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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

President Clinton recently told the world he will personally lead the U.S. delegation that will attend a special United Nations meeting on the environment next month. Conservation groups, members of Congress and administration officials are now debating which proposals the president should champion at the conference which will tackle issues such as global warming and sustainable development. The conference, to be held at the U.N. in New York, will mark the fifth anniversary of the 1992 Earth Sumit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As John Rudolph reports the international gathering offers Mr. Clinton a chance to make his mark as a world leader on environmental issues.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
It's official now: President Clinton will personally lead the US delegation to the United Nations during next month's special session in New York on the environment. The US positions on a variety of key issues that will be discussed have yet to be refined. So, the President's decision to go has set off a scramble among various groups, who hope to persuade Mr. Clinton to tilt towards their points of view. Major topics include global climate change, biological diversity, and international aid for sustainable development. The world's nations are expected at the conference, which comes on the fifth anniversary of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As John Rudolph reports, this international gathering could be a turning point in the environmental part of Mr. Clinton's presidency.

RUDOLPH: As he's done a number of times when making important statements on the environment, President Clinton chose a dramatic backdrop to announce his plans to attend next month's United Nations conference. The setting was the Costa Rican rain forest, a stop on the President's recent tour of Latin America. A light tropical drizzle fell, as Mr. Clinton addressed the President of Costa Rica and a group of dignitaries.

CLINTON: I am pleased to be leading America's delegation to the UN. I hope many other world leaders will be there. Together we need to reaffirm the spirit of Rio, and lay out the concrete steps we're going to take, to move ahead, to make the preservation of the global environment, and sustainable development, the policy of every nation on Earth.


RUDOLPH: Back in the US, many people also applauded the President's decision to attend the conference, which some are calling "Earth Summit II." By simply agreeing to show up, Mr. Clinton puts the event in the international spotlight.

REILLY: The willingness of an American President to lend the credibility and prestige of that office, to a conference like this, certainly if Rio is any guide, is enormously important.

RUDOLPH: William Reilly, headed the US Environmental Protection Agency during the Bush Administration. At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, it was Mr. Reilly who had the unenviable task of defending an American President, who seemed distant and aloof from environmental concerns. With Earth Summit II just around the corner, there's hope that this time, the US President will take a more active role. Jacob Scherr is with the National Resources Defence Council in Washington, DC.

SCHERR: We're at a point, now, where the public here and around the world are expecting more than just promises, plans. What people are looking for are concrete actions.

RUDOLPH: But which actions should Mr. Clinton announce? One central issue will be foreign aid for environmentally friendly projects in developing countries. Some argue the President ought to reaffirm a controversial aid formula, adopted in Rio in 1992. Under this plan, industrialized countries would dramatically increase their support for sustainable development projects overseas. The formula is supported by developing nations and some US environmental groups. But former EPA administrator Reilly says, Mr. Clinton would do the world a favor by admitting that the formula isn't working.

REILLY: I think there're 2 or 3 things that President Clinton could do that would be very useful in reframing the debate. One would be to acknowledge that we'd, perhaps, been going down a blind alley in focusing on traditional, foreign assistance, its adequacy or inadequacy, as a way to, essentially bribe developing countries to do what we think is in their own interest anyway, and to say, essentially, there's never going to be enough foreign assistance to do that.

RUDOLPH: President Clinton will likely take this approach on the funding question. Rather than offering new foreign aid, the Administration is said to favor greater incentives for private investment in sustainable development projects around the world.
That position probably won't win Mr. Clinton many friends at Earth Summit II. Nor will his stand on global warming. The US is under increasing pressure to take aggressive and immediate steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Tim Wirth argues that cutting greenhouse gases is a complex economic and political problem that will take years to solve. Still, Mr. Wirth says President Clinton will offer some specific proposals to combat global warming, in New
York next month.

WIRTH: Well, I think the President's going to surprise a lot of people with the specificity of the, ah, statements and approaches that he would like to take, about how we have to engage the developing world in this area, how we have to, do this in such a way that it's realistic in the framework of our very, very large economy, how we have to have very innovative financial instruments to allow us to do this, how we have to have a binding treaty. These are leadership positions being taken by the United States, which are, you know, not welcomed by most nations around the world.

RUDOLPH: Mr. Clinton will arrive at Earth Summit II with some important achievements under his belt. During his administration, the US has for the first time accepted the principle of binding timetables and targets for reducing greenhouse gases. Mr. Clinton also signed the treaty on biodiversity, something that George Bush refused to do. But these treaties are only a start. It remains to be seen how far President Clinton is willing to go, to turn promises made in Rio 5 years ago into reality. For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph.



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