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CFC Fund Decision Showed Flaws in US Policymaking

IT is said that a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. If that is true, then the architects of the Bush administration's widely-publicized decision to oppose the creation of a $100 million fund to help developing nations reduce or avoid dependency on the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are indeed cynics. Fortunately, and to its credit, the administration reversed this decision a week ago. But the way in which the original decision was made and then reversed highlights a serious flaw in the administration's international environmental policy formulation process. This flaw, which puts politics and ideology ahead of serious national interest in protecting the earth's environment, once again reinforced doubts about United States capacity for leadership in environmental diplomacy.

The backdrop to this near debacle was the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Signed by 24 nations and the European Community, the treaty commits signatories to 50 percent reductions in CFC emissions by the year 1998. (CFCs destroy the ozone layer and contribute significantly to global warming.) The parties to the protocol are meeting in London this week to formalize agreement on the fund and a complete phaseout of CFCs by the year 2000.

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For the treaty to be effective, the signers recognized that developing nations - whose projected increases in CFC emissions as they industrialize would more than offset any decreases in developed countries - would need to adopt more expensive, non-ozone-destroying substitutes. The treaty provides for assistance to the developing countries for this purpose, a concept the administration has in the past repeatedly endorsed.

Nonetheless, at the 11th hour on May 9 in Geneva the administration reversed course, announcing its opposition to the fund and abandoning commitments made earlier. And for no sound reason. The cost to the US of the CFC fund is modest: between $25 million and $75 million over three years, or between $8 million and $25 million per year. Against this must be measured the human suffering and associated medical costs of skin cancer, and the dire consequences of global warming. On a dollar for dollar basis, the money the fund required is one of the best investments we as a nation can make.

The damaging effects this decision had on the US's environmental diplomacy should not be underestimated. The May decision called into question the US's reliability as a negotiating partner on existing and future treaties and triggered consternation among the signatories to the Montreal protocol. Lobbying by US friends and allies to reverse the position was intense.

The initial decision to oppose the CFC fund illustrates a basic flaw in the way the administration has approached international environmental issues. What we have seen is the dominance of political voices, emanating from the White House staff and the Office of Management and Budget, over the environmental policy experts in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of State. Even the welcome reversal of the US position reflects this allocation of priorities: It was released as a statement by the White House Chief of Staff. The message is clear: The president's top environmental experts are to be kept out of the process.

In other areas, such as climate change, the White House has consistently called for more study on causes and consequences, whereas scientists have now reached a consensus that climate change is likely if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced. Once again, US policy positions are being dictated not by the experts, but by political tacticians in the White House.

As we enter the last decade of the 20th century, protection of the global environment - as in the case of the CFC fund - will be one of the principal goals of international diplomacy. Looking beyond the CFC issue, we can expect to see new, highly technical agreements on such concerns as climate change and protection of biological diversity. Negotiations on these subjects will require the cooperation of all nations to reach a consensus based on the best scientific evidence.

In his campaign, President Bush promised to be ``the environmental president.'' With the growing international consensus that action must be taken to protect the environment, he can only fulfill that promise by moving beyond the confines of our national borders. Success in environmental leadership will increasingly be measured by global efforts to protect our earth. The president must put his top environmental policy advisers in charge of our participation in that process.

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