Governments slow to
Environmental laws often enacted only in face of clear danger
By Colin Woodward
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
WASHINGTON, Nov. 28 It
is illegal to test nuclear weapons on Pluto. Or Venus or Saturn,
for that matter. And Chile, Uruguay, and the Philippines have
been under legal obligation since 1981 to protect the moons
environment from the adverse effects of those countries
nonexistent activities there. Such is the state of environmental
protection in space.
BACK ON EARTH, its a different story. There are plenty of
interests at stake economic, social, and strategic
so governments have tended to protect the environment only when
they see a clear and present danger. Take the climate change
conference in Kyoto, Japan, where the worlds environment
ministers tried to set binding targets for cuts in greenhouse-gas
emissions. Governments met because, over the past two decades,
scientists have come to a consensus that human activities are
altering the worlds climate and may result in major
disruptions, such as unusual weather patterns and a rise in sea
Ten years ago, large holes in the
ozone layer were discovered and governments agreed to a phased
global ban on the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) thought largely
responsible. Twenty years ago, concern about the possible
extinction of elephants, rhinos, and other creatures led to a
1979 ban on international trade in ivory, rhino horns, and other
animal and plant products.
NEW BODY OF
the growth in awareness of global environmental problems, such
agreements are appearing in greater frequency, slowly creating an
international body of laws for the protection of the environment
comparable to those previously negotiated to prevent warfare. The
environmental movement started by looking at local problems and
soon evolved to national, transboundary, and now global-scale
issues, says Eileen Claussen, former assistant secretary of
state for science and the environment. Now, environmental
ministers worldwide are increasingly teaming up on important
issues to get senior decision-makers in their governments to take
If successful, Kyoto will result in
the latest in a series of international environmental treaties
negotiated since the turn of the century. The increasing pace and
scope of such agreements indicates an important shift in
international cooperation, from a focus on issues of war and
peace to the preservation of the planet itself.
and enforcing international agreements have always been tricky.
Unlike national laws, there is no world government to enforce
compliance or punish cheaters. Useful agreements require all
parties to have a stake in their smooth operation. Thus the
earliest treaties tended to focus on security concerns or
improving uses of shared resources.
When the valuable North Pacific seal
trade was in danger of following the seals into extinction, the
four countries involved Britain, the US, Russia, and Japan
spent 25 years negotiating a successful 1911 treaty to
manage the resource. The US and Canada came to a similar accord
in 1916 to protect migratory birds prized by hunters in both
Two world wars and one Great
Depression later, the focus was still on managing the commercial
harvest of an animal species this time whales. The major
whale-hunting nations agreed in 1946 to form a management body,
the International Whaling Commission (IWC), to ensure the
long-term health of the industry.
was essentially a users club to protect the users,
says Oran Young, director of the Institute for International
Environmental Governance at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.
But with the rise of the environmental movement in the
1970s, nonwhaling countries took over the commission and began
passing moratoriums on the hunting of many species.
Now the IWC is in danger of falling
apart, because Iceland, Norway, Japan, and other whaling states
have quit or ceased to comply fully with its preservation-minded
The 1959 Antarctic Treaty has held
together, but largely because of the shared security interests of
the chief signatories. The landmark treaty which made the
continent a global commons whose environment was to be shared and
protected by all was negotiated because overlapping
territorial claims of several nations threatened to lead to
Those territorial claims still exist,
which gives signatories a compelling reason to uphold the treaty
despite increasing pressures to open the continent to industrial
fishing, mining, and other potentially damaging activities. The
states are now trying to collectively regulate Antarctic tourism,
which has grown large enough to threaten the fragile ecology.
NEW LAWS IN
by the growing environmental movement, the 1970s saw an explosion
in international agreements to mitigate pollution and protect
particular species. Concern had started focusing more on
what we put into the environment, rather than just what we take
out, Young says.
The US and Europe pushed multilateral
agreements on marine pollution, wetlands conservation,
transboundary pollution, polar bears, nuclear weapons, and trade
in endangered species like lions, elephants, and rhinos.
Nongovernmental organizations began playing an increasingly
important role in formulating policies.
But it wasnt until after
satellite images revealed holes in the ozone layer that protects
the earth from ultraviolet radiation that governments first
negotiated a binding, global agreement to address an
environmental concern. First at a Vienna meeting, then in the
legally binding 1979 Montreal Protocol, governments agreed to a
phased ban on the production of CFCs and other ozone-depleting
Montreal Protocol gave people a whole new perspective on what is
possible in environmental protection, says Claussen, who
helped negotiate the agreement. Heres
a place where governments got together and moved to deal with a
shared problem in a pretty short period of time. It spurred a lot
of additional efforts.
One such effort was the 1992 UN
Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro,
which focused attention on worldwide environmental problems.
Governments made nonbinding pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas
emissions and promote sustainable development policies to
integrate economic and environmental goals.
The core documents laid out a
comprehensive framework for development practices in the next
century, from recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples to the
protection and management of forests and rivers. But the summit
set few mandated targets or timetables for action.
years after Rio, many countries have failed to meet their pledged
goals. By developing a comprehensive framework agreement
for some of these complex issues, governments started focusing on
problems they might not have otherwise, says David Downes,
senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law
in Washington. Some areas have gotten more attention than
others, however. Mr. Downes points to the contrast between
climate change and the preservation of biological diversity
two areas considered sufficiently important at Rio that
specific treaty conventions were drafted to address each problem.
Biodiversity has received far less attention, despite a growing
consensus that species are becoming extinct at a pace 100 times
as high as the natural rate.
Were literally standing on
the edge of the end of biological history, and our institutions
are not prepared to cope with it, Oxford Universitys
Sir Robert May told a meeting of biodiversity experts last month
is that? Sources say primarily because scientists have yet to
reach a focused, international consensus on the scale and likely
impact on humanity of the rapid extinction of plant and animal
species. Ozone protection and climate change both benefited from
the emergence of such a clear scientific consensus that focused
public concern and prompted nations to take action.
Agreements at Kyoto could reap
important benefits for biodiversity while protecting the climate,
according to Howard Ris, executive director of the Union of
Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass. Planners are discussing
the possibility that developed countries could earn credits
toward their treaty reductions in carbon emissions by financing
the reforestation of tropical forests, which naturally store
Setting aside forests could
serve both issues if its done right, Ris says. In
theory, you can save habitat and mitigate climate change at the