FEATURE - Bush set to skip Earth Summit
WASHINGTON - When the United States\' delegation heads to the Johannesburg Earth Summit this month President George W. Bush will probably still be on holiday at his Texas ranch.
The U.S. delegation faces international anger over Bush\'s rejection of the Kyoto treaty to combat global warming and other moves seen as isolationist and out of step with world concerns.
Delegates to the August 26-September 4 meeting will debate ways to raise living standards in the developing world without destroying what is left of the planet\'s resources.
But the United States will emphasise deals with the private sector and stress the importance of economic growth over binding global treaties to fight environmental problems and poverty.
\"If the president takes a vacation while the rest of the world works on the environment and sustainable development, it will be a pretty clear signal,\" of disinterest, said Kalee Kreider, global warming programme director for the National Environmental Trust in Washington.
\"He\'ll be pilloried if he does come and pilloried if he doesn\'t,\" said Steve Sawyer, climate policy advisor at the environmentalist group Greenpeace.
Bush left Washington for his ranch in Texas on August 6 and is planning to stay until early September. He has given no indication that he will attend the summit. U.S. officials decline to confirm his absence and say the delegation has not been announced, although Secretary of State Colin Powell is planning to attend.
U.S. officials are hoping a flurry of announcements on new \"partnerships\" among governments, the private sector and other groups will pave the way to progress on issues including clean drinking water, forests and food security.
\"The preparations and the U.S. strategy have had the attention at the highest level within the White House,\" said a senior Bush administration official. \"It\'s something that strikes at the core values of the president.\"
\"The Bush administration is committed to its success,\" assistant U.S. Secretary of State John Turner said in Senate testimony July 24.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development is billed as the largest U.N. summit ever with an estimated 50,000 participants from more than 100 countries.
French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are among the world leaders expected to attend the meeting which will seek ways to reach goals set earlier of curbing pollution and halving global poverty by 2015.
Environmentalists accuse the Bush administration of ignoring international desire for progress on issues such as global warming and energy conservation, and of hijacking the sustainable development theme to promote a trade agenda.
\"There\'s...an effort by the administration to turn this conference about protecting the environment and reducing poverty into a conference about trade,\" said Stephen Mills, international programme director of the Sierra Club.
\"What the Bush administration will find in Johannesburg is the priority of many countries is sustainable development and protecting the environment,\" he said. \"This is another example of the United States withdrawing from global cooperation.\"
Bush pulled out of the Kyoto agreement last year, saying it would cripple the U.S. economy and gave unfair exemptions to developing countries.
Washington signed the pact in 1997 after Bush\'s father, former president George Bush, agreed to limit greenhouse gases in a last-minute trip to the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Environmentalists say the current Bush administration\'s policies mark a retreat from long-time global leadership on the environment - demonstrated by steps such as creation of the Cabinet-level Environmental Protection Agency 1970.
Greenpeace\'s Sawyer said Washington had abandoned leadership in most environmental areas with the exception of some ocean issues such as whaling and fisheries.
\"U.S. environmental policy has been atrocious, retrograde and unfitting of a country that claims any type of moral political leadership in the world,\" he said.
U.S. Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, a political independent and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, scolded Bush administration officials at a hearing last month.
\"We\'re not trying very hard to keep up with the spirit of some of our (environmental) commitments,\" he said.
Powell underscored the U.S. emphasis on economic growth and partnerships at a conference on sustainable development on July 12. \"Sustainable development begins at home,\" he said. \"We must work together to unleash human productivity, to reduce poverty, to promote healthy environments.
\"Growth is the key,\" he said.
Powell continued:\"Partnerships are key - we are already deploying the power of partnerships.\"
He cited a Congo Basin Forest Partnership launched by South Africa and the United States as an example of the sort of agreements envisioned by Washington.
The initiative aims to enlist private companies, non-governmental organisations and other governments to fight deforestation in the Congo Basin and establish national parks.
Powell was quoted this month by the U.N. Environment Programme as saying the environment was a key issue in global political stability.
\"An unholy trinity of poverty, ecological degradation and despair threatens to destabilise whole regions,\" he said.
U.S. officials say Washington remains interested in the formal declarations and agreements that may emerge from the summit, but its focus was on \"concrete results\" demonstrated by the partnerships.
Involving private companies, the senior U.S. official said, would open the door to \"hundreds of billions\" of dollars in investment. He said global efforts were still needed in areas including the battle against AIDS.
Environmentalists say such partnerships are likely to become more common - they have received support within the United Nations and other countries. But broad international agreements are still needed to meet specific targets on issues such as pollution and poverty.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said it was worried that the U.S. stress on partnerships could be a way of dodging commitments by governments.
\"The risk with the U.S. approach is that there won\'t be any way of measuring the achievements of partnerships. There may be businesses who are not very serious in their commitments,\" said Kim Carstensen, deputy head of the WWF delegation to Johannesburg.
Recent U.S. corporate scandals raise questions about whether firms involved in partnerships could be trusted without strict disclosure requirements and accountability measures, said the Sierra Club\'s Mills.
\"This idea of corporate self-policing doesn\'t work,\" he said.
Story by Randall Mikkelsen
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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