Earth Summit 2: Will US play?
Next week's meeting will pool resources to solve challenges. US role could be decisive.
For more than 30 years, the nations of the world have been getting together regularly to work for progress on fighting poverty and protecting the environment. The challenges are enormous. The philosophical differences over causes and solutions are vast. The politics involved are highly complicated.Skip to next paragraph
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Another round in this series of world summits begins next week in South Africa. What's different this time is that the United States more than ever is looked to as the leader in this effort. And more than ever the US is seen by many others as standoffish, if not obstructionist.
The meeting in Johannesburg, expected to draw some 50,000 participants, including about 100 heads of state, is a follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks to growing public awareness and government intervention, the fundamental indicators of human well-being have improved in some ways over the past decade. But the main issues climate change, deforestation, clean water, desertification, poverty have not gone away. And in some ways, they have become worse, with increasing population and growing rich-poor disparity.
The issues are basic: Grain production per capita is down for the past three years, due largely to rising temperatures and falling water tables that may be tied to environmental degradation. Population is growing faster than food supplies in most developing countries. (Some 78 million more people inhabit the planet every year, almost all in the developing world.) More than 1 billion people are without clean water or adequate sanitation. Two billion people are living on less than $2 a day.
"There is a real sense of urgency," says United Nations Undersecretary-General Nitin Desai, who will chair the summit. "In many cases, we are talking about slipping back."
The buzzword is "sustainable development" generally defined as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." But there's more to it than improving personal income while saving the whales.
"Sustainable development is a compelling moral and humanitarian issue," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington recently. "But sustainable development is also a security imperative. Poverty, destruction of the environment, and despair are destroyers of people, of societies, of nations, a cause of instability as an unholy trinity that can destabilize countries and destabilize entire regions."
One statistic is stark evidence of Secretary Powell's warning: 5 million people die every year from causes linked to polluted water and air. Another figure shows the difference between the developed and developing world: An American whose income is in the bottom 10 percent of all US residents still is better off than two-thirds of the rest of the world.
Since Rio, two important things have impacted international relations, and these could effect the outcome in Johannesburg. First is the rise of economic globalization and consumer capitalism as a powerful and highly contentious issue spawning sometimes-violent protests at world trade meetings. Second, worldwide shock over last year's terrorist attacks in the United States has been followed by growing unease over what the US war on terrorism could bring.
Neither of these things is likely to help promote a sense of trust and expansiveness necessary for long-range global agreements designed to help the poor and protect the environment. Furthermore, both focus attention on the world's lone superpower more than ever.