The Washington Post

Environmentalists urge Obama to attend Rio Earth summit

The leaders of nearly two dozen environmental groups called on President Obama to attend next month’s Rio+20 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, underscoring the uncertainty that continues to cloud the historic meeting.

More than 130 presidents, prime ministers and other heads of state have committed to attend the conference from June 20 to 22, which is also known as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. But many experts question whether the session — coming 20 years after a U.N. summit in Rio that concluded with three global environmental treaties — will produce a meaningful outcome. And the White House has not said whether Obama will travel there.

Occupied with the European financial crisis, leaders such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain’s prime minister David Cameron have opted out of attending the summit. But several significant world leaders, such as Russian president Vladi­mir Putin, will come to Rio.

Johan Schaar, co-director of the World Resources Institute’s vulnerability and adaptation initiative, said that under a best-case scenario Rio would foster a discussion on how countries could grow economically without harming the environment.

“Governments do not have any appetite to make binding commitments in this forum,” Schaar said at a panel hosted last week by the Swedish Embassy and the Center for American Progress. “What would be a positive outcome of Rio would be a path toward defining sustainable development goals.”

In the letter to Obama, the heads of U.S. environmental groups including the Natural Resource Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation noted that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described Obama’s presence as “crucial.”

“Your presence at this summit would signal its critical importance to all Americans, demonstrate our country’s deep concern over urgent global issues that will inevitably affect our security and well-being, and highlight our nation’s determination to be a contender in the race to a low-carbon green economy,” the environmentalists wrote.

The White House could not be reached for comment on the matter Monday morning.

President George H.W. Bush attended the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, which produced the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity.

Jacob Scherr, NRDC director of global strategy and advocacy, said in a conference call with reporters that this year activists are less focused on getting a negotiated text than “a cloud of commitments” that will “get countries, corporations and communities to actually take action” on some of the pledges they have made in the past.

Scherr and several of his colleagues say the United States could demonstrate leadership on issues ranging from plastic pollution in the oceans to support for renewable energy.

But some environmentalists, such as CAP director of climate policy Daniel J. Weiss, said they were doubtful Obama would attend the summit. Speaking last week at the House of Sweden, Weiss said he wished the president would attend, “even though it might not [produce] any concrete result.”

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.