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Oceans Protection A Top Priority at Rio+20

(Trip Van Noppen is President of Earthjustice)

More than 130 heads of state, other leaders, and some 50,000 participants from all over the globe are gathering this week in Rio de Janeiro, the most-visited city in the southern hemisphere, for the Rio+20 Earth Summit. I am here with Martin Wagner, head of the Earthjustice International program, and Erika Rosenthal, Earthjustice attorney and veteran of many international environmental negotiations, and we want to share a few glimpses into what is going on as this historic event unfolds.

The summit offers the world an opportunity to deepen and broaden the reach of environmental commitments that are fundamental to sustainable development and reducing poverty around the world, and to support and extend good work that is happening in many countries and under many other international agreements.

Unlike the grand, path-breaking outcomes that the nations accomplished at the first Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago, this summit is focused on improving implementation of existing agreements for better outcomes for the people and the planet. Some in the news media have focused on the lack of grand new treaties, but that narrative misses the point. Although political realities may preclude great leaps forward, and certainly the summit is not producing the sorts of outcomes that it should, we can still work hard for incremental change when the opportunities exist. That’s what Earthjustice is doing at home and that's what we are doing here. In particular here in Rio, we’re pressing for progress on two important issues: ocean protection and reducing fossil fuel use.

One of the challenges getting the most attention here in Rio is the need to do much more to protect the oceans. This means ending overfishing, reducing pollution of ocean waters, creating a legal framework for the establishment of protected areas in international waters, and slowing the rate of acidification of the ocean by reducing carbon emissions from our power plants, vehicles and other sources. To highlight the need to address these issues, Earthjustice is hosting, along with the Pacific Small Island Developing States, an event on “Building Marine Resilience to Ocean Acidification” featuring island ambassadors and internationally respected scientists.

Ambassador Marlene Moses, from the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, chairs the Alliance of Small Island States and has felt the effects of climate change firsthand as sea level rises, threatening the survival of her island nation, and as carbon emissions acidify the ocean, threatening the food her nation depends upon. We are excited to be working with her and other leaders around the world who want to use the summit as a platform for progress on ocean protection and who are willing to stand up to other nations that seem to be content with continuing to degrade this source of food, oxygen, beauty, and of life itself.

As I talk with people here, I am struck by how many were here in 1992 for the first summit and who say that it changed their lives, inspiring them to devote themselves to protecting the planet. I doubt this summit will have that inspirational impact, but progress will be made here and the future will be better for the long hours and hard work invested.

Tune in over the next few days for more reports from Rio.