One of the 5.5 Billion

May 08, 1992

By our calculation, George Bush constitutes 0.00000000018 percent of the world's population. He is one of the 5.5 billion, a number likely to double by the year 2010 or 2020. If he goes to the much-ballyhooed "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro next month, he will be just one of the 12,000 politicians, delegates, activists, observers, fadists, gawkers and journalists in attendance in a Brazilian metropolis famous for carnival.

That President Bush's go/no-go decision has become a matter of speculation overpowering such small matters as the sheer survival of the human race and other assorted species is grist for amusement. Of course he will go. He has already told us he will do whatever is necessary to win re-election, even attending an international conference where he is billed as the bad guy.

Arch cynics even have suggested that the White House's deliberate dabbling in villainy has been a brilliant exercise in under-expectations. Now Mr. Bush can fly down to Rio, show just enough flexibility to avoid wrecking the conference, put a gloss on some weak compromises that will have to be accepted as an alternative to nothing and then fly home -- there to assure businessmen and conservatives that in any trade-off between the American economy and the world environment, the economy will prevail.

Or will it? We question whether in the fullness of time that such a trade-off really exists. If the Earth warms up 3 degrees by the mid-21st century, as many scientists fear, is it good business for Maryland if ocean waters rise over half the Eastern Shore and the Inner Harbor flows into Oriole Park? This may be scare-mongering, to be sure, but concern over what is happening to this speck in the universe concerns more than tree-huggers.

As the only superpower still extant, as self-proclaimed leader of the world, as humankind's chief polluter, consumer and keeper of the reserve currency, surely the United States is miscast as odd-man-out when it comes to safeguarding the environment. This country, after all, is the pioneer in developing technologies and techniques for preserving the eco-system called Earth. Its responsibilities cannot be abdicated for long, even during an election campaign.

Whether the "Earth Summit" establishes "binding" targets and timetables to combat global warming, as all nations but one propose, or whether Mr. Bush prevails (as he likely will) in watering this down to "non-binding" goals, probably makes a lot less difference than green zealots hypothesize. What does matter is whether the "Earth Summit" turns into a circus and a charade or whether somehow it will provide a new, urgent, substantive start for protecting the planet.

Mr. Bush is exerting inordinate leverage in this matter, not least because his critics are making his attendance in Rio such a big, hyperventilated deal. They should keep in mind that he is just one of the 5,500,000,000.

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