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More UN Clout on Environment

OVER the 1990s, the real threats to our future will increasingly be recognized as environmental. Public awareness is already mounting. Polling done this year by Americans Talk Security found that 74 percent of the American public identified environmental problems as an extremely or very serious ``threat to our national security interests'' - behind only international drug trafficking, and far higher than armed conflicts in the Middle East. Just as with Iraqi aggression, the response to environmental problems must be multinational. It avails Earth's ozone layer little if Americans ban the use of chlorofluorocarbons but Britons and Brazilians generate more of them. Curtailing of ``greenhouse'' emissions by Europe and Japan will not avert global warming if emissions from the US or China increase. Preventing exhaustion of natural resources is near impossible if world population soars.

Unfortunately, institutions that can take action internationally on such problems are weak. Ironically, the American public appears to be ahead of the government in backing stronger international action. A 1989 Roper poll found that by a 2-to-1 margin Americans reject the notion that ``different countries have different priorities, and environmental problems should be handled on a country-by-country basis,'' and instead endorse giving the United Nations ``more power to deal with environmental problems on a worldwide basis.''

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In 1992 the UN will convene a landmark international conference on the environment and development. Although President Bush has wanted to be our ``environmental president,'' his administration has been divided on how to approach international environmental problems. He risks passing up an excellent opportunity to establish US leadership on these issues.

This conference will be the occasion for putting in place an institutional capability for dealing effectively with the formidable environmental challenges of the 21st century. Russell Peterson, an environmental official in the Nixon administration, has aptly described this conference as ``a kind of constitutional convention for the world environment.'' President Bush should announce his intention personally to present US proposals at the conference, and appoint a delegation chairman of cabinet rank. Congress should create a high-level expert advisory commission to monitor conference preparations.

While the administration has been hesitant, citizens have been active. A noteworthy initiative based on grass-roots town meetings around the country, organized by the United Nations Association of the United States and the Sierra Club, has just produced a report outlining the bold framework that Americans should want to see emerge from the 1992 conference. As a project adviser, I am convinced these citizen proposals warrant US and global support.

The key elements of a global environmental agenda involve the creation of national legal obligations for environmental action, the vesting in the UN Environment Program of responsibility for monitoring countries' fulfillment of these obligations, and the provision of adequate funding so that developing countries can attain their share of world environmental goals. Framework treaty conventions should spell out in internal law broad principles and commitments on climate change, transboundary responsibilities, and the environmental sustainability of development. Specific targets and standards will have to be hammered out over time - which is why an institutional framework by which nations negotiate those goals needs to be put in place now.

We also need to invest far more resources into protection of the planet than governments have yet been willing to provide. Some governments - most notably our own - have been reluctant to agree to funding environmental needs, especially where developing countries are concerned. But this is a cause our taxpayers are prepared to support. Since enactment of clean-air and clean-water legislation - among my proudest accomplishments in the US Senate - Americans are already enjoying substantial benefits in healthier lives, avoided medical costs, revitalized fishing grounds, and a halt to costly physical decay caused by pollution. At a fraction of the enormous sums we have sunk into our defense against military threats over the past four decades, we can insure our defense against dangers no less real and far more stubborn.

This is a policy of containment in which all the world can and must join. Through bold action now, the president can claim world leadership today, and stature in world history for many years to come.

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