Betrayal at Rio by Jeff Rubin for ABCNEWS

They came, they talked (and talked and talked) and then, they walkedwithout the slimmest agreement on how to solve the Earth’s worsening environmental problems.

"Let’s call a spade a spade. Over five years, not enough has been done," said U.N. General Assembly President Razali Ismail of Malaysia, chairman of the week-long gathering called to review progress since the landmark 1992 Rio environmental conference.

Not Even a Final Statement

Razali described the failure to live up to the promise of Rio as an "absence of political will." As if to confirm this, delegates said the final summit document would not, as planned, include a political statement of intent because governments could not agree on one. "The decisions of Rio remain empty slogans," said Sudan’s delegate, Elfatih Mohamed Ahmed Erwa Gordon Shepherd of the Worldwide Fund for Nature called the meeting "a betrayal of Rio," adding that "people who are trying to implement [Rio’s proposals] locally came here for support and they’re getting none whatever. And they’re going back dispirited."

Water pollution, toxic waste, fishing and global climate change dominated the agenda.

President Clinton’s speech on Thursday night underscored the disagreements on how to solve these environmental problems.

Clinton Brags A Bit

Like all of the delegates, Clinton tried to put the best face on his country’s accomplishments.  He boasted that the United States has cleaned a record number of toxic waste dumps, worked for clean water, established new national parks and just this week approved new air quality regulations—but he offered no concrete suggestions for action on climate change, the world’s most pressing environmental problem.

"The science is clear and compelling: We humans are changing the global climate," Clinton said, detailing the catastrophic results global warming is expected to have—crop failure, droughts, floods, disease.  But the president offered only to work for "realistic and binding limits that will significantly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases," such as carbon dioxide, which contribute to global warming by trapping heat within the Earth’s atmosphere.  

Europe Not Pleased

That vague promise didn’t sit well with Europe, which has set tough goals for dealing with the issue.  The United States, with just 4 percent of the world’s population, produces 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.   European countries want a solid U.S. commitment to join them in the goal of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide and other gases to 15 percent of its 1990 levels by 2010.  Major European allies denounced the lack of U.S. leadership. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, French President Jacques Chirac, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair all lined up, though without nastiness, against Clinton.

Kohl Leads Charge

Kohl took the lead. He is cooperating with Brazil, South Africa and Singapore to draft an action plan that includes a proposal to create a new World Environmental Organization. Returning home from the Earth Summit, Kohl told the German Parliament: "I regret that we did not succeed, this year at least, to convince the United States and Japan" to adopt tougher goals. "We cannot and will not give in on this point. I will work at the Climate Conference in Kyoto (Japan) at the end of this year…so that we reach agreements on a clear reduction of greenhouse gases by 2010." German opposition leaders, however, criticized Kohl for pushing the United States and other countries when western Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions have also risen since 1990. Overall, Germany’s emissions have declined, but that is largely due to the closing of inefficient factories in eastern Germany after the fall of Communism there.

Blair Joins Chirac

Blair also took a jab at Washington. "We in Europe have put our cards on the table," he told Earth Summit delegates. "It is time for the special pleading to stop and for others to follow suit."   Chirac was just as critical. "Americans are major polluters," he said at the G-8 summit. "The average American is responsible for emitting three times the amount of greenhouse gas as the average Frenchman."  Despite the criticism, delegates hope that the high level of participation at the summit will make it easier to advance binding environmental agreements at the follow-up meeting in Kyoto.

Greens Also Displeased

Joe Goffman, senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, says the Clinton administration is not doing enough. "The U.S. started out this year providing leadership, shaping a good strategy to deal with the issues," he said.  "But in the last six months, the momentum has dissipated," Goffman said. "So little has happened that we have to wonder if the government knows how to capitalize on the momentum it created. The U.S. has the tools to be the international leader but hasn’t used them."

Clinton gave the Earth Summit hope, however, that he may soon take charge on the issue.  

Kyoto Looms Ahead

His first job, he told delegates, is "to convince the American people and the Congress that the climate change problem is real and imminent." To that end, he will host a White House Conference on Climate Change later this year so the American people "understand that we must act, and to lay the economic facts there so that they will understand the benefits and the costs."  Indeed, European leaders acknowledged the difficulty of Clinton’s task. "The majority (of American people) simply does not recognize that there is climate change," said Germany’s environment minister, Angela Merkel. "It’s not so simple for the president."  Even Greenpeace leader Bill Hare, damning Clinton’s speech with faint praise, conceded at least that it "could have been a lot weaker."

Of course, it could also have been much stronger. Kyoto looms large on the horizon.

[Critical Issues]