More Than Words: Fulfilling Global Environmental Agreements

By Stephen D'Esposito; Bode, Thilo | Harvard International Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

More Than Words: Fulfilling Global Environmental Agreements

Stephen D'Esposito, Bode, Thilo, Harvard International Review

IN RECENT YEARS, environmentalists have popularized the catch phrase "think globally, act locally" in order to encourage local action addressing global environmental problems. Starting from the premise that small-scale efforts collectively make a significant impact, they have advocated such measures as suburban tree-planting to reduce global warming and community recycling to conserve resources and alleviate waste disposal problems. While these local efforts are important, local action alone cannot solve our collective environmental problems: action on a global level is even more critical.

Environmental issues have moved to the top of the international agenda and play an increasingly significant role in international relations. Discussion on the environment, however, is not equivalent to action, and international negotiations and agreements to date have been characterized by evasion rather than resolution of the most challenging issues. Insufficient international action, for example, has emerged from government commitments made at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit or from ongoing UN-sponsored negotiations to limit carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in industrialized countries--despite wide-spread recognition that CO2 emissions have a potentially catastrophic impact on climate change. To successfully cope with the pressing environmental problems now faced, citizens, activists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), corporations, and especially governments must move beyond discussion and take concrete action.

Today the over-consumption of renewable resources presents the greatest risk. Two decades ago, environmentalists thought that the depletion of oil reserves was the fundamental problem arising from the overuse of fossil fuels to power our energy and transportation infrastructure. But it is now clear that the greater challenge stems from global warming, a result of the massive amounts of CO2 produced through the burning of fossil fuels. In addition, irrational and excessive consumption of renewable resources is leading to the devastating loss of biodiversity in our forests, wetlands, and seas. We are almost literally biting off the hand that feeds us.

Human consumption levels and patterns are wasteful and unsustainable. Greater efficiency and technological improvements will help us combat global warming and resource depletion, but they will not be enough to fully resolve these problems. Unrestrained growth will destroy life support systems such as our atmosphere and the biological diversity of eco-systems, as it has already begun to do. For too many years government policies and environmentalist campaigns focused on coping with environmental damage rather than striking at the root cause, our own excessive growth and consumption. This focus led to many successes but did not create the underlying changes necessary to address our worst environmental problems. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio underscored the need for more international action, but in the years following the Summit, insufficient progress has occurred.

Transcending National Interest

The effects of our consumption and waste seldom recognize the sovereignty of nations. Most environmental problems, such as ozone depletion or the loss of tropical rainforests, neither start nor stop at national borders. National governments, even those with the best of intentions, will find that domestic measures undertaken without international commitment have limited global results. International measures to counter environmental problems, however, seldom win the acceptance of multiple states because they often require action that appears contrary to the economic or political interests of national governments. Benevolence alone has rarely moved governments to pursue policies they see as jeopardizing their interests or those of powerful economic actors within their countries.

International negotiations and agreements; then, must be based upon the acceptance of a fundamental principle: though preserving the environment will in the end result in a net gain, there will be both winners and losers during the process. …

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More Than Words: Fulfilling Global Environmental Agreements


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