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Ways & Means

Alone in the World

Bush ends an era of environmental treaties

By Carl Pope

"Obviously, this is not Rio." United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s understated summation of the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development last year could serve as the epitaph of an era of global environmental summits–Stockholm, Nairobi, Rio, and Johannesburg. For the first time, the attending nations committed to no new summit–primarily because so little was accomplished in Johannesburg.

What caused the failure? Not the divisions between prosperous and poor, or environmentalists and business; not even the phenomenal complexity of protecting biodiversity or averting catastrophic global warming. None of these daunting challenges was really confronted, because long before delegates began to arrive in South Africa, the Bush administration had decided to use the summit to end the era of international environmental treaty-making.

"What are we going to do about the USA?" one delegate asked at the summer preconference in Bali. It was there that U.S. negotiators revealed that they were going to block any detailed language that would establish clear goals and timetables for improving the environment, whether the issue was water, forests, fisheries, or global warming. Instead, the United States proposed that voluntarism and partnerships between corporations and governments could do the job.

The rest of the world objected, and the Bali preconference failed to agree on a draft text for the summit. Bush had set a course aimed to ensure failure in Johannesburg, although the president himself did not attend the shipwreck. Secretary of State Colin Powell was dispatched to rescue what he could of America’s reputation–and was booed by delegates from around the globe.

The kindest interpretation of the new American approach is that the administration wanted to avoid the post-Rio embarrassment of signing environmental commitments it knew it would not keep. (The United States is, for example, in default on its 1992 pledge at Rio to stabilize greenhouse gases at 1999 levels.) This is in keeping with Bush’s unilateralism; if we are alone on top of the world, why make commitments to the international community? And Bush’s philosophy of corporate voluntarism can be seen as a global extension of the philosophy he first enunciated as a presidential candidate, that you can neither legislate nor litigate clean air and clean water. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, however, prove otherwise: They have been spectacularly successful in accomplishing their aims. The idea that vague corporate partnerships will prove more effective than this powerful legislation is not only incorrect, it is so demonstrably false that it is almost certainly insincere as well.

Among the casualties at Johannesburg was an international effort to restore fisheries. The decline of the world’s fish stocks is, next to global warming, probably the greatest problem afflicting our environmental commons. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that nearly 30 percent of the world’s marine fisheries are either overharvested or in actual collapse.

The exception to this dismal trend is the phenomenal recovery of the world’s whales. Blue whales, once thought doomed to extinction by overhunting, have rebounded. What yielded this amazing success? A corporate partnership? No, an international treaty, one with teeth, and one that has been vigorously championed by the United States. The International Whaling Commission remains controversial, but the issue isn’t its lack of effectiveness; no one questions that it has succeeded beyond its founders’ wildest dreams. Having restored whale populations, the commission is now being attacked for continuing to protect them from commercial harvest for ethical and moral reasons. The international body, as far as Japan, Norway, and Iceland are concerned, has been too effective.

Bush killed Johannesburg for a similar reason: not because treaties don’t work, but because they work too well. Shortly after the summit concluded, Australian scientists confirmed that chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere had begun to decline, and that the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic should close by 2050. At its most extensive, the 11-million-square-mile hole sent skin cancer risks soaring in Australia and threatened the entire oceanic food chain. In the 14 years since the Montreal Protocol banned most ozone depleters, a catastrophic global menace has begun to recede.

The Montreal Protocol served as the model for the Kyoto global-warming treaty, which Bush has also done his best to scuttle. Like Montreal, Kyoto is an enormously complex undertaking. It is also extremely controversial, because its goals and priorities are not universally shared. And, like Montreal, it would be messy and imperfect in practice. But the job would get done, if we kept at it.

The same cannot be said of voluntary programs to reduce greenhouse gases. Only a tough, legally binding international treaty could deal with rogue nations, outlaw companies, and the fierce pressures on nations and industries to choose short-term profits over long-run consequences.

Tellingly, the United States takes a much different approach to world trade–a global engagement that the administration does take seriously. The international trade agreements of which the administration approves have rules, penalties, and adjudication processes–there’s nothing voluntary about them. If we need a rule-based international trade order, why do we oppose a rule-based international environmental order?

John F. Kennedy once said, "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." The Bush administration appears to have turned that admonition on its head: It refuses to negotiate on environmental matters not from fear of its adversary, but from fear that the negotiations might succeed.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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