THE long hot summer in the Eastern United States and the drought in the Middle West have awakened concerns that the global climate may be permanently changing. Some suggest that ``the greenhouse effect,'' caused by an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, may already be here. If so, it is doubtful that governments and their diplomats are yet ready to deal with the resulting problems. Spurred by environmentalists and concerned governments, some international action has already been taken. In 1985, more than 40 nations agreed to a Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer. In 1987, 34 nations, including the US, meeting in Montreal, signed a protocol calling for the reduction from 35 to 50 percent in the emissions of an offending class of substances, chlorofluorocarbons, by the end of the century.
The depletion of tropical forests represents another threat, both to a vital resource and to the forests' beneficial effects on the global climate. In 1986, 42 nations, including both rain forest countries and the principal users of the hardwoods, organized the International Tropic Timber Organization to discuss ways to reduce the loss of the forests, now estimated at 30 million acres a year.
In January, agreement to cooperate on the protection of the ozone was incorporated in a US-Soviet scientific cooperation agreement. (The two superpowers are responsible for 45 percent of fossil fuel emissions.) In June the US and the Soviet Union were among nations represented at a conference in Toronto called to seek ways to reduce fossil-fuel use.
Such meetings, however, represent only tentative steps toward the resolution of what could ultimately be a catastrophic world problem. The issues decisionmakers and diplomats must consider in facing a deterioration in the global climate are complex, forbidding, and urgent.
The causes lie in actions by millions of individuals around the world that they see as vital to their health and welfare, unlike traditional questions of war and peace that rest with decisions of individual governments and their leaders.
The issues are inherently domestic and will inevitably result in conflicts between governments seeking to cooperate on a global scale and internal private interests that feel threatened by the necessary measures. The difficulty the US faces in balancing relations with Canada and the industrial interests responsible for acid rain is an example.
The potential costs of corrective measures could be enormous. A New York Times article in June commented in discussing the greenhouse effect that ``some economists are predicting that it will eventually cost tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars a year to cut down the gaseous emissions that are thought to be raising the surface temperature of the planet.''
The alternatives to fossil fuels are themselves controversial. The most obvious alternative is nuclear power, but in the post-Chernobyl period, many communities, especially in the US, strongly oppose an extension of nuclear power.
Despite advances in regional and international cooperation, in an era when global decisions must be made through nation-states, actions that involve the whole earth will be difficult to take. The richer nations of the North will seek to place restrictions on the poorer nations of the South that could obstruct development. The poorer nations will feel that because climate deterioration is caused largely by the excesses of the richer nations, those nations should pay the bill.
The internal decisionmaking in a nation-state will involve more actors than traditional foreign policymaking. As in the case of trade and foreign aid, bureaucratic leadership is likely to fall to those competent in the technical aspects but less prepared to deal with the international relations involved.
Finally, the ability of governments to deal with the issues will be complicated because scientists do not yet agree on the degree of danger. This gives to those opposing the individual sacrifices that may be necessary the argument that one should not proceed on massive changes in our habits if the scientists do not agree on the need.
Much that has been written on the greenhouse effect in recent years suggests that, whether or not the current climatic conditions in the US represent its arrival, the prospects of future threats to the global environment are real. The argument over whether or not ``greenhouse'' has arrived becomes irrelevant. Governments and diplomats should prepare now to deal with this new foreign affairs agenda.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.