Big, international summits geared toward protecting the environment and promoting sustainability just don’t have the cachet that they used to.

“Expectations are low for Rio+20,” Reuters reported on Monday morning, reflecting the dominant theme in coverage leading up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which starts Wednesday in Brazil. The event is a follow-up to the historic environment meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which produced the UN frameworks on climate change and biodiversity and drew ample attention.

“Back then the summit attracted unprecedented media coverage and generated a range of landmark conventions on sustainability,” according to Danish journalist Peter Bjerregaard. “The prospects for Rio+20 look somewhat different.”

The two themes of Rio+20 are fostering a green economy and establishing an institutional framework for sustainable development. But unlike two decades ago, the stars seem poorly aligned for a treaty or legally binding agreement this year with financial woes in North America and Europe and turmoil in the Middle East.

It also remains to be seen whether coverage of the event will be robust or disappointing. Google News already delivers around five million results for “Rio+20,” but it’s clear that many outlets aren’t as interested in the international powwows as they used to be. One indicator is the series of annual climate-change summits that came out of the first Rio conference, where media attendance has fallen since a disappointing meeting in Copenhagen in 2009.

The sustainability and development conferences don’t happen as regularly, but there’s been less grumbling than in the past about which leaders will be present at this year’s forum. George H.W. Bush wasn’t any more enthusiastic about the first Rio confab than Obama is about take-two, Mark Hertsgaard noted in an essay for The Nation, but the press made more of his apathy.

“When Bush was trying to duck the summit in 1992, major media outlets ran a slew of stories reminding him of the potential impact on his re-election efforts, which helped change his mind,” Hertsgaard wrote. “Obama has faced no such flak for being a Rio no-show.”

While The Washington Post had an early article in May about environmentalists urging the president to head to Brazil, for example, later reports indicated that neither UN officials nor activists were terribly concerned when he decided to pass. Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron will also be absent, according to the Environment News Service. But overall, more heads of state have registered for Rio+20 than the original summit.

With a big crowd, there’s still hope for some action at the meeting, and action will mean press. The biggest spate of pre-game coverage so far came from a review published in the journal Nature in early June, which warned that population growth, overconsumption, and climate change are pushing Earth toward a “tipping point” past which humanity would be living in an “unknown,” and likely unlikeable, environment. As journalist Keith Kloor pointed out, the science behind these “planetary boundaries” is disputed—a fact that articles pegged to Rio+20 tended to overlook—but the core problems remain the same.

As if to emphasize that point, a week later, 105 of the world’s leading scientific academies called on the Rio delegates to address population and consumption, drawing attention from the likes of the BBC and The Guardian (the latter seems to be the only major outlet that has set up a webpage devoted to coverage of the summit).

Still, the week is young. In coming days, expectations for the conference and comparisons to previous meetings should give way to reports about actual progress or the lack thereof. Hopefully, the media is up to the task.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

 

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.