THIS June in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world will gather for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Referred to by environmentalists as the "Earth Summit," this meeting may set the agenda for international discussion of environmental issues well into the next century.
The human threat to the environment goes beyond localized pollution and even such broader, regional problems as acid rain. The steady expansion of human activities is destroying the habitat of innumerable species of plants and animals. The depletion of natural resources around the world threatens the natural systems central to the economies of many countries.
Another issue is the probability of global climate change from the so-called greenhouse effect. There is still no scientifically valid evidence of global warming. Nevertheless, scientists believe that the large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases released by the burning of fossil fuels and other activities will inevitably lead to warming as well as a range of other potentially harmful effects on climate.
These issues merit serious response. Unfortunately, the negotiations leading up to the Earth Summit have been characterized by squabbling among the major industrialized countries and unrealistic demands from the third world.
The chief issues are threefold: whether specific "targets and timetables" are needed for the reduction of greenhouse gases; whether "new and additional" funds must be made available for foreign aid; and whether poorer countries should gain access to environmentally beneficial technologies on a "preferential and noncommercial basis."
Public attention has primarily focused on the dispute between the United States and other industrialized countries over the need for specific reductions in CO2 emissions. Because of a number of factors, CO2 emissions in the US will probably stabilize at more-or-less current levels. Mandated cuts could nevertheless retard economic growth and affect competitiveness.
Meanwhile, some other industrialized countries could actually benefit from limits on CO2 emissions. In Europe, subsidies for the coal industry would be phased out; in Japan, there are unrealistic plans to expand nuclear power. At the same time, many poorer countries would find it nearly impossible to abide by similar restrictions.
It is also unlikely that the US and other industrialized countries will make much more foreign aid available anytime soon, even for environmental purposes. Weak economic conditions work against increased aid, and existing programs are already very costly. In addition, other priorities have arisen, such as the need to assist emerging democracies. With respect to sharing technology, the industrialized countries cannot give away technology which belongs to the private sector, although means could be devised
to facilitate its transfer.
Still, sufficient progress can be made prior to June for the Earth Summit to be a success. Concrete measures, however, will probably not be ready for approval. For this reason, it is important that the conference be viewed primarily as the beginning of a new dialogue that will lead to better international cooperation in the future.
The Bush administration is being charged with dragging its feet on UNCED, preventing further progress. Since the departure of former White House chief of staff John Sununu, however, the administration has been reviewing its policy toward climate and the other issues included in UNCED. Some additional flexibility by the administration would improve the chances that UNCED will be a success.
At this point, however, the stage has been set for last-minute concessions by the US that will neither truly benefit the world environment nor promote US interests.
Rather than allowing itself to be painted into the corner at UNCED, the administration should insist on some basic American values:
First, all nations are obliged to protect the environment, both inside and outside their borders, aided by the best scientific information. Second, economic expansion improves the quality of life and permits environmental issues to be addressed more effectively; sustained growth can only be based on free-market principles. Third, truly free markets are impossible without democratic institutions, and citizen participation is essential to protecting the environment. Finally, outside assistance without reci procal obligations only creates dependency and will not result in true progress anywhere.