Students on the Road to Rio+20

For five MHC students a dream is about to come true—the chance to attend the 2012 Earth Summit in Brazil.

Environmental studies majors Emma Puka-Beals ‘12, Bridget Brady ‘12, Ahdi Zuber ’13, and Angela Kim ’13, economics major Julianna Lord ’13, and Catherine Corson, Miller Worley Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, will travel to this year’s Earth Summit, which takes place June 20-22 in Rio de Janiero. The conference, known formally as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development—or Rio+20—marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.

“It's an unbelievable opportunity,” said Brady. “To be able to go from reading and discussing the significance of these meetings in international environmental governance, the actors, and the process in abstract terms in the classroom to watching the process unfold before our eyes at the UN has been such an exciting experience. It’s allowed me to start to see the links between my education at Mount Holyoke and its real-world applications and relevance.”

Most of the students have taken Corson’s Science and Power in Environmental Governance course, which is designed to help students analyze and understand the background, role, and implications of international environmental governance and specifically Rio+20. Others have taken her Political Economy of the Environment course.

“The goal of the course was to give students a sense of the importance of the environmental movement,” said Corson. “We looked at what’s happened in the past 20 years and examined how the environmental discussion today has changed since 1992.”

The course and the students’ work was also connected with a lecture series hosted by the Miller Worley Center for the Environment last fall, which featured lectures by James Gustave Speth and Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Attending Rio+20 was never guaranteed, said Corson. The students only received word in March that funds were available for them to travel to Rio. Corson is thrilled that the students will get to attend what she believes is “the decade’s most high-profile environmental event.”

In the hope that they would travel to Rio, Puka-Beals, Brady, and Zuber have spent four weeks over the past four months at the United Nations in New York City, participating as observers and note takers in preparatory meetings for Rio+20. Mount Holyoke College has recently been approved as an official civil society organization accredited to Rio+20.

The experience has been eye-opening, said Brady. Much of the focus in the meetings—where representatives from nations, NGOs, and lobby groups lock horns in an effort to outline the environmental future of the planet—has been on the concept of the “green economy” being a central influence on future environmental policies and actions.

The proposal for a green economy has not been universally welcomed in the meetings, said Puka-Beals. “We heard developing countries saying that it didn’t make sense to have a whole new theme when the millennium goals on sustainable development had not been met. The feeling is that if the green economy approach is taken, it has the potential to be run by corporations and countries in power, or countries with wealth and resources,” she said.

The output of these meetings is a zero draft document that serves to steer formal discussions and negotiations at Rio+20. “We saw the various constituents debate and analyze the meaning of every word,” said Zuber. “Our course with Professor Corson helped us pick up on the nuances of these negotiations and understand how agendas were being phrased and played out.”

The students’ work and professionalism at the meetings has been widely appreciated, said Corson. After being commended by delegates for meticulous note taking, the students were asked to write a report of one day’s negotiations for Outreach, a multi-stakeholder magazine on environment and sustainable development that reports on all major environmental conferences and summits. In keeping with their role of observers, the students will continue write about their experiences at the UN in New York and at Rio+20 itself.

The students are approaching Rio+20 as the most important environmental event of their generation, said Puka-Beals. “I hope to see government representatives and heads of state make public commitments to sustainable development and poverty eradication, and encourage their citizens to hold the government accountable,” she said.

Kim, who is currently studying in northern Brazil, says she is keen to observe power in action at the conference. “I am most looking forward to how power relations will be embodied at the summit, particularly through observations made at side events and informal social gatherings,” she said.

“I’m excited about witnessing environmental governance live in Rio,” said Zuber. “The hype with all the heads of state, security officers, black limos with flags, and photographers and reporters trying to capture every moment of leaders gathering to sign the Rio+20 declaration.”

Brady said she was looking forward to seeing “what I expect to be the strong role of women and youth at the summit.”

The students’ and Corson’s trip to Rio+20 is funded by a generous 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.