Keynote Address to The Commission on Sustainable Development - United Nations
Keynote Address
Vice-President Al Gore
The Commission on Sustainable Development
United Nations
New York, NY
June 14, 1993

It is an honor to be here with you at an event of such importance to all of our countries -- and to countries whose representatives are not in this room.

It is a year since Rio. And while we usually focus on the ideas expressed during the official proceedings of the Earth Summit, I remember a lot more. For the great riches of human creativity were on full display in Rio: that giant "tree of life" decorated with messages written in crayon on paper leaves from children around the world; representatives of indigenous peoples like the Kayapao, Yanomami, Inuit and Penan presenting impassioned defenses of the endangered remnants of wilderness within which their ancient cultures are struggling to survive. Scientists displayed startlingly beautiful computer images of every square inch of the earth -- as seen from space. Artists crafted spectacular sculptures, paintings, music, graphics and films. And they all seemed more alike than different: the indigenous person and the artist, the scientist and the child, the tourist and the diplomat. All seemed to share a deeper understanding -- a recognition that we are all part of something much larger than ourselves, a family related only distantly by blood but intimately by commitment to each other's common future.

And so it is today. We are from different parts of the globe. My words are being translated into many different languages. Over the next few days we will need to resolve some significant differences. But we are united by a common premise: that human activities are needlessly causing grave and perhaps irreparable damage to the global environment. The dangers are clear to all of us.

The earth's forests are being destroyed at the rate of one football field's worth every second. An enormous hole is opening in the ozone layer, reducing the earth's ability to protect life from deadly ultraviolet radiation. Living species die at such an unprecedented rate that more than half may disappear within our lifetimes. More and more chemical wastes seep down to poison groundwater -- and up to destroy the atmosphere's delicate balance. Degradation of land, forests and fresh water -- individually and synergistically - - play critical roles in international instability. Huge quantities of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases dumped in the atmosphere trap heat, and raise global temperatures. You know this. Our shared sense of urgency has brought us here, today. Would that everyone saw things the same way. They don't.

A few weeks ago, Harvard Professor Edward Wilson, writing in the New York Times, summarized the notions of those who have a different view. "Population growth? Good for the economy -- so let it run. Land shortages? Try fusion energy to power the desalting of sea water, then reclaim the world's deserts ... by towing icebergs to coastal pipelines.... "Species going extinct? Not to worry," the skeptics say. "That is nature's way. Think of humankind as only the latest in a long line of exterminating agents in geological time. Resources? The planet has more than enough resources to last indefinitely."

Wilson called this group the "exemptionalists" because they hold that humans are so transcendent in intelligence and spirit that they have been exempted "from the iron laws of ecology that bind all other species."

The human race is not exempt. The laws of ecology bind us, too. We made a commitment at Rio to change our course.

We made a commitment to reject the counsel of those who would continue along the road to extermination. And if there was any doubt about the support of the United States for that commitment let me lay it to rest.

This administration not only supports that commitment -- we intend to join with all those determined to demonstrate real leadership. Don't take my word for it. Listen to the words of President Clinton commemorating Earth Day.

"Unless we act, and act now," the President said, "we face a future where our planet will be home to nine billion people ... but its capacity to support and sustain our lives will be very much diminished. "Unless we act, we face the extension of untold numbers of species that might save ... our very lives. Unless we act now, we face a future in which the sun may scorch us, not warm us ... and where our children's children will inherit a planet far less hospitable than the world in which we came of age."

President Clinton mentioned the critical importance of the Biodiversity Treaty emerging from Rio -- and announced the United States would now sign that treaty. And so we did, on June 4th. He mentioned the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and committed the United States to reducing emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000 -- a major change for my country. The President announced a series of executive orders that will transform our government into a leader in pollution prevention and energy efficiency -- for if we ask for changes in everyone else's house shouldn't we get our own house -- the Federal Government of the United States -- in order?

And this afternoon -- I am pleased to tell you -- we will announce one of the many fruits of this new attention to the environment from the United States: the President's Council on Sustainable Development. This 25-member council will build a new partnership among representatives from industry, government, and environmental groups. It will develop new approaches to integrating economic and environmental policies. President Clinton will formally establish the Council in a ceremony at the White House this afternoon. By the end of this year the Council will have contributed to the U.S. Sustainable Development Action Plan. That plan will then be reported to you.

We believe in this mission. We are committed to making it work.

But of course, what we have done so far is only a beginning. We cannot overestimate the difficulties that lie ahead. In fact, from the vast array of problems about which it is possible to be pessimistic, let me mention two.

First, population growth. It is sobering to realize what is happening to the world's population in the course of our lifetimes. From the beginning of the human species until the end of World War II, when I was born, it took more than 10,000 generations to reach a world population of a little more than 2 billion. But in just the past 45 years, it has gone from a little over 2 billion to 5 1/2 billion. And if I live another 45 years, it will be 9 or 10 billion.

The changes brought about by this explosion are not for the distant future. This is not only a problem for our grandchildren. The problems are already here. Soil erosion. The loss of vegetative cover. Extinction. Desertification. Famine. The garbage crisis.

The population explosion, accompanied by wholesale changes in technology, affects every aspect of our lives, in every part of the globe. Now, sometimes, developing countries feel the population argument is one made by wealthy countries who want to clamp down on their ability to grow.

Let me answer that. Sometimes the developing countries are right. So I say this to citizens of the developed nations: we have a disproportionate impact on the global environment. We have less than a quarter of the world's population -- but we use three quarters of the world's raw materials and create three quarters of all solid waste.

One way to put it is this: a child born in the United States will have 30 times more impact on the earth's environment during his or her lifetime than a child born in India. The affluent of the world have a responsibility to deal with their disproportionate impact. But population growth affects everyone. By the year 2000, 31 low-income countries will be unable to feed their people using their own land.

At the Second Preparatory Committee Meeting for the International Conference on Population and Development, the United States pledged its commitment to help promote international consensus around the goal of stabilizing world population growth. We called for a comprehensive approach built around three areas: the environment, development -- and the rights and needs of women. Is population growth only a problem of birth control? Of course not. Paradoxically, reducing infant mortality is important as well. Several decades ago, Julius Nyerere put this matter cogently: "The most powerful contraceptive is the confidence by parents that their children will survive." More recently, a doctor in India put the matter a slightly different way, as he explained the success of programs in Kerala that have dramatically reduced birth rates. "The most enduring contraception is female education," he said. "Women realize they have a conscious choice and that hopes and dreams for their children are not unrealistic."

Slowing population growth is in the deepest self-interest of all governments. It is a responsibility for rich and poor countries alike. Rapid population growth is only one of the causes of a profound transformation in the relationship between human civilization and the ecological system of the earth. The emergence of extremely powerful new technologies which magnify the impact each of us can have on the global environment has also played an important role. Most significant of all, many people now think about our relationship to the earth in ways that assume we don't have to concern ourselves with the consequences of our actions -- as if the global environment will forever be impervious to the rapidly mounting insults to its integrity and balance. But the evidence of deterioration is all around us.

Take, for example, the threat to our supply of fresh water. There is a lot of water on earth. But there isn't very much fresh water -- only about 2.5% of all water on earth is fresh and most of that is locked away as ice, say, in Antarctica, or Greenland, or other areas.

Furthermore, much of that water is used inefficiently. It also may be polluted by toxics, and human waste. Meanwhile, by the year 2000, 18 of the 22 largest metropolitan areas in the world -- those with more than 10 million people -- will be in developing countries. By 2025, 60 percent of the world's population will live in cities -- that's more than 5 billion people. They will urgently need fresh water and water sanitation. And not just to drink. Water affects industrial development. It is the medium necessary for heat exchange, processing and transport. It affects the world's ability to produce food; 76% of global water use is agricultural. A significant change in the availability of fresh water supply can trigger massive human migrations. Because we know how precious drinkable water is, our ways of supplying it have become justly celebrated as triumphs of human ingenuity, whether the first irrigation networks along the Nile, to the monumental system of tunnels that bring water to this city so you could brush your teeth in the hotel room this morning. We will need all our ingenuity to prevent that supply from drying up. Rapid growth itself is a threat to our supply of fresh water, whether in Mexico City where the water level of the main aquifer drops as much as eleven feet a year, or in any of the approximately 80 countries which already suffer from serious water shortages.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization estimates that contaminated water causes at least 25 million deaths in developing nations each year. Hundreds of millions more suffer from debilitating water-borne diseases. In fact, about 80 percent of all diseases and over one third of all deaths in developing countries are caused by the consumption of contaminated water. More than 3 million infants die each year from diarrhea alone, due to contaminated drinking water and inadequate sanitation. What is the reason for the great popular indifference to these crises?

I sometimes like to remind people of the old science experiment involving a frog. Put the frog into a pot of boiling water and it jumps right out. It recognizes the danger. But put the same frog into a pot of lukewarm water and bring it slowly to a boil. It'll just sit there until it is rescued (I've learned over the years that it's important to rescue the frog in the middle of the story). The point of this story is that when the process of change seems gradual we have trouble recognizing it. From day to day, the lives of most of us seem not to change all that much. It is only when we lift our gaze beyond the next few days or years that we see the truth.

Similarly, even though our worldwide civilization confronts an unprecedented global environmental crisis, we can go from day to day without confronting the rapid change now underway. We must recognize the extent to which we are damaging the global environment, and we must develop new ways to work together to foster economic progress without environmental destruction. How do we do it?

Let me dispose of a few myths.