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.