TCS Daily

Gettin' Jiggy in Jo'burg

By Nick Schulz - August 23, 2002 12:00 AM

The World Summit on Sustainable Development begins the last week in August in Johannesburg, South Africa. TechCentralStation and TCS Europe will be there on the scene reporting back to you with updates of what's going on.

Up to this point, it's hard to get a handle on what might come out of the summit. Some summit supporters are concerned that the summit isn't organized and focused enough, that it will lack a coherent vision and that there will be too many interest groups, NGOs, government officials and bureaucrats jockeying for attention to get much done. A staggering number of people - up to 60,000 - are expected to attend.

Still other summit supporters think that nothing concrete will come out of the summit, but that this shouldn't necessarily be construed as a bad thing.

"And even if it fails, the failure of an event - the lack of concrete results - is not the failure of an idea," the environmental activist Bonizella Biagini said recently. That point is debatable. After all, we at TCS are quick to point out how unrealistic are most of the demands of sustainable development enthusiasts, so that the lack of "concrete results" is, indeed, very much evidence of "the failure of an idea." But Biagini takes some comfort in recent history. "The proposals that emerged from [the last world Earth Summit 10 years ago in] Rio are as relevant today as they were a decade ago."

And still other supporters are sounding a positively upbeat note. Klaus Topfer, the UN chief for environmental matters said recently, "I have come to the conclusion that there will be a very good and concrete outcome (to the summit)." And on Thursday Canada's PM Jean Chretien, who just announced his pending retirement, said he anticipates steps will be taken toward the ratification of the Kyoto protocol designed to regulate climate change.

"On behalf of all Canadians, we will announce an effective approach to achieve the objectives of the Kyoto accord and probably to ratify it."

Canada has been teasing the world for some time now with where it stands on Kyoto. That's not surprising given the country's massive welfare state, its fossil-fuel-based economy, and its general unwillingness to choose sides on lots of important questions (we're English; no, we're French; OK ... we're both!).

Beyond that, ratification and implementation of the Kyoto treaty is virtually unthinkable without the participation of the United States. So Chretien's forthcoming "effective approach" will likely contain many loopholes that will agitate other Kyoto supporters.

Lots of people around the world are steaming that President George Bush plans to skip the summit (no word yet on whether they are steaming about the $4 billion in aid he pledged in lieu of going). He is sending Colin Powell instead to head the U.S. delegation.

Of course, President Bush was in a damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn't situation. He could skip the summit and be blasted for arrogant unilateralism and for being uncaring about global environmental matters. Or he could go to the summit and get blasted -- in person -- for arrogant unilateralism and for being uncaring about global environmental matters. Having been dealt that hand, it's not surprising he prefers the Crawford heat to Joburg's temperate spring-like days and nights.

Worst Case Scenario

Anytime you get 60,000 earnest activists crammed in one place, it's useful to worry about a worst-case scenario. After all, idle hands - coupled with UN money - are the devil's playground. From the standpoint of those of us who want to encourage economic growth and rising living standards - and, as a result, environmental standards - for the world's poor, about the worst thing that could happen would be a multilateral commitment to the creation of a World Environmental Organization (WEO).

Modeled after the World Trade Organization, a WEO would be a multilateral body designed to settle disputes among nations over environmental concerns arising from economic growth and commercial activities.

Greens and anti-globalistas have blasted the WTO for tearing down barriers to private enterprise, fostering economic growth, and thus, supposedly, encouraging a race to the environmental bottom through its arbitration of trade disputes. These accusations are made despite the research suggesting such a race-to-the-bottom scenario is not true. But no matter. The creation of a WEO would ostensibly change the current global economic dynamic from one that pushes down barriers to trade and economic development to one that gives primacy to short-term environmental concerns.

It remains to be seen what the United States government would do if pressured to commit to the creation of a WEO. One State Department source said the department was aware of some rumblings to push for the creation of a WEO and the State Department seems generally predisposed to frown on it. Let's hope so since a verbal commitment from the United States to support the creation of a WEO would be one "concrete result" that would be devastating to the world's poor.

Either way, the stage is set for a vigorous and loud clash of visions and ideas. Lots of surprises will likely surface, and we'll be there to tell you all about it.

URL Next Door -- Make sure to also check out the Daily Summit, a blog of all the events going on in and around the WSSD, updated several times a day. The editor of the site may not see eye to eye with everything we at TCS believe, but he's familiar with the work of Gregg Easterbrook, TCS, and other environmental optimists, so he'll be sure to give pro-growth optimists a fair shake. It's an extraordinarily smart, lively, and valuable website.



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