Hard Work and Surprises at Rio’s Earth Summit

For environmental studies majors Emma Puka-Beals ’12 and Bridget Brady ’12, attending the 2012 Earth Summit in Brazil was a highlight of their MHC educations.

It was an experience of a lifetime, said Puka-Beals.

“I had no idea that my education at MHC would have me attending an international conference in a field I’m interested in,” she said.

The two were among a group of five MHC students who, with Catherine Corson, Miller Worley Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, spent an intense week at the summit known as Rio+20 in June. Ahdi Zuber ’13, Angela Kim ’13, and Julianna Lord ’13 completed the MHC contingent. The trip was the culmination of Corson’s Science and Power in Environmental Governance course, in which students explored how environmental policy is created, influenced, and implemented.

“This was a great opportunity for the students to see how environmental governance happens and how the United Nations works,” said Corson. The Rio trip also provided the students with information for their research on how civil society influences international environmental governance.

After a daily two-hour bus ride from their hotel to the conference venue in Riocentro, the students served as observers and note takers, collecting information for their research project and writing summaries of the day’s activities to publish on their blog.

Prior to travelling to Rio, Puka-Beals, Brady, and Zuber spent four weeks at the UN headquarters in New York City participating in preparatory meetings for Rio+20. Having worked as note takers for various UN delegates in New York, the students found their skills to be in demand from groups that weren’t large enough to take in all the activities at Rio+20. When the Grenada delegation came looking for help, Brady was assigned. She edited a video for the group and helped the delegation navigate the complicated schedule of activities and events.

“It was really great to see a different perspective of the summit,” said Brady, who also assisted the Grenadian ambassador on several projects.

Some of the students also attended the People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice, an alternative gathering to Rio+20 that was staged on the other side of the city. The People’s Summit, which was attended by Greenpeace, Oxfam, and many other organizations, served as a venue for grassroots discussions about environmental and social challenges. Several of the groups mounted protests against the positions taken at the main summit.

“It was great to see how people could organize to influence policy making,” said Brady, who attended sessions. “It was cool to see people from all over the world be so passionate and committed to their causes.”

By the close of the Rio+20 summit, heads of state and ministers from more than 190 nations had signed an “outcome document” to establish global sustainable development goals and other measures to strengthen global environmental management, tighten protection of oceans, improve food security, and promote a “green economy.”

Despite their extensive preparation at the UN meetings, the degree to which the Rio+20 outcome document was amended in closed meetings took the students by surprise, said Puka-Beals.

“We were told this would happen, but it stressed me out. I was wondering where these meetings were being held,” she said.

The experience was good for the students and the College, said Corson. “They have established a good reputation and represented the College well. People know who they are and where they’re from.”

Corson believes the students’ professionalism and hard work will pave the way to more internship opportunities for MHC students, both in the United States and overseas.

The group’s trip to Rio+20 was funded by a gift from Mount Holyoke parent Ronald J. Oehl, and the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, the Department of Environmental Studies, and the Dean of Faculty's office.