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ENVIRONMENT: U.S. Back in the Fold?

Carole Brousse

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 23 2008 (IPS) - After nearly a decade of defiance by Washington toward international efforts to protect the environment, notably its disengagement from the Kyoto treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions, there are high hopes that the United States will soon play a leading role in addressing what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described as “the defining challenge of our era”.

If 2008 was the “the year of multiple crises… 2009 will be the year of climate change,” Ban told an end-of-year news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York on Dec. 17.

This sentiment appears to be shared by U.S. President-elect Barack Obama. In a 2007 article for Foreign Affairs, he called for a renewal of U.S. leadership in the world, specifically on climate change.

“I intend to rebuild the alliances, partnerships and institutions necessary to confront common threats and enhance common security,” Obama wrote. Such a rebuilding, he asserted, would be crucial to “defeat[ing] the epochal, man-made threat to the planet: climate change”.

Historically, the position of the United States on international environmental cooperation has been ambivalent.

In 1972, the U.S. contributed 40 percent of the 100 million dollars that created the U.N. Environment Programme. Washington also led the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the International Whaling Convention, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, and the Convention on Prevention of the Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter.

In the 1980s, the U.S. also boosted efforts to end use of chlorofluorocarbons and other chemicals that threaten Earth’s protective ozone stratum.

However, under the George W. Bush administration, critics say the U.S. has played a mostly obstructionist role, from rejecting the Kyoto Protocol to ignoring a conference in Bonn this year on biodiversity to undermining what many scientists and activists describe as the most successful environmental treaty ever created – the Montreal Protocol to save the ozone layer.

In an article last month titled “Reclaiming U.S. Leadership in Global Environmental Governance” published in the SAIS Review of International Affairs, Maria Ivanova and Daniel C. Esty wrote that “this dual-edged attitude toward international organisations has clearly diminished the U.S. leadership position and its ability to exert influence in the global environmental domain”.

Ivanova explained that the United States took the initiative because of bold political vision, but then later reduced its role because of the increased influence in the United States of industrial and corporate interests.

According to Ivanova, “When the U.S. led international environmental affairs, it did so because a group of individuals at high posts within the U.S. government ‘cared deeply about the environment’, as Russell Train, the head of the Council on Environmental Quality at the time [and later of the Environmental Protection Agency] said in an interview with me.”

“Economic interests were not well organised and lobbying by industry had not begun in earnest. Environmental groups were better organised than industry in the early days of the movement and managed to push through a lot of legislation, raise public awareness, and create a climate favorable to environmental action and leadership,” she said.

“In the last two decades, we have seen a very strong industrial lobby and a very receptive government, as well as a much more complacent public and environmental movement,” Ivanova told IPS.

The article concluded by urging the adoption of an “agenda for U.S. re-engagement”, noting that “the history of past success galvanizing the nation shows that the United States can and must take the lead.”

A coalition of environmental groups has been trying to position the United States again to take the lead on environmental matters, recently releasing an almost 400-page report, “Transition to green: leading the way to a healthy environment, a green economy and a sustainable future”.

The report offers the new administration a strategy for addressing global warming and contains detailed recommendations for each of the key federal agencies that deal with environmental issues.

According to the report, there are three major actions that the new administration should take to restore U.S. leadership on global warming: set mandatory limits on emissions of green house gases, agree to a new climate treaty at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference that keeps further warming from going above 2 degrees F, and lead an effort to finance clean energy and to reduce deforestation.

“The United States has to push forward with cap and trade legislation, assure that domestic growth is based on a green jobs strategy, restore American leadership in global warming by reengaging in negotiations, make climate change a core of our international engagements beginning with China, and invest in activities supporting our national adoption of strict standards,” Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defence Council, told IPS

Schmidt has also stressed that U.S. efforts cannot simply be focused on the United States. “What the United States needs to do must be a part of a global solution,” by “putting forward a strong agreement in Copenhagen and a sizable amount of money to help developing countries take action” to combat global warming, he explained.

At his end of year news conference, Ban echoed this view. He said that “success will require extraordinary leadership. The United States under its new president-elect, Barack Obama, promises bold new leadership. I myself will continue to push the pace and galvanise political will.”

Ban said he planned to convene a climate change summit at the 64th General Assembly next fall.

Edward Gresser, director of the Trade and Global Markets Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, and Jan Mazurek, director of PPI’s Center for Clean Technology, recently wrote a “memo to the next president” suggesting the creation of a Global Environmental Organisation (GEO).

“We need to have an institution or organisation ongoing and monitoring the agreements, able to arbitrate disputes, able to deal with cases of non-compliance,” Gresser told IPS.

Although the United States would undoubtedly have significant influence, Gresser stressed that there would be “a legal presumption of equality [among] countries that are parties of an agreement”.

Many observers, both within and outside the U.N. system, have argued that the world body’s environmental institutions are relatively weak, and the myriad challenges – of biodiversity loss, water pollution, climate change and others – can only be effectively tackled by the creation of a new GEO – hopefully with a specific leadership role for the United States.

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