The Rocky Road to Rio

Article excerpt

In the 1962 science-fiction film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, nuclear tests send the planet hurtling toward the sun. The resultant global warming puts a quick end to the Cold War as the nations of the world set aside their petty squabbles and unite in an attempt to avert the catastrophe.

The fantasy element here, of course, is the part about international cooperation in the face of imminent danger. This June, the global community is supposed to meet in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), or "Earth Summit," the largest U.N. conference ever. Its original agenda included all the world's most pressing environmental problems, plus poverty and underdevelopment. The meeting was supposed to usher in a "new era of environmental diplomacy" between the industralized "North" (the United States, Western Europe, and Japan) and the stuck-in-the-mud "South" (everyone else, with Eastern Europe as an honorary member). Summit organizers confidently predicted that the conference would result in new, binding international treaties on climate change, biological diversity, and forest preservation; an environmental bill of rights called the "Earth Charter"; a concrete plan of action for the next century called Agenda 21; and a solid commitment of funds to implement these Earth-saving measures.

But with the conference only months away, optimists are in danger of extinction, their earlier assurance shaken by the failure of three preparatory committee meetings ("PrepComs" in U.N.-speak) to make headway on any of the major issues facing the conference. First to topple was hope for a global forestry convention. The United States refused to commit to stop cutting its own old-growth forests; Malaysia (where tropical rainforests are falling faster than anywhere else in the world) spoke of its "inalienable, sovereign right" to clearcut as it sees fit; Mexico said it is not about to "consecrate its forests." Other major environmental threats met similar small-minded responses: Japan objected to language critical of unregulated fishing and commercial whaling, and the United States nixed further discussion of the disposal of radioactive materials and the banning of international transport of hazardous waste.

The U.S. delegation, in fact, has been a profound disappointment to the environmental community. Not only has it failed to show any leadership in the process, says Sierra Club Chairman J. Michael McCloskey (who attended PrepCom III in Geneva last August), but its unyielding position, particularly on the matter of global warming, "has been an immense factor in poisoning the mood in UNCED. …