The frustration in the room was palpable. The chair of the meeting huffed into his microphone, chastising the governments of the world for not doing their homework. It would have been funny, except that their “homework” was to agree on an action plan to save the planet. And, despite negotiating for the past year leading up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit, it seemed as though the diplomats had shown up empty-handed.
Agreements at United Nations conferences hasn’t always been so difficult. In 1992 a similar group of diplomats gathered in Rio for the first UN Earth Summit, a conference widely lauded for its strong initiatives to stop climate change, desertification, species loss and combat poverty. After decades of Cold War induced defense spending, governments were only too happy to throw money and energy at something a little more cuddly than a nuclear warhead.
Now times have changed. Governments have arrived with their wallets tightly clenched and their lips sealed on anything showing leadership for fear of elections back home. The developing world is determined to make the developed countries pay for decades of pollution while the developed countries are just as determined to make sure that the principal of common but differentiated responsibilities doesn’t apply.
At one point, the endless nitpicking drove me out of the over-air conditioned rooms of the high-level discussions and into the civil society tent nearby. You could feel the difference, there was a buzz, a vibrancy as people from all over the world shared their solutions to the social, economic and environmental crises. In one room a group of scientists discussed technologies to close the carbon cycle, in another business people brainstormed clean energy financing mechanisms and in yet another young people shared ideas for engaging their peers in sustainable development.
Throughout the conference, young people have tried to infuse some energy into the talks. We stood outside a negotiating room with our mouths taped shut, holding signs calling for a High Commissioner for Future Generations, a position that we hope could bring a long-term perspective into short-term politics. Every evening we hold a Fossil of the Day, where we shame the countries that have been blocking progress towards a low-carbon future. Yesterday we held a flash mob and twitter storm where we marched to #endfossilfuelsubsidies and then got on our computers to urge all our Twitter followers to relay our message around the world.
We’ve heard that these actions have affected the negotiations, that we’ve helped remind country delegates that this conference is not about commas and clever word choices, it’s about creating a planet where future generations generations can thrive. Last night the meetings went until 3am as the governments of the world attempted to piece together a document that the world’s leaders can sign when they arrive on Wednesday. Many young people stayed in the plenary hall with them, waiting anxiously to see if the diplomats could create meaningful Sustainable Development Goals, end fossil fuel subsidies and strengthen the United Nations Environment Programme.
Though we might wait up all night to remind our governments how urgent this matter is to us, we’re certainly not waiting for them to lead the way to an inclusive green economy. If the governments of the world don’t do their homework, we’ll just have to find other ways to show them how its done.