Sustainability summit preps for Rio

Over 200 people of various fields and professions gathered at the US/Canada Citizens’ Summit for Sustainable Development this past weekend.
Over 200 people of various fields and professions gathered at the US/Canada Citizens’ Summit for Sustainable Development this past weekend. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

People from all walks of life gathered in Kroon Hall this weekend to share their vision of a sustainable future.

Over 200 people, ranging from entrepreneurs to lawyers to social advocates, congregated for the US/Canada Citizens’ Summit for Sustainable Development. They discussed issues relevant to this summer’s upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or the Rio+20 summit, eventually drafting a declaration to submit to the U.S. and Canadian delegations. This weekend’s conference’s goal was to promote dialogue and add momentum to the Rio+20 conference, said conference organizer Sebastien Jodoin FES ’14.

“If we want Rio+20 to be a meaningful event in our generation, we want to have an event to start building that conversation,” Jodoin said.

The conference began with a panel discussion on why the environmental movement has lost momentum since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While the 1992 conference was a major victory for the environmental cause by enhancing collaboration between nations, many nations’ promises from it remain unrealized, said Daniel Esty LAW ’86, a School of Forestry & Environmental Studies professor who is on leave while serving as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

The inertia of the environmental movement is often blamed on its “lack of political will,” but that is a symptom, not the cause, said Esty, an attendee of the 1992 summit. Esty blamed a lack of “good science,” an absence of economically attractive policy choices, and a tendency for advocates to stray into politics based on “moral righteousness.”

The Citizens’ Summit sought to create political momentum in the lead-up to the Rio+20 conference. The participants spent two days sharing their views on issues such as green energy and sustainable cities in a series of one-and-a-half-hour sessions.

Katrina Malakhoff, a sophomore at Harvard, said she attended the sessions on environmental justice, creative sustainable development, and fisheries and sustainable oceans. She said she learned how to take a more holistic perspective by interacting with people from different fields, such as business or academia.

“It’s been great to interact with the people here and discuss how all of our interests are aligned,” Malakhoff said. “We’re all working on the same goals and we have different perspectives on how to get there.”

Each session also had speakers and moderators who directed the conversation and synthesized the group discussion into answers to three questions, Jodoin said. These questions were on the future of sustainability, what people wanted to see at Rio+20, and what civil society could contribute, he said.

The summit organizers compiled the answers from each session into a concise “outcome document” to submit to the UN, Sarah Barbo FES ’13 said. She said the statement, to be released this week, would be no more than three pages.

“We want it to be read,” she said jokingly.

To live up to its mission of giving people a voice at Rio+20, Citizens’ Summit included ways for people to participate electronically, said summit organizer Jose Medina-Mora FES ’13.

“People said they couldn’t come because it’s expensive to travel from Alaska or Hawaii,” Medina-Mora said. He also said the three months in which they organized the summit may have been too short notice for some people.

To include more voices, the summit’s online presence included a blog with the environment school’s Sage Magazine website, live streaming, Twitter and other social media.

Despite the high attendance at the summit, Jodoin said, 200 people is not enough and the summit committee needs to “grow” the sustainability movement.

“The biggest thing we did this weekend was we found over 200 people from different fields and backgrounds that have not spoken to each other before,” Jodoin said. “But there are a lot of people already part of this movement that are not linked up.”

The United Nations will hold Rio+20 in Brazil on June 20-22.

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