Summit to Save the Earth Rio's Legacy

  • At its midpoint a week ago, the giant Earth Summit in Rio seemed to be on the verge of completely disintegrating. Angered by Washington's refusal to sign the "biodiversity" treaty to protect the world's plants and animals, several poorer nations considered withdrawing their support for the pact and even spoke of reviewing their position on the agreement to combat global warming. At summit headquarters trivialities and private agendas derailed serious debate over the plan of action called Agenda 21. Arab delegates pushed for oblique references to emotional and irrelevant issues like the plight of Israel's occupied territories, while oil states worked to strip out any language implying that petroleum might be bad for the environment.

    Across town in pleasant Flamengo Park, 7,892 nongovernmental organizations from 167 countries at a satellite conference called the Global Forum added to the confusion. The meeting seemed part New Age Carnaval, part 1960s teach-in and part soap opera. Vying for attention with religious leaders and research groups were such fringe organizations as H.E.M.P. (Help End Marijuana Prohibition). Asked what the drug had to do with sustainable development, spokesman Ron Tisbury had his offbeat sound bite ready: "Anything you can build with petrochemicals, you can make out of marijuana." The media began using words like farce and fiasco to describe Rio, and one participant called the conference the "greatest fraud ever perpetrated."

    But just before more than 100 world leaders arrived for the grand finale of treaty signings, it seemed to dawn on participants from both rich and poor nations that the atmosphere had to change -- and fast. With the whole world watching a conference advertised as a last-chance meeting to save the planet, no one had anything to gain from abject failure.

    This realization altered the rhetoric and to a degree the actions of the participants. The delegation from India, which had produced some of the more provocative observations about the sins and obligations of the rich nations, announced that it would sign the biodiversity agreement, helping stem the brewing revolt by the poor nations. Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee noted that a tacit understanding was developing between family planning advocates and the Catholic Church that would allow poor nations to take more aggressive steps on the vital question of population. Participants of all stripes emerged from meetings with smiles pasted on and offered a chorus of variations on the theme: "If nothing else happens, the summit is still a success because . . ."

    Ambassador Enrique Penalosa, head of the Colombian delegation, said the two- * year preparation period had brought the issues of sustainable development -- progress without destruction of the environment -- before hundreds of officials from developing countries, each of whom would impart those lessons back home. "Even if the conference had been an apparent failure on specific treaties, it would be a success," said Penalosa, "because for the first time we are alerting the planet that development is not necessarily good if it sacrifices future generations." Others took the line that the summit's battered compromise agreements represented first steps that could be built upon in the future -- just as the toothless 1985 Vienna Convention set the stage for later tougher agreements establishing timetables for the phaseout of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbon s.

    Still others applauded the creation of a U.N. Sustainable Development Commission, modeled on the Human Rights Commission, which will use public criticism and pressure to hold governments to account for achieving the goals laid out in Rio. Whether the new commission becomes a real watchdog will be determined later this year when U.N. nations decide whether to make it a body composed of government ministers or of officials at the margins of influence.

    Gus Speth, president of Washington's World Resources Institute, believes the summit could still produce his dream of a global bargain between rich and poor nations, but only if the meeting's treaties are developed during the next three years to spell out obligations, goals and monitoring. The price of failure for the world community could be a new cold war between the North and the South, warned U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

    If any clear message has come out of this meeting, it is that the 178 nations represented will all have to change if the agreements are to have any teeth. Statements from the poorer nations tended to place all blame for the earth's woes on the rich nations and assert that these polluters should pay the developing world to protect its ecosystems. Speth called this attitude a "prescription for long-term disaster since it will lead people to wait for money before they take actions that are in their own interest." Moreover, because of the billions of dollars in development assistance wasted through corruption and bad planning, the poorer nations are going to have to accept that donors and agencies will attach conditions to new spending.

    For its part, the World Bank, positioned to be the primary distributor of funds to the developing nations, will have to do a better job of integrating environment and development in its investments. Some participants observed that the summit might have achieved more if it had lowered its sights and addressed the environmentally damaging consequences of present international assistance and domestic subsidies. World Bank initiatives like the Tropical Forestry Action Plan were billed as efforts to halt the destruction of rain forests, but in many cases the plan became an instrument of deforestation by fostering projects to open virgin forests to loggers. World Bank president Lewis Preston announced at the summit that the institution was willing to contribute $1.5 billion of its profits toward environment-related projects, but the bank still must show that it knows how to use these and other funds wisely.

    The European nations and Japan have been hailed as summit heroes for their willingness to support its agreements, but they will have to bolster their declared commitment to reducing greenhouse gases with realistic programs. For instance, part of Japan's strategy to stabilize CO2 emissions calls for building 20 nuclear power plants by the year 2000 and 40 by 2010. It stretches credibility to assume that Japanese citizens, already worried about nuclear risks, will agree to this massive initiative in their crowded communities. Similarly, countries like Italy have found an easy way to meet targets of greenhouse emissions by buying power from their neighbors, essentially an accounting trick that allows nations to claim they are addressing global warming without coming to grips with energy efficiency.

    The U.S. has been hammering at the "easy rhetoric" of other nations, but it has yet to accept the responsibilities of the world's largest economy. It has a strong story to tell in such concrete measures as the Clean Air Act, transportation legislation, a pending energy bill and an ambitious Green Lights energy-conservation program. Together these may enable the U.S. to beat the target of stabilizing greenhouse emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. But instead of seizing leadership and galvanizing industry to compete with Japan and Europe for an emerging market for clean technologies, the Bush Administration has taken up the cause of the environmentally handicapped, limply replaying arguments developed by the coal, electric-utility and railroad lobbies that meeting the greenhouse target would cost jobs and harm the economy.

    / Saddened by the isolation of a country with a distinguished history of environmental programs, many delegates felt that the U.S. has squandered an exquisite opportunity to invest meaning in the new world order. Said retiring Senator Timothy Wirth of Colorado: "I'm afraid that history is not going to treat the U.S. kindly when it looks back at the summit."

    Given the lack of leadership by governments, Maurice Strong, the summit's secretary-general, hopes ordinary people will force politicians to live up to the obligations articulated at Rio. He plans to make his own contribution to this grass-roots movement by heading an Earth Council, which he sees as a watchdog organization like the Helsinki Watch groups that sprang up after the 1975 Helsinki accords on human rights. The Earth Council's goal would be to ensure that institutions such as the Sustainable Development Commission actually do their job.

    Most summit participants agree that the best hope for the future comes from changes in values prompted by grass-roots concerns. Said Spencer Beebe, president of the American environmental group Ecotrust: "Saving the planet has never been an issue of money but rather a matter of the resourcefulness and motivation of individuals."

    At the Global Forum, fears about the future produced a melange of naive, unworkable and contradictory -- and occasionally inspiring -- notions of how the world might correct its course. But deepening and widening concern may yet lead to a coherent ethic that guides people toward life-styles that minimize damage to the biosphere. The more than 300,000 pledges by children to do something for the planet that were posted on bulletin boards next to the Tree of Life in Flamengo Park raise hopes that the next generation may mature with a deep awareness of the perils of waste and pollution. The question is whether they will learn that lesson in schools, or whether it will be imposed upon them by a world run to ruin by their parents.