This commentary appeared in United Press International on October 22, 2002.
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
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
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.
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