Can society act fast enough to save the environment? Until now, society has reacted to existing ecological crises. But that approach won't solve long-term problems, experts warn. To head them off, solutions must be found now.
Society must change its approach to environmental issues to keep up with worldwide changes, environmentalists warn. ``Things are happening so fast to the environment. The question is whether our institutions, political processes, and values can shift quickly enough,'' says Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute, a global environmental research and policy group.
As an example of this need, environmentalists point to predictions of an accelerated greenhouse effect - global warming - caused by the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
(Scientists say EPA should focus on stopping new pollution, Page 6.)
No one knows whether or not the greenhouse effect caused the heat wave and drought in the United States this summer. But models constructed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) predict that if current energy-use and production trends continue, temperatures worldwide will rise 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2030. To postpone the effects to 2075, lawmakers need to start thinking now about how to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, the institute says.
``It could take four more years to develop a political consensus, then it may take three or four to enact legislation,'' says Irving Mintzer of WRI. Experts' estimates of how long it would take to carry out such legislation varied from 20 to 50 years.
``Societies have to cross a certain threshold of awareness and concern about an issue before there can be an effective political response,'' Worldwatch's Mr. Brown says.
It is not easy to pin down what pushes societies to that threshold. Some historians and analysts say that, in the past, people seemed to react strongly to perceived or real crises they thought would affect them directly - such as toxic waste dumps - as opposed to ``creeping problems,'' like acid rain.
``One of the things we know about attentive publics is that when they personalize or identify with the risks, it's then that they are moved to act,'' says Daryl Chubin, senior analyst for the Office of Technology Assessment of the United States Congress.
In the 1960s and '70s, environmentalists rallied around highly visible mini-crises such as oil spills and toxic waste that oozed up into people's backyards.
``Our method of doing environmental protection really has depended on a crisis mentality,'' says Robert Rycroft, director of George Washington University's program in Science, Technology, and Public policy.
Partly because of the environmental movement's success and an increase in research being done on the environment, problems today tend to be more subtle but also potentially more damaging, analysts say. The potential impacts of acid rain, global warming, and ozone depletion stretch out over several generations. The recent stir over the greenhouse effect was triggered by the unusual heat and the drought in the US this summer. Two bills have been introduced in the US Congress to cut carbon dioxide emissions. One calls for a 20 percent reduction by 2000, the other calls for a 50 percent reduction.
The sponsors realize both these figures may be unrealistic. But no one interviewed for this article thought public concern was deep enough to pressure lawmakers to enact costly proposals at this time.
``The whole notion of crisis is a short-term orientation that worked in the past to environmentalists' advantage. But I'm not sure it does anymore,'' Dr. Rycroft says. ``Sometimes the problems stretch out too long to be able to show real crisis.''
Crisis-type language hasn't disappeared. But parties to environmental disputes are depending increasingly on scientific research to support their positions.
``That means [environmental groups] are having to do a little more of their own research, a better job of analyzing other people's research, a better job of talking about risks,'' Rycroft says.
The plodding pace at which scientific consensus emerges, and the often subdued effect it has on the general public and political institutions, may be no match for the rapid deterioration of ``spaceship earth,'' say some science policy specialists in their gloomier moments.
But they also are quick to cite change.
Recently, public interest in the environment and even in environmental science seems to be on the rise.
In a New York Times/CBS poll taken in July, 65 percent of Americans polled agreed that ``protecting the environment is so important that requirements and standards cannot be too high, and continuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of costs.''
Although positive responses have been increasing since the question was first asked in 1981, pollsters warn that this does not necessarily translate into public willingness to actually bear the costs of higher environmental standards.
Contributions to environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council are up this summer.
The Worldwatch Institute has sold more of its annual ``State of the World'' reports than ever before.
It is also selling record numbers of its more technical reports, a possible indication that more people are interested in the nitty-gritty aspects of environmental policies designed, not just for crisis-patching, but for the long term, Brown says.
``The question in the '70s was always how to implement our ideals. We really stopped worrying about it in the Reagan administration,'' says Dorothy Nelkin, a visiting professor at New York University and author of several books on science and society. ``Things might change in a few years.''
Report says EPA must adapt
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must change its approach and concentrate on early detection and prevention, scientists say.
In a report released Monday, more than 40 scientists said the EPA's focus on cleaning up known pollution is inadequate to cope with modern environmental problems.
The scientists call for an early warning system for environmental problems, a research institute funded by EPA but operated independently, doubling the EPA's research budget, and making the top EPA research and development post a civil service position.
The report was commissioned by the agency.