Photo: Waiting for a miracle at the Rio+20 summit

Severn Suzuki speaking at the Rio UN Summit in 1992.

By Tara Cullis, President and Co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation

Twenty years ago, the world flocked to Rio with high hopes to find common ground to protect the planet, and to deal with the social injustices of poverty and colonialism.

At the time, Canada was a leader on global environmental issues. In 1972, the amazing Canadian, Maurice Strong, headed up the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. In 1992, Mr. Strong led the UN Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro.

In those frenetic two weeks in 1992, two very different sets of meetings were held simultaneously at opposite ends of that very large city.

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In the south, at Riocentro, the official UN meetings crawled earnestly along in large plenary sessions and tiny press conferences. At the northern end of the city, in Flamengo Park, the Global Forum provided booths for thousands of small NGOs and meeting spaces and stages for colourful speeches, demonstrations, and dances.

My husband, David Suzuki, and I were there to help the ECO club, the Environmental Children's Organization, founded by our daughter Severn three years earlier. At the age of 12, she and the other girls heard about Rio and immediately insisted they had to go, "To be the conscience of the adults." The ECO club, which was made up of five engaging youth: Vanessa Suttie, Morgan Geisler, Michele Quigg, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, and Sev's little sister, Sarika, raised the money to get there themselves.

At every speaking opportunity he had, David gave the girls a platform and they quickly honed their lines and speaking skills — and made quite a reputation for communicating straight from the heart. As the two weeks drew to a close, Maurice Strong and the head of UNICEF managed to pull some strings, and Severn was suddenly given five minutes to speak to the UN Plenary Session.

In the taxi flying across town to Riocentro, the girls quickly melded their speeches into one, and suddenly everything gelled. The combined speech has become legendary, and Sev became known as, "The girl who silenced the world for six minutes." Severn ruefully admits, "I'll never top that speech!"

As a result, Severn was presented with the Global 500 award, and was appointed to the Earth Charter Commission, among other honours. Twenty years later, she has been invited back for the Rio+20 UN meetings to report her current perspective on the world.

From what we hear this year, the preparatory meetings leading up to Rio+20 have been frustrating and depressing. Canada has become known for objecting to every use of the word "commit." Even the pretense of wanting to protect the life support systems of humanity has been publicly dropped. Canada is objecting to the concept of an ombudsman for future generations and the protection of rivers, forests, and high seas. Even the United States, itself reluctant to concede any barrier to develop mines or wells, has said to Canadian delegates, "We have to protect something!"

There is a sense of urgency tinged with an edge of panic as we make our way towards Rio+20. The June 6 edition of the top scientific journal "Nature" published extremely urgent warnings that humanity is exceeding the path to irreversible tipping points. Although many European countries have made great strides, and met many of the Rio '92 goals, North American governments have become paralyzed. They are unable or unwilling to counter the power of those corporations arguing that any environmental regulation will cut jobs and harm the economy. It seems that the laws of nature must be disregarded.

But as they say, nature always bats last.

During the summit in 1992, other parallel conferences like the Earth Parliament (the voice of aboriginal peoples, children, and women) gathered near the Global Forum. Delegates scurried from one speech to the next, marveling in the diversity and energy of the efforts to find solutions to pollution, deforestation, dams, and climate change (a new threat at the time). The energy was palpable; everyone was determined to do their best to work out how to live in better harmony with the planet.

Twenty years later, after all that excitement, we arrive this week with a grim sense that it will take a miracle to make any progress. But when else will so many come together to try? Few of us expect the recommendations passed here to be respected by Canada. What many of us hope for is the unexpected — some breakthrough, a presentation that catches the world's imagination, some inspirational speech, action, or act of leadership. On the way to Rio, it feels like that's all we have to hope for.

I hope this week proves me wrong.

June 19, 2012

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