Global Earth-Care Efforts Escalate
Environmental calendar will be busy with legislative efforts and conferences
FOLLOWING 1990's Earth Day hoopla, the new year will be one of major maneuvering - and some key decisions - on the environment. In the United States, the focus will be on water resources, toxic waste management, endangered species, energy production and conservation, transportation-related pollution, and wilderness protection. Internationally, global warming, whaling, ozone depletion, and biodiversity are among the topics of intensified debate.
The underlying theme to all of these issues (and more) is how mankind treats the Earth on into the 21st century. Much of what happens will be with an eye toward the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (``ECO '92'') to be held in Brazil in mid-1992 - 20 years after the last major global environmental gathering.
From spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest of the US to depletion of third-world rain forests to cleaning up pollution-choked industrialized cities in Eastern Europe, the discussion centers on jobs and a better way of life for people versus protecting natural resources. Balance and harmony are the goals; debate and dissent are likely to mark the process as developed and developing economies assert their interests.
US energy strategy
The Persian Gulf crisis has renewed interest in US energy policy, specifically a growing reliance on imported oil. For 18 months, the Energy Department has been working on a national strategy. Proposals are now before the White House, and a draft plan is scheduled to be announced shortly. Among recommendations likely to relate to the environment: tax credits for increased oil and gas drilling, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as loosened restrictions on nuclear power plant construction.
``This will be something that environmental groups will strongly fight,'' says Bill Roberts, legislative director of the Environmental Defense Fund. Instead, environmentalists are pushing for stiffer auto-efficiency standards - which failed to pass by just three votes last year - and other ways to emphasize conservation over production.
``Improving fuel economy would address a myriad of environmental problems,'' argues the Sierra Club in its report on the 101st Congress. ``It would cut carbon dioxide emissions, which cause global warming, decrease air pollution, reduce the number of oil spills, and prevent the need to drill in environmentally sensitive areas.... It would also save consumers money at the gas pump and help reduce US dependence on foreign oil, thereby reducing our trade deficit.''
Related to this is the scheduled rewriting of the federal highway bill, which hasn't been amended since 1983. Uncle Sam spends $14.5 billion a year on highways, much of it on an interstate system begun in 1955 and now largely completed. Since transportation accounts for half the oil consumption and 25 percent of ``greenhouse gases'' in the United States, there will be a push to use some of that money to encourage such things as special lanes for high-occupancy vehicles.
After more than a year of legislative wrangling, Congress and the White House last year finally agreed on a new Clean Air Act (the first in 13 years) designed to reduce pollutants that cause acid rain and other atmospheric evils. This year, most provisions of the Clean Water Act expire. Billions of dollars have been spent on sewage treatment, but other problems - agricultural runoff and combined sewer overflows, for example - have yet to be adequately addressed.
The Enviromental Protection Agency's scientific advisory panel also recommends that the ecology of wetlands as wildlife habitat be considered in drafting a new Clean Water Bill, as well as protection of human health. ``Like the canary in the coal mine, fish and wildlife are often the harbinger of impact on humans,'' says Sharon Newsome of the National Wildlife Federation. ``And we don't look at this close enough.''
Just as important as the Clean Water Act (and with the potential for just as much controversy) will be the rewriting of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, scheduled to begin early this year. The act deals with hazardous and other solid waste, and Sen. Quentin Burdick (D) of North Dakota, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, intends to make it his top priority.
The problem, say environmentalists, is not just the obviously nasty toxic wastes like old batteries, but overflowing municipal garbage dumps. It is generally agreed that there are major loopholes in the existing law, such as inadequate design requirements for toxic landfills and hazardous waste incinerators.
``It's going to be a very complex bill,'' says Jean Brodshaugh, Senator Burdick's press secretary. ``It'll take at least a year to complete.''
Another major piece of legislation up for renewal is the Endangered Species Act. Under the law, decisions on whether to list an animal or plant as threatened or endangered must be based solely on environmental questions and not on what the economic impact might be.
Legislation is expected to be introduced early in the year, and according to one participant in the congressional process, ``various industries and economic interests are already organizing to make a run at putting economic concerns into the act.''
Around the world, ``it's going to be another big year on the environmental front,'' says Scott Hajost, an international law specialist formerly at the State Department and Environmental Protection Agency and now with the private Environmental Defense Fund.
The 24 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) will hold a ministerial meeting on economic and trade matters as they relate to the environment. The ``Group of Seven'' industrialized nations will conduct its regular economic summit in July, this time in London, and observers expect environmental issues to assume increasing importance.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) will meet in Reykjavik, Iceland. Japan, Norway, and Iceland want to overturn the international moratorium on commercial whaling passed by the IWC in 1985. Thousands of whales have been killed since then due to loopholes in the ban, such as allowing whale harvesting for ``research'' purposes.
In February, the US will host the first international session on a ``Framework Convention on Climate Change,'' a gathering which may see the United States and the Soviet Union - the two largest producers of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases - pitted against other countries urging faster remedies. ``This will be a major, major event,'' says Mr. Hajost. ``Probably one of the biggest treaty negotiations we've seen in years.''
Related to concern about global warming is the positive effect that forests have on greenhouse gases. There is as yet no international agreement on forests, but there are four areas of growing interest and activity that relate to global forest protection: climate change, protection of indigenous peoples, the importance of biodiversity, and international trade. This is expected to be one of the emerging issues to be dealt with at the UN's 1992 conference in Brazil, which will have its first preparatory meeting in Geneva in March. Biodiversity in the world's oceans - degradation of coral reefs and the impact of drift-netting, for example - is another subject of growing international concern.
In terms of who gets to sit at the table of international environmental debate and action, two potentially important developments are emerging. One is the role of ``NGOs'' (nongovernmental organizations) in an area where national sovereignty and property rights traditionally have taken precedence over private legal claims against adverse impact to the environment. Recent amendments to the European Economic Community Treaty of 1957 allow NGOs to proceed against EC countries in the European Court of Justice. Activists hope this is the beginning of a trend.
The other development is the increasing role of women in international forums. By some estimates, women make up 75 percent of grass-roots environmental activists around the world. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), together with governments and NGOs, is sponsoring the ``Global Assembly of Women and the Environment'' to be held in Miami in November. The meeting will bring together 500 women who have successfully developed programs, products, or technologies that benefit the environment.
The purpose of the gathering, explains UNEP Washington office chief Joan Martin-Brown, is ``to give status to women as environmental practitioners - to show governments they must involve both sides of the human race and at all levels of society.''