The Earth Summit's Legacy

NOW that the "Earth Summit" has ended, it's time to replace lament over its shortcomings with gratitude for its achievements.

For the first time ever, 178 nations met to discuss common action to protect our planet. That, in itself, is a landmark achievement. But it is the follow-on action in the years to come that will determine its significance.

The global-warming treaty illustrates this point. It disappoints many environmentalists because it lacks targets for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Yet it provides a framework for action. It encourages nations to adopt measures to reduce CO2 generation. Acting under this new treaty, President Bush has proposed another meeting in January at which nations can present concrete plans.

The global warming issue also reflects the complexities of developing sound planet-wide environmental policy. CO2 is only one of several greenhouse gases. Methane emitted by the digestive systems of cattle, sheep, and goats and by bacteria in rice paddies is another major heat-trapper and is just as plentiful as CO2. Curbing these two gases requires economic restructuring around the world. It will involve new approaches to agriculture as well as to industrialization. This can only be done through a globa l cooperative effort in which rich nations help poorer countries find practical alternatives to traditional approaches to economic growth.

The treaty to protect the ozone layer gives hope that humanity will meet this unprecedented challenge. As scientific evidence documented the danger, nations toughened action under the treaty to phase out ozone-destroying gases faster than originally planned. Growing environmental knowledge will likewise spur on the kind of revolutionary global cooperation needed to curtail global warming, preserve biodiversity, and deal with the other issues discussed in Rio.

This amounts to developing a new level of global civilization. That can't be done in a year or even a decade, let alone within the context of a single conference. The Rio meeting was hardly "the last chance to save Planet Earth," as some environmentalists billed it. But it does mark an important stage in the unfoldment of a new phase of the human adventure.

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