As scientific evidence mounts that global warming is real, an international conference to address it has collapsed in The Hague amid finger-pointing, much of it aimed at the United States.
A new US president with a self-proclaimed pro-business bias is set to take office. Some of his toughest choices will be on environmental policy and will require balancing short- and long-term interests. Few will be clear-cut.
Businesses would sacrifice the environment for profits; environmentalists would sacrifice profits for the environment. Business managers live in the short term: The price of their stocks today or next week is the basis on which their performance is judged. They did not choose that measure; their investors did. If you want altruistic companies, find altruistic investors.
Environmentalists have the luxury of being able to take a longer view that factors in the interrelatedness of nature. To help keep future healthcare costs down, don't pollute the air people breathe. It saves money in the long run.
Business tends to look at corporate cost and corporate investment; environmentalists tend to look at social costs and social investment. At least in this respect, workers tend to think like their bosses. Auto workers, like the auto industry, are dead set against requiring better gas mileage in automobiles.
The conflict is more intense in developing nations, where it has become a foreign-policy problem for the US. The US is the biggest single source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (the major cause of global warming), but developing nations, as a whole, emit more. To the people of these countries, it looks like US and Europe have ridden pollution to economic prosperity and are now trying to prevent the third world from doing the same thing.
New Delhi, one of the world's most polluted cities, was recently the scene of riots by workers protesting court orders to clean up factories. The factories in question employ an average of 11 workers each, but there are 90,000 such factories and they provide a living to 1 million Indians plus their families.
China is projected to have as many as 170 million cars by 2020. (There were 130 million cars registered in the US in 1997.) Fueling third-world cars will increase global oil consumption from 76 million barrels a day to 115 million barrels by 2020.
Brazil, the economic power of South America, is allowing Amazon forests to be destroyed. This provides more land and thus more food today, but future sustainability is still a question.
Resources are being consumed as never before to provide the good life for residents of the industrialized world and to allow residents of the third world to aspire to the good life. However much oil and gas may remain to be discovered, the total quantity is finite. So is the more easily measurable quantity of land and fresh water. Substitutes may be found for oil and gas. Seawater can be desalted.
Land can be improved with water, which is itself becoming scarcer; some land can even be made by landfills, but at an environmental cost.
Limiting urban sprawl saves open space (environmentally desirable), but may also limit the supply of affordable housing (socially undesirable).
Millions of people in places such as Arizona and southern California are using water faster than nature is replenishing it. What happens if they run out?
California is threatened with rolling blackouts, or worse, because use of electricity exceeds supply. This coincides with serious talk about removing generating dams in the Pacific Northwest to make it easier for salmon to reach their spawning grounds. If we let Californians burn more lights, we have fewer salmon for people to eat.
Certain toxic chemicals - DDT, for example - are harmful, but kill disease-carrying mosquitoes. Taking land out of grazing improves the land, but reduces the food supply.
At the bottom of all these dilemmas is population growth. Fewer people would mean having to make fewer of the choices that are not easy for anybody. But that genie is out of the bottle.
Pat M. Holt writes on foreign affairs.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society