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World Leaders say Earth is sick, but fail to agree on a cure

New York Times News Service
Saturday, June 28, 1997

UNITED NATIONS — Dozens of government leaders ended a weeklong conference yesterday with few answers on how to solve environmental questions originally posed five years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

While nonstop speeches went on in the hall of the General Assembly, committees of nations bickered for days but were unable to agree on concrete proposals in three critical areas:

  • Cutting emissions to head off global warming;
  • Protecting forests;
  • Increasing aid to poor nations who are ruining their environments through uncontrolled development.

In all of these areas, many nations had been looking to the United States for leadership, another demonstration of the enormous power Washington has in the United Nations, even though Washington has been the target of criticism for failing to pay its dues.

When President Clinton, in his speech Thursday, backed away from setting numerical targets for American emissions reductions as Europeans had asked, the initial response was critical, since diplomats realized that there would probably be no decision from Washington until very close to a conference in Kyoto, Japan, in December, the deadline for an international agreement.

This will give little time to negotiate acceptable levels of emissions reductions with developing countries, some of which are already reluctant to agree to any controls if someone else does not pay for the cost of environmental improvements. In coming decades, large developing countries like India and China will be major emitters of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.

"With less than six months to go to Kyoto, we still haven't heard any near-term specifics from the Clinton administration," Howard Ris, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientist, said after Clinton's speech.

But yesterday, diplomats and a number of environmental groups found silver linings in the president's speech, welcoming his statements that recognized the danger of global warming and the role that human activity — most of all in the United States — plays in creating and worsening the problem.

Many welcomed Clinton's pledge to inform the U.S. people why the issue of greenhouse gases was important. U.S. public opinion played a significant part in building up the international awareness of environmental issues a decade ago, and partly drove the momentum that made the Earth Summit in Rio a success in 1992.

Not only industrialized nations were to blame for the lack of action on major issues. Razali Ismail, president of the General Assembly and Malaysia's U.N. representative, said that both rich and poor nations had shown a lack of political will to force more than convoluted compromises.

Source: The San Diego Union-Tribune