WASHINGTON -- Forget the politics and mud-slinging of the Earth Summit: Will it work? Or will it all just dissolve into hot air and paper planes?
That's the vexing question environmentalists are asking, even as President Bush and most other leaders of the world gather in a cloud of acrimony and recrimination in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, today to sign a pair of treaties aimed at reining in humankind's decimation of the Earth's plant and animal kingdoms and destruction of the atmosphere.
Judging by the uneven records of participating countries in some of the 170-odd international environmental agreements that the United States has endorsed or been involved with over the years, environmentalists say it is likely that some countries will backslide -- or simply give up -- on the undertakings they now seem so willing to make.
Take the case of Guyana and the worldwide trade in endangered species.
Dependant on wildlife trade for a significant part of its export revenues, the steamy South American republic is a major player in the global wildlife business.
Yet it has only one official -- an overworked veterinarian -- to ensure compliance with the international convention, known as CITES, that restricts trade in endangered species, says Ginette Hemley, director of the World Wildlife Fund's program monitoring wildlife traffic.
What's more, she says, the solitary scientist who was supposed to keep the world body informed about the welfare of Guyana's wildlife died three years ago and has not been replaced.
Guyana may be an extreme, but more than half the 114 nations participating in CITES lack sufficient laws to implement the convention, Ms. Hemley says.
The problem extends beyond the Third World: Until Italy bowed to international pressure and introduced legislation six months ago, it had no restrictions on wildlife trade, and as a result was probably Europe's biggest importer of fur and feathers -- alive or dead.
The European Community itself, which has supported CITES since it began in 1975, still has a back door open to wildlife traffic, through French Guiana, an "overseas department" of France in South America and a major conduit for smuggled plants and animals from the Amazon.
Even Norway, generally regarded as a paragon of environmental virtue, is likely to fall short of meeting its commitments to 10 or 12 of the 27 major international agreements to which it is a party, according to Bellona, a Norwegian environmental group.
Multinational agreements usually suffer from two overarching limitations, a lack of enforcement authority and a shortage of administrative funding, says Hilary F. French of the Worldwatch Institute, a specialist on international environmental governance.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, as the Earth Summit is known formally, "has in some ways shown up the limitations inherent in drawing up treaties on the basis of consensus," she says. In trying to satisfy the conflicting interests of 150 or more nations, treaties tend to get watered down.
The Rio treaty on biodiversity, for instance, is littered with qualifying phrases and indefinite words that bind nations "as far as possible" to "endeavor" to achieve goals and to "strive," "support" and "promote" aims.
About all that seems definite in the treaty is a stipulation that poorer nations be given control of the means of funding projects to protect species -- a primary reason for the U.S. administration's refusal to support the treaty.
"The day of the open checkbook is over," commented Mr. Bush as he left Washington for the conference yesterday.
A General Accounting Office study of eight international
environmental agreements concluded in January that the agreements generally were not well monitored and that the monitoring secretariats usually lacked authority to ensure compliance with the agreements.
"In many cases we simply couldn't tell whether there was compliance because many of the countries simply were not reporting [to the secretariats]," said Bernice Steinhardt of the GAO.
International laws and institutions must be given far more teeth if the world is to effectively tackle today's environmental problems, says Worldwatch's Ms. French.
"Treaties certainly aren't worthless, by any means. Imperfect they may have been, but they have made a difference," she adds, pointing to the U.S.-European decision to ban ivory sales, sharply reducing the market for elephant poachers.
One important improvement in the treaty process in Rio, she said, was the commitment to set up a "Sustainable Development Commission" next year along the lines of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which would be open to private environmental groups and which would oversee compliance with the biodiversity and climate change treaties.
This body, she predicted, would go a long way toward pressuring nations into compliance, although she acknowledged that many poorer countries might simply not have the resources to meet their commitments anyway.
"Nations are in effect pooling their sovereignty at the international level, and beginning to create a new system of international environmental governance as means of solving otherwise unmanageable problems," Ms. French wrote in a recent Worldwatch publication.
The U.S. administration, meanwhile, is spitting mad for being singled out as the Grinch of Rio -- especially by its rivals, Germany and Japan.
"This conference is just writhing with hypocrisy," said a senior administration official yesterday.
The real fireworks, he predicted, could start after those who sign the treaties gather again in a year or two to write the fine print and work out the funding.
Even after that, much will depend on the financial abilities, or willingness, of individual countries to stay in step with their commitments.