Wednesday, 4 Sep 2002

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

And so the postmortems begin. Was the summit a success? (Very few votes for that among those who aren’t on the U.S. delegation or involved with the World Trade Organization). Have big conferences like this one outlived their usefulness? (Split decision, with the ultimate answer being that it doesn’t matter: As long as shindigs like this one are thrown, one must attend to control the damage, if nothing else. (Although we did catch a glimpse of Vandana Shiva, a powerful activist from India, who was sporting a sticker reading “No More Summits.”)

Is there anything positive to take home? On the concrete, measurable side, the answer is a qualified no. It could have been worse, but not much. On the unquantifiable side, the answer is certainly yes. Thousands of people converged here from all over the world, and new friendships and alliances were made that will bear fruit in the future. In fact, the most important work at gatherings like this one goes on in the corridors and in the bar and at the unofficial sites where the unofficial participants congregate. Johannesburg will not go down as a shining moment in the history of environmental progress, but the people who attended aren’t likely to forget it.

In short, although people will be sifting through the ashes for some time and life will go on, a milestone this was not. If the environment survives, it will be despite this conference rather than because of it.

Of the final moments of the conference, perhaps the most interesting was the (short) speech by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who made his appearance late this morning. He followed a string of leaders proudly stating that they had signed the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to control global warming, which the U.S. has refused to sign and tried to torpedo. (The U.S. suffered a setback yesterday, when China and Russia both announced that they will soon ratify Kyoto, which should be enough for it to take effect despite U.S. resistance.)

Betrayed by governments banner.

Photo: IISD.

In his speech, Powell said the U.S. is devoted to sustainable development and is committed to helping other countries improve their lot. “Our well-being depends on the well-being of the rest of the world,” the secretary said, though the rest of the world remains skeptical. He then said that famine-afflicted countries that refused food aid because it included genetically modified organisms were crazy. “That food is safe,” he said, to boos from the crowd. At that point, several people stood up in the gallery and unfurled banners reading, “Shame on Bush,” and “Betrayed by Governments,” while the chanting and heckling rose in volume. Security guards appeared and several people were hauled away.

At least it provided a diversion from the tedium of most of the speeches. Powell said the U.S. is in favor of renewable energy, of improved prospects for women, and of reduced greenhouse gas emissions (more jeers). He repeated that the administration will ask Congress for $5 billion in new aid funds, and then left the podium to a mixture of applause and boos.

The last item of business is approval of the political declaration, which has been shepherded this week by President Mbeki of South Africa and nibbled to death by a thousand nitpickers. Once it’s passed, the analysis will begin. You can read the declaration and draw your own conclusions.

Thanks for reading and apologies if I’ve been too gloomy. We’ll persevere — because we must.