Colin Powell will lead the US delegation to the earth summit, but the absent
figure of George Bush will cast a long dark shadow over the proceedings. By deciding
not to attend, Mr Bush has already snubbed the UN organizers. They moved the date
of the summit forward to end on September 4 to avoid September 11, just so he
could be there. The president also ignored the pleas of Tony Blair and other leaders.
Instead, he has listened to the American right, which had already persuaded the US to abandon the Kyoto agreement on climate change and reject a raft of multilateral agreements. They want Mr Bush to continue to tear up treaties that might inhibit US freedom of action and certainly not agree to any new ones.
Partly - some would say mainly - as a result of the US refusal to be bound
by any targets or timetables, the first sessions of the summit which begin on
Monday have little form or substance. Decisions, agreements and programs to provide
clean water, sanitation, energy and security of food supply to around a third
of the world's population are key to what the summit is about. There will be pious
hopes but concrete actions are likely to be absent.
The only possible counterbalance is the EU, which has endorsed environmental and development aims and embraces targets and timetables to bring them into effect. Statistically the EU is now almost as strong an economy as the US - $9 trillion in 2000 compared with $10 trillion for the US. With enlargement, the EU's market will be bigger but as a bloc the EU lacks the political will to match the negative vibes coming from Washington.
Some senior civil servants in the EU delegation have already asked if there is any point to the summit - has America killed it before it has officially been launched?
Listening to Mr Powell announcing the US policy this week, perhaps they are too gloomy. "This is a time to expand peace, prosperity and freedom," he said. "The spread of democracy and market economies, combined with breakthroughs in technology, permit us to dream of a day when, for the first time in history most of humanity will be free of the ravages of tyranny and poverty.
"The United States is committed to building a world where children can grow up free from hunger, disease and illiteracy. A world where all men and women can reach their human potential free from racial or gender discrimination. A world where people can enjoy the richness of a diverse and healthy planet."
But does the secretary of state's message really convey what the president thinks or is the letter from 31 political groups congratulating him on not attending the summit and urging him not to sign any new environmental treaties closer to the official view?
The language of the letter is sometimes startling. "Even more than the earth
summit in Rio in 1992, the Johannesburg summit will provide a global media stage
for many of the most irresponsible and destructive elements involved in critical
economic and environmental issues. Your presence would only help to publicize
and make more credible their various anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalization
and anti-western agendas."
The letter identifies lack of clean water as the most important environmental issue at the summit but adds: "Conversely, the least important global environmental issue is potential global warming, and we hope your negotiators can keep it off the table and out of the spotlight."
The fact that seven of the organizations that signed the letter had been funded
to the tune of more than $1m by Exxon Mobil, the arch enemy of greens, came as
no surprise to Friends of the Earth, to whom the letter was leaked.
FoE director designate Tony Juniper said: "This letter casts a grim light on the iron triangle of the Bush White House, corporate polluters such as Exxon Mobil and the conservative right. They are determined to block any progress at the summit."
But Mr Powell sheds a positive light on what is acceptable to the conservatives. Since Rio he says the percentage of people in developing countries in absolute poverty has dropped, infant mortality has declined by more than 10% and mortality among children under five is nearly 20% less.
The twin thrusts of US policy are that progress can only be made with more trade and democracy. Countries that had opened their economies since 1992 have done better than those who remained closed, Mr Powell says. Justice, lack of corruption and democracy were also keys to the inflow of official assistance and private capital.
Private capital provided 82% of the $300bn in long-term resource flows to developing countries over the past 10 years. "Attracting money is not easy. Capital is a coward. It flees from corruption and bad policies, conflict and unpredictability. It shuns ignorance, disease and illiteracy. Capital goes where it is welcomed and where investors can be confident of a return on the resources they have put at risk," he said in a speech this week.
So the US message to the summit is that free trade and inward investment by big business will deliver sustainable development - and save the planet. What starving Africans and the rest of the developing world will make of that in the next two weeks has yet to be seen.
The issues - and who will discuss what
There were five original themes for the summit: water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity, but in a challenge to the White House the summit's secretary general has produced a new list. It contains subjects the US does not want to talk about:
America's fundamentalist right and the Vatican want this off the agenda. But the UN says population growth from the current 6 billion to 8 billion by 2025 needs to be tackled
This is a priority for developing countries, some of which are sinking under the waves, and the EU is keen to discuss it
Will focus on the 2.5 billion people without electricity, and how to promote renewables. The poorest people use wood, straw and dung to cook and heat. About 2.5 million women and children die from indoor air pollution as a result
Nearly half the world's people will experience water shortages by 2025. About 90% of human water use is in agriculture. Everyone agrees this must be tackled
Health and water
A green light here from Washington, which is keen on the privatization of water
supplies in developing countries. Water-borne diseases kill more people than any
Health and air pollution
Something the US is good at. Acid rain and smog having been reduced in America but are causing serious problems in the developing world. Outdoor air pollution from traffic and industry kills 3 million people a year
A problem unsolved since Rio and getting worse. It is the developed countries that use the wood and mostly tropical forests that are being felled for agriculture. US forests have actually increased in 10 years so the White House is comfortable discussing this issue
Poverty and inequality
The US as the richest nation in the world is in the firing line for progressively cutting aid since Rio and insisting that assistance is dependent on allowing American business unlimited access to markets. But inequality is greatest in developing countries
Food and agriculture
The UN says developing countries are becoming net importers of grain and rich countries will need to expand production to feed the world. The US is keen to promote bio-technology. Agricultural subsidies to EU and US farmers are contentious, too
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002