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United Nations Confronts ‘Bleak’ Future at Environmental Summit

By Kenneth R. Weiss

Although President Bush is a very notable no-show, more than 100 presidents and prime ministers and even a sprinkling of kings will join a cast of thousands at a U.N. summit opening here Monday on how to sustain the Earth.

“By and large, the picture is bleak,” Nitin Desai, secretary-general of what is being called the World Summit on Sustainable Development, said in an interview. “So the main point of this summit is action, not on all fronts, but in critical areas where we need a quantum change.”

Instead of waiting for all nations to sign a treaty before setting to work, U.N. officials are nudging clusters of governments, businesses and citizens groups to forge partnerships to get moving on a specific problem or in one region -- and hoping the momentum builds.

Many of these partnerships, it is anticipated, will focus on helping the nearly 3 billion people who live in poverty gain access to clean water, proper sanitation and energy -- much of it from renewable sources such as solar and wind or from alternative fuels derived from sugar cane or corn. Other partnerships are expected to tackle pollution in the developed world that is contributing to global warming and posing other threats to the environment, to endangered species and to human health.

“We are trying to change the way people act,” Desai said Sunday, briefing an auditorium packed with journalists from around the world.

He and other leaders acknowledged that won’t be easy. But they said that the 104 heads of state and other national leaders have committed to the summit, creating a “critical mass” of world leadership to get things done.

“Even though President Bush won’t be here, the conference will be just as successful,” said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa’s foreign minister.

Bush announced last week that he would not attend the summit and was dispatching Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to lead the U.S. delegation, but only during the final days of the nearly two-week gathering. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Todd Whitman will join the delegation with other administration officials.

To soften criticism of its go-it-alone policy on the summit, the Bush administration does plan to announce an additional $4.5 billion in programs to assist developing nations deal with shortages of water, energy and food, and to preserve forests in the Congo Basin.

Meeting with foreign journalists last week, Paula Dobriansky, the State Department’s undersecretary for global affairs, downplayed the environmental focus of the Johannesburg summit. She characterized it as more of an economic forum, a continuation of the administration’s efforts at a trade gathering in Doha, Qatar, last fall and a development summit in March in Monterrey, Mexico. In Monterrey, the United States promised $5 billion to developing countries that adopt sound economic policies and attack corruption.