After Rio

THE United Nations Earth Summit was a primer on the international politics of environment protection.

The sprawling conference showed how diligently developing countries will defend their rights to exploit a precious, if environmentally sensitive, commodity. Saudi Arabia, for example, fought to make sure its oil exports didn't suffer from proposals to combat global warming. Malaysia was vigilant in keeping restrictions away from its timber harvest.

The summit also showed how excruciating it can be for a dominant industrial power like the United States to take even a tentative leadership role in protecting the world's natural heritage while it struggles with economic stagnation and political malaise at home. The Singaporean chair of the Rio gathering, Tommy Koh, wryly commented, "This will teach the United Nations not to hold a conference in an American election year."

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Still, the timing of this landmark meeting on the global environment had its advantages. The Rio conference unmistakably identified the political barriers facing any concerted effort to rally UN members around an agenda that is in every human being's long-term interest - but which runs contrary to many countries' short-term priorities. Future negotiators striving to flesh out agreements on climate change, forests, and the protection of endangered species should have a clearer idea of strategies and compr omises that might work, thanks to Rio.

Positions taken during the Earth Summit by the US or others are by no means final.

An American president pulled toward his party's right by a tough three-way political contest wasn't about to use Rio as an occasion to reclaim the "environment presidency."

George Bush's worries that targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions would hurt US job prospects and that granting countries a share of profits from pharmaceuticals developed from jungle flora would hamper the biotechnology industry were hardly surprising.

But such concerns needn't have kept the US from taking a more positive role at Rio. The CO2 question was negotiated before the summit, and the biotechnology issue could have been addressed in future negotiations over the rather vague pact on biodiversity. But, as Mr. Bush told delegates in Rio, he was determined to take a "stand for principle."

When the air clears politically later this year, the US will doubtless find that its principles include forthright engagement in the world's attempt to develop in a way that does the least possible harm to the planet itself.

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