Jessica Magonet, a 19-year-old McGill law student, was part of a 14-member Canadian youth delegation to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June.
Despite not being born when the first Rio Earth Summit took place, Magonet has devoted much of her young life to environmental causes. She travelled to the Arctic in 2010 with an organization called Students on Ice and after witnessing first-hand the ways in which climate change is affecting the North, she resolved to take action. Magonet co-developed a five-year action plan to reduce her school’s ecological footprint and founded the school’s environmental club.
In 2011, she was recognized for her efforts when she received the National Toyota Earth Day Scholarship, an award for graduating high school students who have distinguished themselves through environmental community service, extracurricular and volunteer activities, and academic excellence.
We caught up with Magonet as she discussed her passion for protecting the Arctic, the experience of attending Rio + 20, and her plans for the future.
Q. How would you describe yourself?
A. I’m a dreamer. My head is usually in the clouds: analyzing challenges, considering ideas, scheming new projects and dreaming up stories. I bump into things a lot.
Q. Where did your passion for environmentalism come from?
A. My elementary school science teacher sparked my interest in the environment. She organized fantastic Earth Day activities and taught us about the hole in the ozone layer, overpopulation and how to raise a duck! I loved her class. Attending summer camp at the Audobon Louisiana Nature Center as a child (in New Orleans, where I grew up) cemented my appreciation for the natural world. Unfortunately, the center hasn’t reopened since Hurricane Katrina.
I think I have remained passionate about environmental advocacy throughout the years because the issues have become more pressing, and they are fascinating. How can we live without inhibiting other life? We need to change our habits, our institutions, the way we govern ourselves. There is just so much to be done!
Q. How did you come to get involved in and selected for the Canadian delegation to Rio + 20?
A. I was not on the official Canadian delegation to Rio+20 because there were no youth or citizen representatives on this delegation. This was a huge step backwards for Canada. At the 1992 Earth Summit, Canada was a global leader in civil society involvement. Our official delegation had youth representatives. In fact, one of them was [Executive Director of the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation] Désirée McGraw. Our Environmental Ambassador halted negotiations until the voices of NGOs were brought to the table.
I attended the Earth Summit as the Policy Director of the Students on Ice Alumni Delegation . The members of our delegation are united by the rare privilege of having visited the Arctic or Antarctica. All of us have participated in educational expeditions to the polar regions led by Students on Ice, which is a Canadian organization. I travelled to the Arctic in 2010 and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
Our delegation was led by youth under 24 from around the world. We went to Rio to advocate for the protection of the polar regions.
Q. Was it your first time being involved in such a large event?
A. I had never been to any event on the scale of the largest UN conference in history!
Q. Who did you meet and speak to there?
A. So many people! I met and spoke with representatives from NGOs around the world, scientists, and negotiators from countries including Norway, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Japan and the United States. I also had the opportunity to meet a few famous figures, including the Prince of Monaco, Gro Brundtland, Jeffrey Sachs and the Prime Minister of Norway. At one point, I saw David Suzuki walking down the hallway with his granddaughter. It was utterly surreal to be surrounded by so many exciting people.
Q. Did you feel you and your colleagues were able to help create change?
A. It was extremely overwhelming to attend the Earth Summit and a very difficult experience to describe. On a typical day, we would spend roughly 12 hours at the conference centre. During that time, we would do so many things. We attended side events like educational workshops organized by NGOs and national delegations, watched the negotiations, lobbied, blogged, were interviewed, participated in actions, attended press conferences, attended meetings with other members of the Major Group for Children and Youth, the youth organization at the Earth Summit. It was insane!
On some level, I found the experience dehumanizing and alienating. The people I met at this conference had such good hearts and sound intentions, but the Rio+20 outcome document is void of ambition. The negotiators I had the chance to speak to were exhausted. They had spent weeks fighting massive political battles over every word in the negotiating text. I just wished all the negotiators could have taken off their negotiator hats and sat down together to have a conversation, maybe over coffee, between people, not countries. The negotiators I met cared about the future of our Earth, but seemed caught in an institution that wasn’t allowing them to move forward. Maybe I’m naive and idealistic. I know it is normal that these things move slowly, after all, we are trying to get all the countries of the world to theoretically agree on something. I just got the sense that we need to be doing something differently.
Q. What are the next steps for your group?
A. In the immediate future, we are working on a comprehensive report about our experience in Rio and a documentary. In the long term, we have so many ideas. It is a very important time for the polar regions and the Arctic in particular. Greenpeace just launched a massive Arctic campaign and many major development decisions in the Arctic are going to be made soon. Several U.S. environmental groups have just launched a lawsuit to challenge the U.S. Department of the Interior’s approval of Shell’s response plans for Arctic drilling. The Economist just devoted an entire issue to the Arctic.
Our delegation will continue to be focused on polar issues and education. We are thinking of attending other environmental conferences. We also want to educate the public about development decisions in the North so they have a chance to respond if they seem short-sighted.
Q. You’re a law student at McGill. Do you eventually plan to use your training to work for environmental change?
A. Studying law is teaching me to see the world differently, but I’m not sure that I will use my law degree in the conventional sense. I came into law school looking for a tool to create environmental change. I soon realized that it isn’t much fun to study law as a tool and it isn’t usually productive to think of law this way. Working towards sustainable development isn’t a matter of simply rewriting the law because humans aren’t machines that the law mindlessly operates on. Improving and enforcing the law is important, but I think education is more so. We need to start thinking differently and living differently. I think our laws may be a barometer of this cultural change, and we can’t expect the law to do all the work for us.
I think most of the upcoming important environmental battles will be fought in the House of Commons, not courtrooms. So I may become an environmental lawyer, but I’m really not sure at this point. I might rather be an MP or a professor or a librarian, and definitively a novelist!
Q. Does your interest in environmentalism extend to on-campus projects? Is there any sustainability initiative at McGill that excites you? Have you heard about Our McGill Greenhouse?
A. I’ve been editing for the McGill Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy for the past year, and will become an Executive Editor next year. I have heard about Our McGill Greenhouse and can’t wait to try some of our homegrown veggies! I also think the Plate Club is a fantastic initiative.
Q. Though you weren’t born when the first Rio summit happened, do you have any sense of whether the world has progressed environmentally since then?
A. The discourse had definitively shifted since 1992. I think the environmental movement is no longer as marginalized, and awareness about issues such as biodiversity loss and climate change is on the rise. But on a national scale, we have moved far backwards since Rio 92. Canada used to be an environmental leader. At Rio+20, the Small Island Developing States wouldn’t even talk to our negotiators. We have gutted our environmental laws, notably Bill C-38, silenced our environmental scientists, and cut funding to fantastic projects, including Arctic research stations. It’s terrifying that we are letting this happen.
Q. What does living an environmentally friendly lifestyle look like to you?
A. To me, this means being mindful. It means thinking about where the things you buy come from, and where they will go when you know longer need them. It means thinking about how you are getting around, and what sort of energy the objects you use require. Being aware of the impact of your life can be difficult. When I think about how many worlds we would need if every person were to travel as much as I do, I just want to bury my head under the sand! But I think this awareness is important. I’m personally not ready to live a no-impact life, but by being aware of my impact, I hope to diminish it every year.
Q. Can you share any tips with McGill grads looking to create positive environmental change in their own lives or cities?
A. My two suggestions are to be persistent and to do what you love. Working on sustainable development issues can be very exhausting because addressing these issues usually requires changing habits, mentality and culture. These things change slowly. To have the stamina to keep going in the face of these challenges, you need to make sure you are enjoying the environmental project you are involved with. I love to speak and debate, so lobbying in Rio was an awesome environmental project for me!