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Where to Look for Change at Rio+20

Hint: It Won’t Be in the Official Meeting Rooms

With the temperature outside plummeting below freezing, hundreds of us huddled our sleeping bags together to keep warm on the concrete floor of an abandoned warehouse that had been transformed into a “action space” for the UN climate meetings taking place down the road.

It was 2005 and thousands of youth had descended on Montreal for the negotiations. While some us tucked in our shirts and donned NGO badges to attend the official negotiations in the city’s convention center, the real action seemed to be happening back at the warehouse.

In the back of the building, young writers were putting up the first posts on itsgettinghotinhere.org, a new blog for the youth climate movement that still hums today, seven years later. Near the center of the room, presenters stretched a sheet over the wall and beamed up power point slides on everything from climate mitigation strategies to civil disobedience. Up at the entrance, artists spray-painted stencils for the protests scheduled throughout the talks.

image of the earth as seen from space showing the norther polar regionIPCCC image

And in every corner, small groups of students and youth activists from around the world leaned together and shared ideas, debated strategy, and dreamed up plans for a global youth movement that could take on the largest problem facing our generation: the climate crisis.

I was up in Montreal with a group of more than 100 students from Middlebury College in Vermont, where I was then a junior. The summer before, a few friends and I had worked on a campaign with the Earth Island Institute-sponsored Energy Action, a new coalition that was uniting youth climate groups around the United States. We had returned to campus electrified about the possibilities of a united youth climate movement.

Montreal showed us that our movement wasn’t confined to the US: it was already bubbling up all around the world. Twelve months later, our group of friends teamed up with a writer at Middlebury named Bill McKibben to launch Step It Up 2007, which quickly transformed into 350.org, a new organization dedicated to building a grassroots climate movement around the world.

While we haven’t come close to solving the climate crisis, our dream of a global movement has in many ways come to pass. Today, 350.org works with hundreds of thousands of activists in every country on Earth except for North Korea.

Now, seven years after the Montreal meetings, world leaders are coming together in Brazil for the Rio+20 Earth Summit. While there is some hope that negotiators will strengthen their commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, general expectations are low. The summit is supposed to produce a document that will help guide sustainable development for the next few decades, but the 80-page draft text is rife with divisions. Activists worry that big corporations have hijacked the process, turning it into a green-washing exercise at best or a cynical attempt to monetize natural systems at worst.

Which is why the real action in Rio likely won’t be in the sterile negotiating halls, but in the warehouses, cafes, and other activist spaces scattered around the city. Just like in Montreal (and the UN summits following it), organizers from around the world are coming to Rio to meet, strategize, and discuss how to strengthen the global climate movement.

In these spaces, you can find some sparks of hope. The revolutions and occupations of the last year have given environmental activists a new sense of possibility. Those of us coming down from the United States will be swapping stories about stopping the Keystone XL pipeline with activists resisting Chevron in Nigeria and indigenous organizers fighting deforestation in the Amazon. There is an Occupy Rio+20 already underway and an entire “People’s Summit” running parallel to the official talks.

While these meetings are unlikely to produce any 80-page proclamations, the outcomes are more important. After all, the biggest barrier to climate progress over the last decade has been a lack of political pressure. While policy wonks continue to produce new reports on “mitigation and adaptation measures,” it’s up to the rest of us to figure out how to build the climate movement into a force that can break that political barrier down.

It’s a hell of a challenge, but I think it’s possible. For the next ten days I’ll be at the Rio+20 Earth Summit searching for the ambitious campaigns, the innovative technologies, and the new leaders that can help take our growing movement forward. Those sleepless nights on the warehouse floor in Montreal gave me a few ideas of where to start looking. In places like Rio, change moves from the outside in.

Jamie Henn is a co-founder of 350.org and the organization’s communications director.

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