Unfortunately, by refusing to commit itself to targets and timetables, the United States failed to force other countries to take its ideas seriously, and to begin a transformation of the debate about sustainability.
The Earth Summit hosted negotiators from more than 180 governments, surrounded by a multi-venue carnival where thousands of businesses, environmental groups, activists, scientists and others offered their ideas, opinions, and innovations. The summit grappled with some of humankind's most intractable and pressing problems -- among them abject, seemingly unshakable poverty among a billion of the world's people, and the specter of the environmental devastation that could result if the rest of the world shared the American standard of living.
In 1992, the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro set ambitious goals for sustainable development, but the world has made little progress over the last decade. The Johannesburg summit aimed to produce concrete plans to actually implement the Rio goals. Predictably, the negotiators at Johannesburg committed to steps that fell far short of the summit's rhetoric.
Governments agreed to much-needed new protections for the world's collapsing fisheries, and promised to reduce by half the number of people living without basic sanitation by 2015. But they pledged only vague good intentions on energy, climate change, and a host of other issues.
The world's slow progress on sustainability is due in part to what is derisively called a "lack of political will." Leaders of every rich democracy shy away from asking their constituents to make sacrifices, such as reducing their own agricultural subsidies, which make it more difficult for poor African farmers to sell their crops overseas. The elites of many developing countries remain wedded to the corruption and authoritarianism that enriches them while stifling their people.
But slow progress is also rooted in real confusion over the best way forward. Decades of financial aid to many developing countries have left little mark on their long-suffering people.
Despite the seriousness of the problem of global warming, the emissions reductions targets of the Kyoto global warming treaty are, as its critics point out, arbitrary, potentially costly, and not guaranteed to induce the most important near-term actions needed to combat global warming.
In short, the delegates at Johannesburg faced a policy arena littered with ineffective policies, inefficient institutions, plenty of foolish but commonly-held ideas, and no good roadmap for solving the problems that confront us.
Into this arena, the United States brought a number of creative new ideas, in particular establishing partnerships among governments, industry, and environmental groups to address particular goals.
Such coalitions often have the expertise, personnel, resources, and ability to implement solutions that governments alone cannot.
For instance, the United States assembled a group of automobile manufacturers, oil companies, and environmental groups pledged to remove the lead -- which causes brain damage -- from gasoline in those eighty-some countries that have not yet done so.
The United States has also proposed distributing more of its foreign aid through competitive grants to private organizations -- which might go to local entrepreneurs committed to saving ecosystems or improving rural health care -- rather than though loans to governments, which often enrich the cronies of a leaders who have spent decades not advancing its people.
Many view such approaches with suspicion. Some see partnerships with business as a sell-out to corporate interests, because there is no shortage of private organizations that might receive grants and still do a worse job than the governments and official institutions currently receiving the money.
The United States had little chance to sway the summit with its new ideas. Nevertheless, the United States might have launched a process at Johannesburg that could have had tremendous impact in the years ahead. Summit negotiators were aiming to set specific targets and timetables for achieving sustainability goals, and the United States rightly opposed many proposed goals as unrealistic and tied to failed approaches.
But the United States could have laid out ambitious but different goals based on its new approaches, and challenged the rest of the world to do as well at meeting their goals with their own approaches.
Had the United States made and subsequently met such a challenge, we could have transformed the sustainability landscape.
But the United States shied away. Instead, it refused to discuss any types of targets or timetables for either new or old policies. One can only speculate why. Certainly explicit, measurable goals are central to the Bush administration's approach to many other policy areas, such as education. It is also hard to imagine the U.S. government seriously engaging businesses in sustainability partnerships without incorporating the explicit timetables and goals so central to private sector management.
Predictably, the United States's refusal to declare specific goals let other countries cast doubt upon our seriousness and discount our excellent suggestions.
The United States commands a huge reservoir of goodwill and respect around the world. Persistent poverty and environmental devastation worldwide threaten our future. By taking its own good ideas seriously and presenting them more effectively, America could overcome initial skepticism and turn the world towards a more productive path for desperately needed sustainable development.
Robert Lempert, a senior scientist at the RAND Corp., spoke at the Science Forum of the World Summit on Sustainable Development.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on October 22, 2002.