Written for Grist.org
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.
Our economies are trembling, our environmental alarms are blaring, and young people are antsy for real change. This is a moment for my generation to roll up our sleeves in Rio and call for more ambitious policy and leadership, but also to be honest with ourselves that policy alone won’t be a silver bullet for the world’s problems. Much of the work needs to be done in communities, building the organizations and business that can address today’s social and environmental challenges.
Rio will be host to a political process, but it will also be an opportunity to exchange tools and techniques that will help us implement our sustainable development goals. With events in Rio ranging from a corporate sustainability forum to an Occupy the Earth Summit event, there will be something for lawyers, indigenous people, young people, local government officials, and everyone else working hard for the future of this planet.
As we continue to see minimal mainstream media coverage of Rio+20, it is clear that the revolution will not be televised. Instead, it will be catalyzed by a generation of individual voices amplified by the power of collective action and digital technology. As with other recent transformative events, news will spread through personal social networks — but our actions will speak louder than our words.
As a young person, here are four ways you can directly plug in from wherever you are:
1. Join the hundreds of youth working on the Earth Summit by joining the Major Group on Children and Youth, a worldwide network open to anyone under 30. You can get involved in working groups that do everything from crafting policy submissions to raising media awareness.
2. Attend the Youth Blast, a parallel event for young people held just before the official conference, from June 7-12. The Youth Blast will be webcast, so you don’t have to be in Rio to take part in the workshops and presentations by young people, foreign ministers, and leaders of non-governmental organizations.
3. Get out our your webcam, hashtags, and dust off that forgotten blog. It seems like everyone from nonprofits to federal agencies have a contest of some sort to gather the thoughts of youth worldwide from blog to video to music contests and calls to tweet out your hopes and dreams for the world. Follow the coverage, repost the good stuff, and elevate the conversation.
4. Engage with U.S. leaders. They represent us, and it is important to make our voices heard. Send a telegram to the White House to tell Obama to come to Rio! Or, if you prefer the easy route, sign the petitions here or here — or just give the prez a call at 202-456-1111.
To find more ways to get involved, check out this extensive list compiled by SustainUS or if you are still at a loss for what this whole Earth Summit is about or just generally want to know more check out this great guide [PDF] on youth participation at Rio+20 put together by the volunteer-led youth group Rio+twenties.
So far through the Rio+20 process, we are seeing more humility than in past global meetings — an admission by world leaders that we are a long way from meeting the goals laid out at the first Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago and that we must find fresh ways of driving change on the local, national, and global levels. The opportunity is there for us to seize. As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said to young people this week, “this is your United Nations.” Time is of the essence.