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- The Internationalization of Environmental Issues
- New Concepts in the Debate
- Climate Change
Environmental issues are concerned with human actions that affect the biosphere that humans and other species inhabit. Interest in the conservation of particular species, habitats, or landscapes, in particular localities or countries, dates back to the 19th century, but a concern with international environ-mental issues that transcend national boundaries may be dated back to the beginning of the 1970s. The European Conservation Year in 1970, the first Earth Day in 1970, and the United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, which initiated the UN Environmental Programme, raised and focused the level of awareness and interest. A number of institutional developments also took place around this time. The Environmental Protection Agency in the United States was established in 1970, as was the Department of the Environment in the United Kingdom. In the European Community, the 1972 Paris summit of heads of government called on the Commission to draw up an environmental policy and set up a directorate responsible for environ-mental protection. The Community published its first Environmental Action Programme in 1973. New nongovernmental organizations with a broader agenda than older conservationist bodies and with a greater reliance on methods of direct action were founded around this time, the most important being Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, both in 1971.
Why did this new interest in environmental issues emerge at this time? A more affluent and better educated society was becoming less interested in prosperity per se and more interested in a broader definition of the quality of life. Rachel Carson’s best-selling book Silent Spring published in 1962, which dealt with the effects of pesticide use on the countryside, raised public awareness of the fact that modern technology had costs as well as benefits. The fragility, vulnerability, and beauty of the Earth were emphasized by the first pictures of the planet taken from deep space in 1968. This initial period of the environmental debate was also influenced by a concern about world population growth and its impact on scarce natural resources. Incidents such as the mercury poisoning at Minamata Bay in Japan in 1959 showed that pollution could have serious public health consequences, a lesson reinforced at the end of the 1970s by the Love Canal incident in the United States where leaking toxic waste affected the health of children, among others.
This early phase of the environmental debate was characterized by a more integrated ecological approach to the problems being encountered, in which the ecosphere was conceived as a whole, with changes in one part of the system seen as having effects elsewhere. This approach was exemplified by the 1972 Club of Rome Limits to Growth report. The analysis carried out for this report by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) used computer modeling techniques to explore the relationships between a number of variables such as industrialization, resource depletion, pollution, food production, and population. Seen in retrospect, the results were far too pessimistic and highlight the dangers of projecting current trends into the future, but the report was highly influential at the time and encouraged consideration of the environment as an interacting system rather than just particular pollutants that had been the focus of earlier ad hoc policy interventions.
As policy measures developed, the debate became much more fragmented. It became focused on particular pieces of legislation concerned with various forms of pollution (air, water, and soil) and with habitats and biodiversity. One of the reasons for this fragmentation was that devising effective policy measures created a necessity for very specific policy expertise that was not readily transferable from one arena to another. An expert on river pollution might be of little help in tackling problems of marine pollution and certainly could not contribute very much to the debate on substratospheric air pollution. One risk associated with this more fragmented approach was an emphasis on legislative outputs rather than a focus on their likely impact on outcomes in terms of the state of the environment. The development of the climate change debate has given a central organizing narrative to environmental policy once again but perhaps at the expense of subordinating other aspects of environmental policy to this central goal. Thus, the protection of biodiversity may be viewed through the lens of the effects of climate change.
The Internationalization of Environmental Issues
Initial environmental policy responses were at a national or European Union (EU) level. It was evident that many environmental problems crossed national boundaries. Within Europe, examples included the pollution of major rivers that passed through a number of countries such as the Rhine or the effect of acid rain from British power stations on Norwegian forests. However, the problem of the thinning of the ozone layer could not be tackled at a regional level but required effective global collective action. By the 1980s, the threat from ozone-depleting chemicals was generally accepted. There was evidence of substantial thinning of the ozone layer in the polar regions. Associated risks included an increased incidence of skin cancer, crop failure, and a possible contribution to global warming. The 1985 Vienna Convention provided for controls on the production of ozone-depleting chemicals—chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs). The 1987 Montreal Protocol froze production of numerous substances believed to be responsible for ozone depletion, to be followed by a 50% reduction by the end of the century. The 1989 London Amendment agreed to phase out the most dangerous CFCs.
These agreements were an example of successful, effective global collective action to tackle an environmental problem, but there were a number of specific conditions that facilitated success. A single major cause of the problem was identified and accepted, which was not the case for climate change. This made it relatively easy to focus on what had to be done. Substitutes were available for the withdrawn products and were relatively inexpensive. Action did not require cuts in industrial production or economic growth.
New Concepts in the Debate
The debate on environmental issues was being driven increasingly by international reports and events, even if the required policies needed action at national and local levels, often supported by increasingly successful Green parties. A particularly influential report was produced by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development on Our Common Future, often referred to as the Brundtland Report after its chair. The report introduced the concept of “sustainable development,” which focused on intergenerational justice. It was defined as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It became a key defining objective of many environmental policies.
Another concept that became increasingly influential was that of the “precautionary principle.” This originally emerged in Germany as the Vorsorgeprinzip or principle of precaution. Although it initially had a number of definitions, it became increasingly influential in international discourse. The principle was first incorporated in an international treaty in the 1987 Montreal Protocol and was also reflected in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. At the center of the concept is the idea of taking anticipatory action in the absence of complete proof of harm when there is scientific uncertainty about causal links. The 1998 Wingspread Statement produced by a group of lawyers, scientists, and environmental activists summarizes the principle in this way: “When an activity raises threats to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some causes and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” A communication from the European Commission on the precautionary principle in 2001 emphasized that any measures based on it should be proportional to the chosen level of protection, nondiscriminatory in their application, and consistent with similar measures already taken.
The assumption that there was a zero-sum trade-off between environmental protection and economic growth was challenged by the concept of “ecological modernization.” Following the Brundtland Report, it was argued that a high level of environmental protection was essential to the success of a modern economy. Increasing energy efficiency, reducing pollution, and using waste products could boost the profits of firms and the success of the economy as a whole. The environmental technology industry could itself make an important contribution to economic success, particularly for the first companies to enter the market, as has happened in Germany with regard to solar technology. Politicians began to refer to the benefits of “green-collar” jobs. One consequence of this new school of thinking was less emphasis on “command and control” forms of environmental regulation and more emphasis on a range of “new environmental policy instruments,” such as eco audits, voluntary agreements, and labeling.
Climate change refers to the warming of the planet as the result of human-made greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, but also with significant impacts from gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and halocarbons. Considerable uncertainty attaches to the consequences of these changes in the atmosphere, but they are likely to include a rise in sea levels, changes in weather patterns, and more extreme weather events. There is a global distributional issue attached to climate change as those most likely to lose out as a result are poor low-lying countries that have low emissions themselves and countries in sub-Saharan Africa that may experience an increased incidence of drought, affecting their agriculture.
Devising an effective set of policy solutions to the challenge of climate change is difficult. One is dealing not only with considerable uncertainty but with future uncertainty. The problem is caused by everyone and affects everyone on the planet, so there is an evident public issue that needs to be tackled, but there are also collective action and free-rider problems. The scale of international cooperation required is unprecedented. Much of business was initially opposed to any action being taken, trying to argue that climate change was not occurring, or if it was, it was not caused by human agency. However, being a “climate change denier” has become a less tenable and respectable position, while emissions trading represents a policy approach to the problem that business generally finds acceptable. The 2006 Stern Report highlighted the economic costs of inaction. The United States refused to sign the 1997 Kyoto protocol, but both candidates in the 2008 presidential election supported action on climate change. Emerging countries such as China and India objected to having to reduce their emissions when the problem had been caused by countries that developed before them. However, even if an effective international agreement can be reached, greenhouse gas emissions result from billions of independent decisions by households and firms. The policy instruments available to governments, such as information, incentives, and regulations, may prove to be inadequate.
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