1992 Earth Summit Revisited

Illustration by João Fazenda

In her look back at last week’s events in Glasgow, Elizabeth Kolbert comments in Running Out of Time at the U.N. Climate Conference that we were set up for this moment at the first such event nearly three decades earlier:

To really appreciate America’s fecklessness, you have to go back to the meeting that preceded all the bad COPs—the so-called Earth Summit, in 1992.

For those inclined to see them, there were plenty of bad omens last week as the latest round of international climate negotiations—cop26—got under way in Glasgow. A storm that lashed England with eighty-mile-per-hour winds disrupted train service from London to Scotland, leaving many delegates scrambling to find a way to get to the meeting. Just as the conclave began, Glasgow’s garbage workers went on strike, and rubbish piled up in the streets. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in his opening speech, compared the world’s situation to that of James Bond, who often finds himself “strapped to a doomsday device, desperately trying to work out which colored wire to pull to turn it off, while a red digital clock ticks down remorselessly to a detonation that will end human life as we know it.” As one commentator pointed out, in his latest movie—spoiler alert!—Bond ends up dead.

Joe Biden’s performance in Glasgow, too, was inauspicious. In his formal remarks to cop26, the President declared that the United States was “back at the table” and “hopefully leading by the power of our example.” Later that day, Biden was undercut by Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, who announced that he wasn’t quite sure he could support the $1.75-trillion spending package on which Biden’s claims rested. The timing was, as the A.P. noted, “unfortunate.” In separate, unscripted remarks in Glasgow, Biden circled back, acknowledging that the U.S. is not leading by example—or, really, leading at all. “I guess I shouldn’t apologize, but I do apologize for the fact the United States, in the last Administration, pulled out of the Paris accords,” he said, referring to the set of climate agreements negotiated at cop21, in 2015. He added, by way of understatement, that this has “put us sort of behind the eight ball.”

cop26 is a sequel to cop21, which was an attempt to recover from the mess of cop15, held in Copenhagen in 2009. To really appreciate America’s fecklessness, however, you have to go all the way back to the conference that preceded all these bad cops—the so-called Earth Summit, in 1992. At that meeting, in Rio de Janeiro, President George H. W. Bush signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which committed the world to preventing “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” At the United States’ insistence, the convention included no timetable or specific targets for action…

Read the whole commentary here.

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