Even though President Clinton endorsed the broad themes of the report in a speech in New Zealand Wednesday, he knows as well as anyone that the U.S. is the worst offender — and that American democracy often cripples the nation’s ability to respond to environmental challenges. "Few politicians are going to spend an election year warning voters that they’re going to have to cut back on their consumption of gasoline," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. Even the limited cutbacks — when measured against the scale of the crisis — in greenhouse gas emissions envisaged in the landmark Kyoto accord signed in 1997 was rejected 95-0 by the Senate. After all, no legislator wants to tell his or her voters to get rid of their SUVs. "So instead of handling environmental problems, the White House is forced to spend its time figuring out how to handle Congress, where a large group of politicians is committed to parochial concerns in order to stay in office," says Dowell. "They’re sacrificing our future in the interests of staying in office in the present."
As Hurricane Floyd turns more than 2 million Americans into refugees and killer mosquitoes patrol the New York skies, we don’t need the U.N. to tell us something is seriously wrong with the environment. But the Geo2000 report released Wednesday by the U.N. Environmental Program has some bad news for anyone who believes they’re saving the planet simply by recycling their trash and voting for politicians who get dewy-eyed about nature: Much of the damage to the planet is irreversible; we’re under increasing threats of flooding, plagues, drought and famine; and — the hardest part of all — the only way to alleviate the unsustainable stress we’re putting on the planet is a dramatic reduction of consumption in the industrialized countries.