So what if the summit is all talk, no action

August 23, 2002

As politicians head for Johannesburg, Chris Bunting starts our four-page special on sustainability by looking at how the summit will bring together more scientific experts and policy-makers than ever before

If the politicians eventually leave the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (August 26-September 4) without having listened to the advice of the world's science and technology communities, it won't have been for lack of the opportunity to listen. More trees have been felled to publish more reports synthesising the work of more scientists working on sustainability and more hours have been spent in more committee rooms knocking out that message than in the preparations for any previous global conference.

At the summit itself, an official "Science Forum" running concurrently with the main summit programme and within the summit's main precinct will explain the work of hundreds of scientists to delegates and members of other pressure groups.

According to Gisbert Glaser, senior adviser in science and sustainable development at the International Council for Science, one of the bodies chosen by the United Nations to coordinate the scientific input into the conference, the effort has been unprecedented.

He said: "In the past, the process of getting the scientific voice into these conferences has been much more informal and ad hoc. The big universities in the West, have, of course, had their say, not least through their national governments, but other voices have tended to be drowned out.

"What the process leading up to the present conference has done is to reach out through thousands of scientists worldwide to try to get a much wider set of views heard."

That process of consultation came to a climax at a meeting in Bali in June when the Third World Academy of Sciences, the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues and the International Social Science Council came together to thrash out a joint position paper presenting the science and technology community's main priorities for the summit. It has also produced ten thematic reports on specific sustainability issues. Other bodies, such as the Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability, based at Harvard University, have independently been producing their own summaries of scientific opinion in the run-up to Johannesburg.

For some, the profusion of acronyms, "prepcoms" and "stakeholder dialogues" have been too much. One prominent ecologist The THES talked to described the consultations as a "bureaucratic morass".

Others questioned the usefulness of inviting hundreds of scientists to a forum at the same time as the summit: "You might ask whether a better time would be to have it before the summit, so they can influence what is decided by the policy-makers. You might see it as just a bit of ceremony."

But William Clark, professor of international science, public policy and human development at Harvard, says this type of grumbling misses the main point of the work being done. While he believes inspired leadership from politicians would be a desirable outcome from Johannesburg, he says the networking of scientists that has been prompted by the summit is an important end in itself.

"The communities of scientists and technologists, while very conscious of the summit and the window of opportunity it opens for getting the message of sustainability across, do not in general see the summit as the be-all-and-end-all of getting progress in this area. Getting attention and larger strategic movement is the objective and the summit is one among multiple mechanisms for achieving that," he says.

"Since Rio, we have seen that a huge amount of the work that has been done on sustainability has been done at a local level under Agenda 21. So much of the action has been from people working at a local or regional scale, but we didn't have a device for getting the thousands of scientists who have been doing the work to talk to each other and get their voices heard throughout the scientific community.

"The political issue has already been framed. In general terms, we are no longer going to these meetings needing to convince the policy-makers that there is a problem. Almost every government, even my own, wants to address these issues. The focus now is on solutions and to get those solutions we need to get scientists at all levels and in all countries mobilised behind this work."

Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Third World Academy of Sciences, puts it more bluntly. "I don't know whether any really concrete decision will be made by the heads of government. They are just talking about this stupid document. It is weak. They will be talking about trivialities. What is important is not to influence these decisions, but to interact with the politicians and advisers and start to engage them in very specific issues in their own countries."

Hassan points out that the main recommendation to come out of the International Council for Science's consultation process was a demand for increased scientific capacity to deal with sustainable development issues, not just in rich developed countries but in the poor South. He wants major institutions in the developed world to link up with their counterparts in the South to help develop this capacity.

"The bottom line is that the problem won't be solved if it is not driven from within countries. The people sitting in the North don't know the situation in the South and many institutions in the South have not listened to those inside their own countries. Without that influence and know-how, the problems everybody will be talking about at Johannesburg simply will not be addressed."

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