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Environmentalists take harsh blow


As the World Summit on Sustainable Development drew to a conclusion, environmentalists expressed disappointment after the European Union buckled to pressures by U.S. delegates on timetables to wean the world from greenhouse-producing fossil fuels.

After days of talk in Johannesburg, South Africa, Aug. 26-Sept. 4, the final tug -- and measure of summit success -- seemed to come down to which of two visions of sustainable development the delegates would adopt.

One, out of the European Union, called for a weaning from fossil fuels and strict timetables; the other, out of the Bush administration, backed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and Japan, downplayed the need for change and objected to all timetables and targets.

As pressure grew and summit delegates approached the final hours, Europe backed down. The alternative, they said, would have meant imperiling the entire summit.

Environmental and development groups were furious that what seemed an imminent deal to set firm targets and a timetable to encourage the spread of wind, solar and other renewable energies in developing countries suddenly was watered down in favor of fossil fuel energies.

Steve Sawyer, climate policy director of Greenpeace, told the British Guardian: “The Americans, Saudis and Japanese have got what they wanted. ... It’s worse than we could have imagined.”

Through the 10-day gathering, environmentalists and many delegates vilified the Bush administration, as the United States took the brunt of world criticism for having abandoned the world community. The U.S. position on a range of global issues had a common denominator: The United States would accept no timetables or targets. It would offer no pledges. Whether the issue was water, sanitation, energy or pollution, the Bush team held firm, often finding allies in oil producing nations or among poor nations that said they could not afford renewable fuels.

The Bush delegation argued that it is willing to commit to practical, focused aid and development programs but cannot bind the American people to what it sees as vague, symbolic gestures.

Going into the summit, few environmentalists expected more from Washington. Yet the reality of Bush “unilateralism” and his nationalist focus, facing the urgency of the tasks and the sentiments of the wider communities, was nevertheless painful to swallow.

Kyoto in a ‘timely manner’

The Johannesburg summit of 2002 became an echo of Bush on Kyoto in March 2001. That’s when the president rejected the 1997 environmental protocols that set legally binding emission reduction goals. The United States produces 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions. Bush said adoption of the Kyoto goals -- seen as modest by environmentalists who give some predictions of a 6 degree global warming in this century -- would hurt the U.S. economy.

In Johannesburg, the U.S. delegation received instructions to keep any mention of the Kyoto protocols from appearing in the final summit action plan, the heart of the final document. In this, however, the team did not succeed. With heavy lobbying from the Europeans, the final text refers to Kyoto and “strongly urges” nations that have yet to sign the protocols to do so in a “timely manner.”

The final wording of the summit’s key energy section not only avoided mention of timetables, but it included a call for the use of “fossil fuel technologies,” although in the context of developing “cleaner, more efficient, affordable” energy sources. The wording was an especially harsh blow to environmentalists.

“We are bitterly angry that the OPEC countries, Japan and the United States have combined in this way to help wreck the world’s environment and endanger the security of our common home,” one environmental group stated just after the wording of the energy text was released. The feeling was widespread.

In the final hours, each head of state -- more than 100 attended -- was allowed five minutes to speak to the delegates. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder all urged final ratification of the Kyoto protocol and in so doing distanced their governments from the United States on the summit’s global issues. They spoke of the urgency to curtail climate change, citing recent European flooding as the latest evidence of the growing consequences of failure to act.

Blair spoke of the ills of poverty and pollution. His insight was not the world’s plight but the failure to act over it. “What is truly shocking is not the scale of the problems. The truly shocking thing is that we know the remedies.”

One could find little solace in the somber remarks of many world leaders who expressed dismay at the deteriorating state of the world’s environment and the worsening condition of the poor. Few offered new money or concrete plans to close the widening gap between rich and poor states, but there were many urgent pleas for action to save the planet from disaster.

Saufatu Sopoanga, prime minister of Tuvalu, a minute Pacific island state, said his country was already succumbing to sea level rise. “We want our nation to exist forever and ever and not to be drowned because of the greed of the industrialized world,” he said. “Climate change affects everyone. All parties, especially the highest emitters of carbon dioxide, must take steps urgently. How much longer must we repeat our story to the world?”

Debt paid three times

Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, like many leaders of developing countries, urged the cancellation of debt, which he said had been paid back three times over in Latin America. Speakers reminded delegates that 2.1 billion people live with inadequate water supplies and that 40 percent of children in the developing world are underweight or starving.

Costa Rica, regarded as Latin America’s most environmentally aware country, where 27 percent of the land is protected and 95 percent of the energy is renewable, announced that it would no longer allow coal mining or oil exploration. “Economic development based on the destruction of nature is suicide. God first created plants and the animals and then man. If the plants and animals are dying, guess who is next,” said President Abel Pacheco.

The summit, with its tortuous governmental negotiations, got the lion’s share of the media attention, but there were more than a dozen smaller summits and parallel events taking place, each drawing together the three pillars of the world community -- governments, business and nongovernmental organizations, NGOs. More than 60,000 delegates attended. It was called the largest U.N. meeting ever organized.

Delegations and NGOs spewed out several thousand statements, initiatives, declarations, resolutions, position papers, responses and challenges. If there were hints of a babel of discord, it could also be said that the gathering provided the most sustained focus ever by the world community on the critical and complex issues of sustainable development.

The conference drew fresh attention to the devastating effects that rich nations’ food subsidies are having on poor nations. These subsidies now reach $350 billion yearly, making it virtually impossible for the poor to compete in the world market or even to maintain modest local farms. Curiously, these subsidies come out of governments that condemn intervention in the marketplace. It was pointed out that rich nation subsidies now amount to seven times the assistance they give in aid to the poor nations of the world.

In the end, the summit action plan did include certain deadlines for improving water supplies and for saving rare species as well as for taking common action to fight AIDS and mass poverty. Negotiators committed themselves to halve the 2 billion people living without sanitation by 2015. They also agreed to protect the world’s fishing stocks, by restoring most of the world’s major fisheries to sustainable levels by 2015. They agreed to the banning of some of the world’s most harmful chemicals by 2020, including DDT. These were viewed as major steps forward.

‘I have heard you’

On the closing day of the gathering, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was booed, heckled and jeered as he defended the U.S. environmental record. Delegates from NGOs repeatedly interrupted his speech, chanting, “Shame on Bush.” Several people held up banners that said: “Betrayed by governments” and “Bush: People and planet, not big business.” Powell was visibly annoyed by the outbursts. At one point he answered, “I have now heard you.”

Ten years ago, as a reluctant participant at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the first President George Bush gave warning of what has become the watchword of U.S. foreign policy over the last decade: “The American way of life is not negotiable.” Ten years later, the most important message the vast majority of those who gathered at the conference seemed to want to deliver to the younger Bush was: The future of life on Earth is not negotiable.

Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. His e-mail address is tcfox@natcath.org

Related Web site

World Summit on Sustainable Development

National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002