Tomorrow, more than 130 world leaders are going to gather in Rio de Janeiro for a United Nations-led summit on sustainable development. Twenty years ago, they did the exact same thing, meeting in Rio for the Earth Summit. While at this summit, Rio+20, delegates aren’t even trying to produce legally binding documents. The original Rio, on the other hand, ended with delegates signing two treaties that would drive international environmental work for decades. Then-president George H.W. Bush showed up (albeit reluctantly) and even allowed that the U.S. wanted to be a leader on environmental issues.
The first Rio convention produced a number of agreements:
- The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which set out the international community’s ideas on sustainable development
- Agenda 21, a roadmap for working on those principles
- The Convention on Climate Change (which the U.S. actually signed)
- The Convention on Biological Diversity (which the U.S. did not sign)
This time around, President Obama isn’t planning on showing up at all. And environmental boosters are stuck arguing, as they did in the Wall Street Journal, that the conference’s very lack of ambition makes it “transformative”:
Rio and similar gatherings may not produce major new treaties, the boosters say, but they can still raise awareness about pressing environmental problems and their possible solutions, and build political will for future action. And even if some national governments won’t make environmental pledges, the meetings can lead to commitments from local governments and businesses.
In those terms, Rio is “potentially historic and transformative” in shifting the mission of such gatherings, says Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
In another twenty years, leaders won’t even need to bother meeting; they can pledge to make pledges some time in the future.
More from Smithsonian.com: Reinventing Rio