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Sustainable Development at the Houston Seven Power Summit

John Kirton

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Houston as a Sustainable Development Disappointment

In the lead up to the Houston summit, there were few signs that the 1990 gathering of most of the world's most powerful leaders would maintain the exceptionally high profile for sustainable development issues that the Paris summit had achieved the year before.

In the realm of development, the Paris summit had succeeded in reviving global attention to the plight of third world countries, the need for reducing their debt burden and the possibility of a new north-south dialogue that would include environmental issues. More importantly, for the first time in its fourteen year history, the economic summit was dominated by environmental issues. The comuniqué devoted a full one-third of its text to this subject, and identified a large number of environmental issues as appropriate subjects for international concern.

From the start, those preparing the Houston agenda knew that publics, environmental groups, and the media, would expect Houston to maintain the high environmental profile that Paris had established. Yet they were slow to arrive at concrete ways in which to meet this objective, given the reluctance of the host United States to move on the central issues of the global atmosphere.

From the verv start of the summit preparatory cycle, those within the US administration advocating a major focus on environmental subjects were consistently disappointed. An early effort by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to gain control of the US government's summit environmental agenda was turned back by the State Department. And although President Bush had brought EPA Administrator William Reilly to Paris the year before, and allowed him while there to brief the world's media on American environmental aspirations, there were no signs that his attendance at the hometown summit was wanted. Ultimately, while the President was to bring two cabinet-level officers to Houston, in addition to the foreign and finance ministers who routinely attend the summit, the call went not to Reilly but to Trade Representative Carla Hills and Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter. The task of explaining to the world American positions, summit progress, and even scientific "facts" on the environment at Houston was left to President Bush's Chief of Staff John Sununu.

Nor did the intergovernmental discussions in the leadup to Houston show any more signs of American environmental enthusiasm. The failure to achieve consensus at a White House sponsored ministerial conference on climate change in the spring of 1990, and the United States' retreat from an earlier commitment to provide funds for third world countries to reduce their use of ozone-destroying chloroflurocarbons brought progress on the summit's environmental agenda among the leader's personal representatives, or sherpas, to a virtual standstill. Although forceful interventions from foreign sherpa's such as Canada's Derek Burney, and representatioas from leaders such as Margaret Thatcher to President Bush directly succeeded in inducing the United States to restore its commitment to the ozone-substitution fund just prior to the summit, the retreat and reversal generated delay, frustration, and evidence of the formidable power of an environmentally-skeptical John Sununu.

Under Sununu's influence, the United States came to Houston with a position on the central atmospheric issues that put it in a minority of one against all its summit partners. From the standpoint of taking concrete cleanup action on the key global warning issue, an adamantly economically-preoccupied United States confronted an environtnentally-engaged Germany, France, Italy and European Community, with Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom in the middle.

As the leaders' sherpas preparing the summit were dealing with this impasse in private, the environmental expectations on the leaders at Houston faded in public. With the United States trying to focus attention on the issue of multilateral trade and agricultural subsidies, with Germany in the final weeks before Houston promoting the idea of coordinated western aid to the Soviet Union and with Japan quietly trying to have the summit approve the resumption of aid to China, global environmental issues became a secondary preoccupation. Because each of the summit's three most powerful members, including Germany, had chosen or acquired other, more nationally critical causes to champion, the global environment went without a dedicated, powerful summit advocate.

Nor did the media propel environmental issues into the first tier of summit-related public consciousness, either before, during, or after summit. Within Canada, the elite english-language newspaper of record, the Toronto Globe and Mail, devoted 34 newsitems to the summit in the two days before, three days of, and three days after the summit (July 7-14), but only one of these highlighted environmental issues, and only an additional thirteen referred to them in passing. Canada's largest circulation english-language daily, the Toronto Star, in its 36 summit newsitems during the same period, focused six on environmental subjects, but all but one of these dealt with the Canada-US bilateral agreement on the eve of the summit to open negotiations on an acid rain accord. Canada's leading financial daily, The Financial Post, consistent with the pattern, focused only two, and devoted part of another six newsitems to the environment in its summit coverage.

At the end of the summit, there was much easily-available evidence that Houston had been an environmental failure. Whereas the Paris comuniqué had devoted an unprecedentedly large one- third of its pages and paragraphs to environmental subjects, Houston allocated only 22% of its pages and 15% of its paragraphs to the topic. Moreover the central environmental initiative of the Houston summit - Germany's proposal for a summit acceptance or endorsement of its far reaching national plan for C02 emissions - died an early and decisive death. Media reports alleged that even before the summit opened, in a bilateral meeting between Chancellor Kohl and President Bush, the German's had traded off their push for a strong summit statement on C02 reduction in return for American acquiescence in Germany providing direct economic aid to the Soviet Union.

Certainly the enviroamental NGO community, active at the summit site through the sponsorship of a concurrent "Ecosummit", were quick to brand the summit seven individually and collectively as ecological failures. Immediately prior to the summit, a coalition of environmental groups issued a "Green Report Card," which surveyed national performance on six (equally weighted) major environmental dimensions, and awarded all seven mediocre or failing grades. Germany ranked first followed by France, the United States and Britain. Canada, with 24 out of a possible 60 points, came fifth, tied with Japan and ahead of only Italy. Canada performed adequately on population (6/10) and ocean pollution (5/10), poorly on climate (4/10) and protection of critical ecosystems (4/10) and dismally on global environmental bargain (3/10) and Eastern Europe (2/10).

Although critical colunuiists were quick to label the exercise "the intellectual equivalent of a toxic dump", and Canada's sherpa, Derek Burney, speaking on-the-record, declared the report "warped", it commanded widespread publicity. Indeed all the newsitems that the Globe, Star and Post focused on the environment in their summit coverage, apart from those dealing with the acid rain accord, dealt with the Green Report Card. Such coverage lent credence to the post-summit conclusion of the environmentalists that Houston was a waste of time, accomplishing nothing more than the leaders could have had they remained at home connected bv eight fax machines.

Editorialists and columnists in their post-summit assessments tended to agree. The environmeritally- skeptical Globe noted (in a July 13 editorial) "the scientific questions surrounding the greenhouse effect may warrant the caution shown here," and described (in a July 13 column by Terence Corcoran) the passage on a global forestry convention as "Global Overblown Diplomatese." The environmentally- supportive Star concluded (in a July 12 editorial) that the "third world got short shrift when Bush refused to support a $2..5 billion fund to help poor countries clean up their environment" and that the summit's "failure to act on development and the environment can be felt most keenly in the third world." It also (in a July 12 column by Richard Gwyn) declared President Bush successful in securing "slower progress on doing something about global warming." Only the Financial Post (in a July 16 editorial focused on the green report card) was indirectly approving of the summit's environmental conclusions, declaring that "Even global warming, not yet irrefutably proven, appears certain enough to justify action."

Internationally the media consensus that Houston was an environmental disappointment was similarly overwhelming. The Wall Street Journal (in a Julv 13 editorial), singled out the National Wildlife Federation's judgement that "Bush's efforts at balance, compromise and consensus-building are killing the world," and declared it to be "the familiar voice of political extremism." The Financial Times of London (in an editorial) said the comuniqué "does not look particularly substantive" in dealing with the maior disagreement on the environment and that Houston thus resembled "an exercise in papering over the cracks." The Economist highlighted the fact that the comuniqué "made no mention of a commitment to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by a specific date."

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