America leads at Johannesburg summit

Published October 1, 2002

One person, two contrasting images.

On September 4, the final day of the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, a packed hall of professional demonstrators repeatedly booed and heckled U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as he announced new American programs to protect the global environment and aid the world’s poor.

However, as Powell departed the auditorium, a sea of delegates from countries around the globe vied with each other to shake his hand and extend their compliments.

Professional activists, both foreign and domestic, had flocked to Johannesburg like moths to a flame in hopes of observing and participating in a global tongue-lashing of American environmental, economic, and foreign policy. However, as moths often do, the activists got burned.

Delegates from nation after nation agreed with America that economic progress built on the foundations of freedom and democracy is a prerequisite to sustainable growth. As a result, the Johannesburg summit was short on empty promises and long on concrete initiatives to fight environmental degradation and global poverty.

Powell announces American programs

During his speech, Powell announced a commitment by President George W. Bush to increase American developmental assistance by 50 percent—from $10 billion to $15 billion per year—for the benefit of global sustainable development. That figure constitutes roughly $100 taxed from every American worker every year.

Powell also announced a South African Housing Initiative to help private contractors build 90,000 houses for a half-million people over the next five years, as well as several new partnerships to expand global access to clean water, affordable energy, sustainable food supplies, forest preservation, and pollution-abatement technologies. Powell’s remarks emphasized America’s commitment to launching sustainable development programs that supplement democratic and free-market principles rather than working at odds with such principles.

Such announcements by Powell addressed only a few of the dozens of projects the U.S. has recently launched to raise living standards across the planet while protecting environmental interests. For example, the United States had already unveiled at the summit a $2.6 billion partnership with private companies to provide fresh water to the Third World; a $400 million partnership with private companies to increase access to pollution-abatement technologies; an Initiative to Cut Hunger in Africa; a Congo Basin reforestation program; and $1.3 billion in funding to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in developing countries.

In delivering his remarks, Powell emphasized the difference between the rhetoric and unfulfilled promises of prior environmental summits and the concrete programs launched by the United States in Johannesburg. “Plans are good,” stated Powell. “But [only] actions can put clean water in the mouths of thirsty girls and boys, prevent the transmission of a deadly virus from mother to child, and preserve the biodiversity of a fragile African ecosystem. … We have reaffirmed the principle that sound economic management, investment in people, and responsible stewardship of our environment are crucial for development.”

Anti-market forces marginalized

Prior to the summit, an editorial in the Canadian National Post advised, “If the leaders gathered … in Johannesburg really want to save the environment, they should concentrate less on eco-rhetoric and more on promoting the free-market conditions that permit poor nations to become rich. The simple truth is that countries grow cleaner as they grow wealthier—no matter whether they’ve self-consciously dedicated themselves to `sustainable’ policies (whatever those are) or not.”

Apparently, the Johannesburg delegates were listening. While market-oriented programs such as those announced by Powell dominated the sustainable development initiatives announced at the summit, anti-market and anti-American rhetoric was confined to the margins. The result was a summit devoid of the anti-American tongue-lashings that have dominated prior environmental gatherings.

The de facto American leadership at the summit did not please everybody.

The mainstream media were hoping for some verbal fireworks to spice up the evening news, but fireworks were short in supply. Pre-summit predictions, such as the MSNBC headline “U.S. braced for bruising at summit,” failed to materialize. The best they could do was quote the usual cast of anti-market activists.

“Big business and polluting governments like the U.S. have joined forces in Johannesburg once again,” obliged Greenpeace spokesman Paul Horsman.

However, the grousing by activists failed to overshadow the leadership America demonstrated at the summit.

“Hecklers get a lot of attention, but I was more impressed by the excellent discussions” with representatives from other countries, Powell told reporters.

The American delegation defeated a resolution calling for a mandatory 15 percent increase in the use of renewable energies, such as wind and solar power. Instead of calling for unrealistic goals devoid of economically feasible means of implementation, the American approach deemphasized pie-in-the-sky rhetoric and emphasized concrete programs to improve global economic and environmental conditions. Cooperation with private entities was a centerpiece of the American approach and is designed to ensure efficiency and minimize bureaucratic red tape.

“Central to this approach is the realization that sustainable development is too big for any government alone or any combination of governments,” said Powell.

Added Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky, “Hold us accountable for the initiatives we identify and for their successful implementation. At the same time, hold all governments—in developed and developing countries alike—accountable for implementing concrete actions to improve the lot of all our citizens.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.