Earth Summit: Some Hard Facts Are Concealed by the Shrill Critiques

MURRAY WEIDENBAUM is director of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis

The June Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro yielded two results readily predictable by any seasoned cynic (and forecast by this observer). First and most obvious, many of the more vocal environmental activists were disappointed that far stronger action was not taken. They blamed the United States primarily for the shortfall from their expectations.

But secondly and far less noticed, the range of international regulation of private enterprise was expanded considerably, often far more than could be justified by good science--or even sensible environmentalism.

Surely the grandiose vision ("the last chance to save the planet," according to the secretary general of the Rio meeting) and the almost limitless array of proposals (an Earth Charter plus a voluminous Agenda 21) constituted an impractical task for any assortment of mere mortals.

The disappointment on the part of the environmental activists stemmed in large part from their arrogant attitude that they possess the wisdom and the ability to remake the world. Otherwise, for example, the Earth Summit staff would have been content to draft a bio-diversity treaty that stuck to the subject of preserving species. Instead, they insisted on adding onerous controls over the emerging biotechnology industry.

Although they were supposed to be developing an international agreement to preserve animal and plant life, the planners placed in the treaty decisive provisions on patent rights in biotechnology.

Why should the United States--the world leader in biotechnology--join the laggards in putting that sector of the economy into a regulatory straitjacket? Contrary to the general expectation, the United States likely will exceed the specific requirements for species preservation mandated in the treaty.

As for the much maligned "watered down" global warming agreement, the critics paid no attention to the most recent scientific evidence on the subject. A key report was issued just weeks before the Earth Summit by the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank containing some of the most distinguished scientists in the United States.

The latest scientific data shows that prospects of an increase in the Earth's temperature over the coming century are so modest as to warrant little if any special attention.

However, acknowledging the current scientific evidence would have forced the Rio activists to abandon their high-decibel assault on American policy. The magnitude of U.S. environmental cleanup was also ignored by the professional critics.

Spending over $110 billion a year for a cleaner, safer environment contrasts with the pious talk of many members of the European Community. According to Ecofin, a British environmental services group, "U.S. environmental legislation is about five or 10 years ahead of EC legislation, especially in the enforcement area."

These facts, sadly, were submerged by the shrill critiques of the thousands of interest group participants who were assembled in Rio.

Perhaps the most serious ecological shortcoming of Earth Summit was the environmental issue not given a prominent spot on the agenda. It is ironic that any objective ranking of environmental risks in terms of adverse effects on human life would not give top priority to global warming or bio-diversity.

None of the issues that dominated Earth Summit has the immediately devastating impact of polluted water, especially in the poorer countries. It is hardly surprising that the developing countries were not anxious to devote large amounts of their resources to the highly selected agenda favored by many industrialized nations. Pakistan's environmental minister phrased the issue clearly: "Eighty percent of our water is untreated. That's our biggest problem."

Almost a fifth of the world's population--about 1 billion people--lack access to safe water. Filthy water kills about 3 million people each year, most of them children.

It is hard to understand the reasoning of environmental organizations that think that controlling patent rights over biotechnology is more urgent. Yet perhaps we should not be surprised that the Earth Summit staff planners, who were mainly officials of U.N. agencies, were preoccupied with issues that involved the expansion of their power and authority.

It is the rare civil servant who does not sincerely see benefit from expanding the jurisdiction of his or her agency--and its budget.

It is sad that the Earth Summit, which officially was a conference on environment and development, so thoroughly focused on the role of government that it ignored the potential contributions of the private sector. After all, income and wealth are created primarily by private enterprises competing in the marketplace. It is a combination of technological progress and economic incentive that constitutes the primary fuel for the rise from poverty to prosperity.

The Earth Summit participants agreed to establish another U.N. agency, a Commission on Sustainable Development. The new body will monitor compliance with environmental goals as well as progress on the provision of aid by the industrialized nations to the developing countries.

The climate treaty contains neither targets nor timetables for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. However, it does have some force, committing the ratifying nations to control emissions so as to protect ecosystems. The treaty allows for stronger measures if the threat of global warming should later appear more serious than now.

At the close of Earth Summit, many of the more restrained analysts in attendance concluded that, although the specific actions taken were disappointing, the conference was a success because it raised people's awareness of environmental issues.

That may be too generous an appraisal. Rio represented a much less desirable precedent. It demonstrated that, if your intentions are noble (or at least the public thinks your heart is in the right place), you can get away with expounding the most soft-headed, muddled notions.

Worse yet, in a variation of Gresham's Law (bad money drives out good), hot air was given precedence over serious thought. Perhaps the overriding impression of the Rio meeting was the image of the Dalai Lama telling the assembled crowds that he was having "fun, fun, fun."

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