Greens Suffer Setback at Johannesburg Summit

Published November 1, 2002

In a stunning setback for the anti-market “Green” wing of the global environmental movement, delegates at the recently concluded World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa rejected calls for restricting poorer nations’ access to energy and technology.

Instead, the UN-sponsored summit approved a document, known as the Action Plan, that essentially redefined the term “sustainable development” to encourage adoption by developing countries of the political institutions and technological advancements that underlie the wealth of industrialized nations.

Rejecting the Green Agenda

To the consternation of thousands of anti-capitalist activists who journeyed to Johannesburg (many of them financed by grants from the European Union), representatives of developing countries turned their backs on the Green agenda laid down at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

Throughout the 11-day Johannesburg summit, Green activists repeatedly called for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by cutting back the use of fossil fuels. They demanded the summit delegates adopt rigid targets and timetables for the mandated use of renewable sources of energy, including wind, solar, and biomass.

But when the summit concluded on September 4, the renewables mandate, vigorously opposed by the U.S., had been dropped altogether. Adding insult to injury, delegates from poorer countries rose up against the Green lobby and embraced “efficient, affordable, and cost-effective energy technologies, including fossil fuel technologies.”

Green lobbying groups lost little time in condemning a summit that had largely rejected their agenda. The World Wildlife Fund dubbed the conference the “World Summit of Shameful Deals.” In the words of the Energy & Climate Caucus-CSD/WSSD, a New York-based non-government organization (NGO), the summit was “an outright disaster.”

So strong was the anger of the global Greens assembled in Johannesburg that they interrupted Secretary of State Colin Powell’s brief address on the final day of the summit with shouts of “Bush must go.” Several protesters became so disruptive they had to be removed from the hall where Powell spoke.

Preparing for a Successful Summit

The surprising outcome of the summit was largely the work of U.S. negotiators who, long before the conference got underway on August 26, had been working behind the scenes to convince developing countries their future lies not in the rejection of modern technology, as the global environmental movement demands, but in its application to the daunting problems prevailing in poverty-stricken areas of the world.

This was most evident in the issue that dominated the WSSD: water. While Green activists railed against the fossil fuels they claim cause global warming, the summit’s chief focus was on ways to provide clean water to people living in poor countries.

Lack of access to safe drinking water is one of the major causes of disease and premature death in sub-Saharan Africa and other underdeveloped parts of the world. Half the world’s diseases are transmitted by or through water. In developing countries, a child dies every eight seconds from a waterborne disease.

Water purification technologies, which rely primarily on chlorination, have been available in wealthier countries for nearly a century. Since chlorination was introduced in the U.S., for example, such diseases as cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis A have been virtually eliminated. By contrast, even under the best of circumstances, drinking water disinfection in developing countries is sporadic or nonexistent. At Johannesburg, the U.S. delegation took the lead in underscoring the importance of water purification in developing countries.

“New vision of sustainable development”

Washington’s emphasis on improving the quality of water around the world is part of what Powell referred to as the “new vision of sustainable development.” An essential element of that new vision, Powell noted, is that developing nations “must be governed wisely.” The U.S. message was clear: Simply transferring funds to corrupt and inept governments in the Third World, in the hope those funds will somehow aid the impoverished masses, is no longer acceptable.

Powell specifically cited Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe as an example of what the U.S. will no longer tolerate. In the name of “land reform,” Mugabe has driven thousands of white farmers off their land without compensation, turning the land over to his own relatives and political cronies. All of this is taking place at a time when Zimbabwe is suffering a severe food shortage. Powell noted that in Zimbabwe, “the lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law has brought millions of people to the brink of famine.”

Such talk was far removed from the global governance the Green movement had hoped to impose on developed and developing countries alike. That agenda has at its core the rejection of modern technology, despite all the public health benefits technology has brought to people fortunate enough to live in countries where it is available.

Explains University of Houston economist Thomas E. DeGregori in a book forthcoming from the Cato Institute: “We don’t help the disadvantaged by opposing the technology that has helped us all.”

The demonization of pesticides, fossil fuels, chlorine chemicals, plastics, and agricultural biotechnology by well-fed Greens in industrialized countries recalls the words of the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi:

“How can we speak to those who live in villages and slums about keeping the oceans, the rivers, and the air clean when their own lives are contaminated at the source? The environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty. Nor can poverty be eradicated without the use of science and technology.”

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. He recently returned from Johannesburg, South Africa.

For more information

on the importance of safe drinking water, see the November 2000 issue of Environment & Climate News, which features an interview with Bill Ashe of Lifewater International.