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Joahannesburg Summit 2002
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Earth Day Marked by Calls for Stronger Environmental Leadership

New York, 22 April– The heat wave that engulfed New York the week before had snapped, and a cold rain fell as a group of celebrities, politicians, activists and business leaders marked the 32nd Earth Day in a soggy tent outside the United Nations.

But the rain was a welcome intrusion at a time of continuing drought on the east coast of North America, and the consensus of the Earth Day ceremony participants was that the rain was a good omen. "Where I come from," Johannesburg Summit Secretary-General Nitin Desai said, "rain on a holiday or a special event is considered an auspicious sign of promise."

Beyond good luck, however, there were calls for strong leadership to make the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which will take place in Johannesburg this August, an event that mobilizes action to protect the environment and improve the quality of life for everyone.

More than just aiming to improve environmental policies and programmes, Desai stressed that it was time to take the environmental agenda beyond environmental ministries and make environmental considerations part of every decision. "We have to inject this into everyone's agenda."

Desai added that sustainable development was not just for governments, and that a broader community, including business, must be part of the solution.

But the main worry of most of the Earth Day ceremony participants was that government involvement and political leadership will be weak in Johannesburg, and there were numerous calls on world leaders to commit now to attending the Summit. At present, only a few leaders including United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, have publicly announced that they will go to Johannesburg.

"The Johannesburg Summit is a great opportunity and a great risk," according to Kathleen Rogers, President of the Earth Day Network. "The risk is that nothing will happen."

United States Congressman Christopher Shays, Republican from Connecticut, said that the Summit "could be a turning point," and that it could have a sizeable impact, but warned, "that won't happen unless our world leaders participate." He said, "They won't attend unless the Summit addresses specific issues, but ironically, you can't address those issues if they don't come." Shays said that he has met with President Bush, urging him to attend, and that there will be a large US Congressional delegation to the Summit.

Actress Susan Sarandon said that efforts to protect the environment have been suffocated by a lack of leadership, and progress during the '80s and '90s "has been stalled in the name of economic growth-some may call it greed." Calling on world leaders to show leadership in Johannesburg, she added, "We will not tolerate indifference, and we will not allow only a handful of people to manipulate and preordain the outcome of the Summit."

Joe Pantoliano, a star of the television show "The Sopranos," added, "We need politicians to do their job, to quit stalling, and to get with the programme to make Johannesburg a smashing success."

Denis Hayes, the leader of the first Earth Day in 1970, said the environmental movement was "arguably the most effective and accomplished social movement in this country." Adding that "we breathe, eat, and drink the environment," he said the right to a safe and healthy environment was now an American value. Present trends, he said, are not sustainable, and to export the lifestyles of rich countries to poorer nations also, "we will need five more planets."

There were business leaders as well. Joan Bavaria, President of Trillium Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm, said that Wall Street was still dominated by "earnings vigilantes" who were powerfully aligned "against our interests," but she said there was success in prompting companies to distribute environmental reports. "We try to appeal to the best instincts of corporations."

A Starbucks executive said that the company was committed to sustainable coffee production and distribution, and a Toyota manager said that its hybrid car, the Prius-a combination electric and gasoline-powered car-was 80 per cent cleaner than the average vehicle.

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24 August 2006