Earth Day 2012: Time to Take the Lead

This June, in Rio de Janeiro, more than 120 presidents and prime ministers will get together for a meeting with much at stake for every person on our planet -- and future generations. It's the so-called Rio+20 Earth Summit and so far it's gotten very little attention. But there's still time to change that. In fact, the United States could take the lead, starting, perhaps on Earth Day this Sunday.

The idea behind the Earth Summits -- this is the 20th anniversary of the first, also in Rio -- is bold. Their mission is to make sure we don't use up our resources and do irreparable harm to our planet as we move deeper into the 21st century world, a world where more people are demanding more of everything from cars and cell phones to planes and air-conditioned housing. Experts call this mission "sustainable development." Right now, it couldn't be more important. By mid-century, on our present course, our planet will have problems almost worthy of an apocalyptic Hollywood movie. Extreme climate will wreak havoc on our way of life, with increased floods, droughts and weather events. Whole swathes of territory will disappear. There will be increasingly scarce water, fuel and food as the world's population swells. Rising pollution will harm human health.

Two decades ago, in contrast to today, the Rio Earth Summit was an exciting and much-publicized event. Countries and people around the world were enthusiastic, and believed its goals could be achieved. But that was then and now is now. The excitement has soured into frustrated cynicism, and for good reason. Many of the grand pledges and action plans from the first Rio Earth Summit haven't been implemented. International gatherings in general have become synonymous with big talk and little action.

That is where U.S. leadership, now, can make the kind of visionary difference that wins Nobel prizes. Not only could the United States go all out to publicize and inject enthusiasm into this Rio Earth Summit -- whose formal title is the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. It could take a vital step further, a step beyond outlining what the U.S. intends to do and why. It could throw its weight behind a new system of accountability that could help stop pledges and plans from being meaningless. It could, perhaps, make Rio different.

It certainly needs to be. The Earth summit in Rio, attended by scores of world leaders and top officials, is a wonderful opportunity to focus the world's attention on the ways we can, quite literally, save our planet. But that can only happen if, for a change, they are held accountable for the pledges and promises they make. The Natural Resources Defense Council has proposed one accountability system that would be online so that people around the world could also track progress -- and cajole, comment and engage in grass-roots pressure. Beyond accountability, a successful Rio summit would focus action on:

  • Clean energy. The Earth will have warmed by up to six degrees by the middle of the century without action. Switching to clean energy can help, in ways from providing better cookstoves and making higher-mileage vehicles to phasing out oil industry subsidies to replacing inefficient light bulbs.

  • Oceans. Our oceans are being polluted and over-exploited to their limits, something governments can curb with everything from creating marine reserves to setting fishing limits and fining polluters.
  • Green economy jobs. Reducing pollution, increasing efficiency and deploying clean energy can create jobs. Corporations and governments can focus on this in such ways as supporting environmentally sustainable jobs and training and gearing economies towards rewarding and measuring green achievements.
  • A couple of years before the last Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the Voyager 1 spacecraft took its last photo of Earth from around four billion miles away at the edge of our solar system. That image showed Earth as the tiniest of pale blue dots, like a grain of sand on a beach. "The distant image of our tiny world," the late astronomer Carl Sagan wrote, "... underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the only home we've ever known." It is not too late to make Rio 2012 a gathering where those words are not forgotten.