp through 40 years of international environmental diplomacy, interspersed with Important Cultural Landmarks, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and, just for fun, some notes on what I was doing at the time.


Leaders of the world gather in Stockholm, Sweden, to talk about what a mess we’ve made of the planet. The meetings spawn the United Nations Environment Programme (which is like a program, only fancier) and kick off a generation of environmental treaties and agreements on ozone depletion, protecting biological diversity, hazardous waste, endangered species, and climate change.

Al Green’s song “Let’s Stay Together” hits No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Atmospheric CO2, the main driver of global warming, hovers just under 330 parts per million.

I am born, on Oct. 24, in a Salt Lake City hospital.

All donations matched! Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.


Leaders of the world gather in Nairobi, Kenya, to talk about what a mess we’ve made of the planet. The talks spark a groundbreaking report, released five years later, called “Our Common Future,” aka the Brundtland Report for its lead author, Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report is perhaps best known for its definition of sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Olivia Newton-John releases “Physical” and rocks the world in a leotard and sweatband in one of the first ever “video albums.” Hot hot hot (also totally hatin’ on fat people).

Atmospheric CO2 levels hit 340 parts per million.

I ask my mom to buy me a pair of parachute pants for my first day of fourth grade because that’s what all the break dancers on TV are wearing. She wisely declines.


Leaders of the world gather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to talk about what a mess we’ve made of the planet. (You’re beginning to see the pattern.) This time, it’s a major circus, with over 100 heads of state (including George Bush Sr., who agreed to attend only at the last minute), 8,000 delegates from 178 countries, 9,000 members of the press, and 3,000 representatives of non-governmental organizations. The summit produces a couple of important documents, including Agenda 21, which sets off alarm bells for conspiracy theorists (including the Republican National Committee) to this day, and kicks off major initiatives protecting biodiversity and combating climate change. The climate change initiative, signed by Bush Sr., will lead to the development of the Kyoto climate treaty in 1997.

Nirvana’s album Nevermind hits the top of the Billboard charts. Hope is in the air. In the grungiest sorta way.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere top 350 parts per million — the upper limit, according to climate scientists, that is safe for sustaining life as we know it on Earth.

I start work on a master’s degree in environmental journalism with the thought that one day, I might figure out what on earth is going on.


Leaders of the world gather in Johannesburg, South Africa, to — oh hell, you know. It’s the freaking Barnum and Bailey of summits, with over 25,000 people, elephants, lions, clowns, the works. Colin Powell even makes an appearance. (George W. Bush, his boss, does not. Nor will he have anything to do with the Kyoto Protocol, which his father helped set in motion.) And the result? No new mega-treaties, no new Earth-saving institutions, and no sweeping declarations or action plans.

Nirvana knockoff Nickelback tops the charts with its craptastic song, “How You Remind Me.” Clouds blot out the sun.

CO2 levels march toward 370 parts per million.

I land at the helm of a small environmental magazine just in time to chronicle Bush Jr.’s dismantling of decades of environmental protections and safeguards.


Next week, world leaders will convene yet again to talk about what a mess we’ve made of this planet. Climate change is off the table — too contentious, apparently. The focus this time will be creating a “green economy” Van Jones-style, for the globe. A fine idea, but by now, many have lost faith in these carnivals. With days to go before the summit, it does not appear that President Obama will attend, despite a really nice letter of encouragement from environmental groups. The interesting action, it seems, will be around the edges of the official talks, in events held by conservation and civil society groups, philanthropies, and the leaders of the world’s cities.

Marvel’s The Avengers tops box office sales for the first half of the year, followed by the eco-apocalyptic The Hunger Games and a bastardization of Dr. Seuss’ environmental classic, The Lorax.

CO2 levels shoot past 390 parts per million.

Tomorrow, I climb aboard a flight to Rio de Janeiro to report on the Earth Summit (aka “Rio+20” because this is the 20th anniversary of the first Rio Earth Summit). Watch Grist for regular updates from the latest eco-carnival and its many sideshows, and follow me on Twitter for the play-by-play: @ghanscom.

Next: 40 years of environmental diplomacy — what do we have to show for it?

Find all of Grist’s Earth Summit coverage here.