This week world leaders, business executives, international agencies and nongovernmental organizations gather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Better known as Rio+20 or the Earth Summit, this international meeting is a global effort to get sustainable development back on track.
Although much has changed since the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 (usually not positively as far as the environment is concerned), some things have not.
Governments are still dragging their feet on making real commitments to improving quality of life for their citizens and the health of the environment. Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic has sent a delegation of 15 students and two faculty members to take part in the summit. I am sometimes asked: “What could these young (read “inexperienced”) students possibly have to contribute?”
Protecting future generations is a central tenet of international environmental law and sustainable development. It’s found in dozens of international agreements and proclamations, including those agreed to at the first Rio Summit. But how can one represent the interests of people who, by definition, only exist in the future? Certainly not through politicians, who seem mostly to have adopted the attitude best expressed by Groucho Marx: “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”
As a college professor and a lawyer concerned with the environment, I often ponder the challenge of representing future generations. At Rio, one of the major proposals is the creation of a High Commissioner for Future Generations to act as an ombudsman for the interests of the unborn.
While that might be a start, the proposal faces an uphill battle and will only partially solve the problem. However, we already have a good proxy for future generations — youth.
Today’s young people have a stake in the future that most of the negotiating delegates here in Rio simply do not have — today’s youth will be there to live it. At recent climate negotiations, a favorite slogan of youth was the question: “How old will you be in 2050?” Few negotiators will be around then; but today’s youth will be and they will be living with the consequences of the inaction from that meeting — and many others.
This cannot be ignored.
We must empower youth to participate in all public processes affecting the environment and their future — from local zoning board hearings to international environmental meetings. I care passionately about the environment but even so, I will not be around in 50 years to experience the consequences of decisions we make or fail to make today. My stake in the future is mostly an abstract one; theirs is real.
The College of the Atlantic students in Rio are working with other youth from around the world and reporting back to activists at home through their website Earth in Brackets ( earthinbrackets.org).
They have studied the issues and can understand complicated treaties. They know when documents are hiding the truth and when negotiators are burdening the future while making grand speeches.
And while these students are not elected, nor fully representative of the diversity of views of the several billion youth on the planet, they are humble enough to recognize this, and so they listen. The discourse is all the richer because of their contributions, questions and concerns. It is also enriched by their boldness and sense of urgency.
The COA students — along with Girl Scouts, YMCA youth teams and other youth participants — are in Rio because the world needs them to put a face on the abstract concerns of future generations. Maybe their lobbying will result in the creation of a UN High Commissioner for Future Generations. Even if not, they embody the future. Just by their presence, they bring the future to the table. And what they’ve learned this week will affect their lives, their communities, and maybe even the future far beyond their generation. As someone who thinks a lot about our obligation to future generations, I am glad they are here.
Kenneth S. Cline teaches environmental law and policy at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. He has participated in international negotiations with students since 1995.