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Posted by Lilly from ? ( on Thursday, August 22, 2002 at 1:12PM :

In Reply to: "Wanted: scientists for sustainability" posted by Lilly from ? ( on Thursday, August 22, 2002 at 12:59PM :

Nature 418, 817 (22 August 2002) Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Summit: vague answers to well-known problems?

Sir Two types of environmental problem resist solution by multinational summits such as the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development (see V. Gewin, Nature 417, 475; 2002). First are local problems that cannot be managed through global mandates; second are global problems that impinge on domestic authority.

Many 'global' problems are actually local ones with global implications, such as deforestation and desertification. Multilateral negotiations are ineffective in this case: the Convention on Deforestation will not stop a poor farmer cutting down a tree for firewood; declarations on sustainable development will not change North America's appetite for consumption.

Second, summits sponsored by bodies such as the United Nations (UN) have a mandate to respect national sovereignty. But in many fields this conflicts with policy-making. Climate-change negotiations have been challenged by nations worried about the effects on domestic policy. In multilateral trade agreements, the World Trade Organization (WTO) forbids differentiation of traded goods on the grounds of their production methods, so environmentally beneficial standards cannot become the basis of trade policy.

To address local problems: transferring technology and reducing poverty may be the best way of promoting good environmental management in poorer countries.

To address state sovereignty: the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty's report, The Responsibility to Protect (, lays out the principles and conditions whereby this is subordinate to humanitarian causes. We can conclude that states have the same responsibility to protect their people from environmental threats as from military threats. If environmental problems affect many people, the international community should have the mandate to mediate solutions. This could have helped the 50,000 in Malaysia affected by Indonesia's forest fires in the 1990s.

We also need strong national legislation to ensure that the environmental costs of business are reflected in prices, and that trade policy supports production methods that absorb environmental costs.

Judging from the preliminary draft documents for Johannesburg, all we can expect is another declaration about the problems we face, coupled with grand, imprecise solutions. The problems were well articulated 30 years ago at the first UN environment summit; surely it is time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of summits in areas where diplomacy fails to promote environmental governance and devise appropriate new strategies.

Evan D. G. Fraser & Warren Mabee
The Liu Centre for the Study of Global Issues

-- Lilly
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