Earth Summit falls flat

NGOs shut, out, Colin Powell is booed offstage, and a mediocre time is had by all


A telling thing happened to delegates from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as they attempted to enter the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), in Johannesburg from August 26 to September 4: most of them weren’t allowed in. WSSD organizers had issued 25,000 passes to the summit, held in the Sandton Convention Centre; the Centre’s capacity was 6000.

Few attributed the four-fold overbooking at Sandton to anything more than incompetence on the part of the organizers. After all, this was the same group that had announced a keynote address by Nelson Mandela, and then neglected the minor detail of informing Mandela that he was invited. Come the opening ceremonies of the WSSD on August 26, Mandela was 300 miles away in Limpopo Province, working on a book.

But though many were disposed to see the unexpected limits to NGO participation as an honest mistake, few were surprised that non-governmental, non-corporate voices suffered exclusion from WSSD. As early as the May-June preparatory meeting in Bali (Prepcom IV), environmental and social justice activists debated whether Johannesburg would even be worth attending. Even those activists who felt obliged to attend the WSSD couched their participation in less than flattering terms. On arrival in Jo’burg, Greenpeace’s Gerd Leipold quipped “Being here is like going to the dentist. Nobody likes it, but not going would be worse.”

It was largely due to the United States that activists held out so little hope. Bent on pushing a free trade agenda at the expense of WSSD’s claimed goals of environmental protection and poverty alleviation, the Bush administration incessantly endorsed inclusion in the WSSD’s draft Plan of Implementation (the official policy which the summit was intended to generate) of voluntary targets, unspecified deadlines, and so-called “Type 2” agreements – in which business makes voluntary pacts with government and NGOs, usually to business’ benefit.

US environmentalist Tom Turner, in Jo’burg to edit the sporadic publication Eco (first published at the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment), related that some in attendance felt the US’ true goal was to keep WSSD from substantive achievement, discrediting the process and reducing the UN’s prestige as compared to, say, the World Trade Organization. If that’s true, the US certainly achieved the first part of its goal: WSSD is now roundly derided as nearly a complete failure. But if the US hoped to gain global support for its trade agenda by disabling WSSD, its plan seems to have backfired badly.

Gains and losses
There were distinct gains made at WSSD, to be sure. Perhaps the most important was the announcement that the governments of Russia and China would ratify the Kyoto protocol, making implementation of the climate change treaty nearly a sure thing — even without the US’ participation. Measures in the WSSD Plan of Implementation — the official policy generated by the summit — to reduce lead in motor fuel and to limit “flaring” (burning of waste gases at oil refineries) were agreed to rather handily, as was a somewhat tepid resolution encouraging the formation of more Marine Protected Areas in the next decade. A US-backed plan to require the Plan of Implementation be vetted for “WTO consistency” — thus subjugating global environmental law to free trade policy — was dropped.

Other victories at WSSD were less unambiguous. Governments agreed to help the world’s poor gain access to renewable sources of energy, but there was argument over whether nuclear fission and large hydro should be included as “renewables,” and in any event, the US blocked agreement on date or percentage goals.

And some WSSD “achievements” reflect a net loss to the environment. At the 1982 Law of The Sea Convention, the UN required restoration of depleted fisheries. The WSSD replaced that binding convention with voluntary targets. Participating nations agreed to “significantly” cut the rate of the current mass extinction of wildlife by 2010 — but the agreement has neither target nor teeth: just six months previously, the Hague Biodiversity Convention agreed to work to halt the loss of biodiversity altogether by 2010. A section of the Plan regarding access to health care — including contraception and abortion — subjugates said access to local “cultural and religious values,” a position supported by the US, the Vatican, Iraq and Iran.

Squandering support
Regardless of WSSD’s achievements on paper — or lack thereof — it may be that the summit will be seen as a major turning point in global politics, and not just with regard to the environment. Stung by the deliberate snub in George W. Bush’s refusal to come to Sandton, delegates opposed the US with surprising vigor in some key areas — most notably, the EU and a handful of South American countries’ insistence on a commitment to phase out fossil fuels, and the EU’s remarkable willingness to adopt tough environmental regulation. Attempts by the US to strike all references in the Plan of Implementation to “common but differentiated responsibilities” — Rio-era jargon meaning that industrialized countries should work harder to save the planet — went nowhere.

The real climax of the conference came when US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who showed up more than an hour late for his scheduled five-minute speech, was booed off the stage. The boos started when Powell said that it was “crazy” for famine-stricken countries to refuse genetically modified foods; they got louder when he claimed that the US was doing what it could to combat climate change. Greenpeace activists in the hall unfurled a banner reading “Shame on Bush,” which chant was taken up by the crowd; the Greenpeacers were ejected, but the chanting and catcalls — some of it done by heads of state — continued until Powell left the stage. The WSSD then ended rather ingloriously, and the oil company lobbyists who had assisted the US delegation in Jo’burg left for the World Petroleum Conference in Rio de Janeiro.

The timing of all this is rather illuminating. It is now a year since that day in 2001 when thousands of people died in an instant in New York, DC and Pennsylvania. Horror at the attacks provided the Bush administration with a blank check: few leaders were willing to speak out against anything Bush did in response. Just a year later, that reservoir of global goodwill has been drained. As delegates were flying back from Jo’burg, Bush made a series of personal phone calls to the heads of several major powers, asking for their support in his pending invasion of Iraq. Almost none responded favorably.

Though ineffective in achieving its stated purpose, it may be that WSSD marked the beginning of an era in global politics in which the US becomes increasingly isolated, and the rest of the world works to save the planet without our help. At least one can hope.

Earth Islanders turned out to Johannesburg to attend the WSSD and events such as EII’s World Sustainability Hearing. A report will appear in the next issue of EIJ.

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