PRESIDENT Bush has rightly (and predictably) decided to attend the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro next month. His presence will underscore the conference's importance. And he'll have an opportunity to show that the United States genuinely wants to lead the world toward solutions to environmental problems.
In the run-up to the "Earth Summit," however, US leadership has been driven primarily by concerns that agreements to be signed at Rio don't infringe too heavily on American economic prerogatives.
The US is not alone in its desire to be sure that economic development gets a fair shake in Rio. Some third-world countries are acutely concerned that the conference not restrain their ability to modernize their economies. As its name implies, the summit will be largely about balancing these concerns with environmental protection.
Where should the balance be struck? So far, the US has put its substantial weight on the side of minimal fetters on economic growth. When it came to reducing the CO2 emissions that most contribute to global warming, the US demanded and got a draft treaty that avoids setting specific goals and timetables.
Ironically, analysis by the US Environmental Protection Agency indicates the US might have little problem meeting the proposed standard of holding CO2 emissions to 1990 levels.
Despite its lack of specifics, the agreed-on global warming pact still represents a step forward. It sets forth a general goal of reducing emissions, and it establishes a process for meeting that goal through the formulation of national plans.
As for the biodiversity convention now being framed, even some environmentalists say it was a weak document to begin with. Nonetheless, the US has been keen to avoid anything that might push it toward regulations that conflict with business, especially the emerging biotechnology industry.
Biodiversity issues can spark major political battles in the US, as the spotted owl controversy shows. And CO2 cutbacks would force changes on automakers, utilities, and other major industries. Another balance, clearly, must be struck between shorter-term political liabilities and the long-term benefits of concerted action on the environment.
US leadership in these matters is crucial. President Bush has proclaimed, "Environmental problems are global, and every nation must help in solving them." As June approaches, he'll have to specify what he'll put on the other side of the balance to give those words weight.