Rio's Brave Beginning, in Slow Time

June 16, 1992

With the Rio summit finally wrapped up, it is fair to ask what was accomplished, for all the sound and fury. The first thing is obvious: This, the biggest, best-attended summit ever, put the environment front and center in every nation.

President Bush was right to remind the delegates of America's past leadership. A White House report notes that in the fight to save whales, eastern Pacific grays have rebounded since the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, while other nations still hunt whales. U.S. tuna fishers cut dolphin captures by 90 percent over the same period, but it took international pressure to reduce the depredations of Japanese drift nets. Biological oxygen demand, a measure of pollution, in major U.S. rivers is below levels in France's Loire and Rhone, Germany's Rhine, Italy's Po and England's Thames. And the U.S. has smaller percentages of its mammals, fish and birds threatened with extinction than Japan, Great Britain, Germany, France or the Netherlands.

But Mr. Bush's argument still suffered a fundamental weakness. It does no good to tout America's past record when his administration is committed to attacking or trying to sidestep many environmental laws. Rather, the Rio summit required leadership for future progress. Mr. Bush's White House offered precious little of that. The proposal on protection of rain forests, which could have major impact, fell on ears already ringing with a U.S. refusal of commitments on greenhouse gases. The attempted end-run of demanding specific implementation plans from the European nations willing to sign accords on global warming appeared to be more cynical bullying than inspired leadership.

Western environmentalists are right to worry about the Third World's insistence on the priority of human development over natural resources, but a realistic assessment is that no practical progress can be made without addressing the critical infrastructure needs of developing countries. South America's cholera epidemic is but one example. Dependable, up-to-date municipal waters and sewerage systems could prevent such outbreaks, much as they do in the United States and other industrialized lands.

Plentiful electric power could revolutionize living in the poorest countries, and it is possible where oil drillers waste the gas blowing off their wells or where hydroelectric potential is high. Asking the Third World to do without such things, which can indirectly bring down soaring birth rates (when more children live, fewer are born) is asking for still more discord. Such things are always negotiable, since the industrialized world holds the keys to such growth, but it requires leadership drive, insight and comprehensive planning. Rio provided a framework for that, and a commitment to begin working on a sustainable growth policy, but not much else.

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