To Save the Earth From Human Ruin, Enact New World Laws of Geo-Ecology

<i> Charles William Maynes is the editor of Foreign Policy magazine</i>

When Ronald Reagan met Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Geneva for their first summit meeting, the President expressed a view that was publicly ridiculed though it contained an element of truth: Reagan suggested to Gorbachev that despite the longstanding enmity between the Soviet Union and the United States, both nations would quickly become allies if they faced a common enemy from Mars.

This summer, as temperatures soared, the population abruptly woke up to the phenomenon of global warming--the result of excessive use of fossil fuels like coal and oil leading to a gradual buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a steady warming of the climate. In August, both the United States and the Soviet Union had to close large sections of their polluted coastlines. The disposal of industrial waste was increasingly seen as a major problem for both societies.

Suddenly, it became possible to ask whether the two superpowers did not, in fact, have a common enemy--not from outer space but from worldwide patterns of development that might be making the planet progressively uninhabitable.

The environmental challenge poses special problems for the international community. Massive military power seems somewhat beside the point if the problem is acid rain or polluted oceans or a secure site for toxic waste. Solution of such problems requires a degree of international cooperation seldom achieved among sovereign states. Nations will have to break new ground in terms of strengthening relevant international institutions, restricting the traditional demands of the state and respecting new forms of international law.


Because so many major environmental problems seem to be surfacing at once, the next Administration, whether led by George Bush or Michael S. Dukakis, might be the first in U.S. history forced to take the diplomacy of geo-ecology as seriously as the diplomacy of geopolitics or geo-economics. If so, major changes may have to take place in American attitudes toward government and diplomacy.

For the last decade, administrations in Washington have tried to reduce the role of government in people’s lives. Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan denigrated the ability of the federal government to cope with national problems. To Carter, the government in Washington was “a horrible bureaucratic mess,” not to be granted major new responsibilities. To Reagan, government has never been the solution but always the problem.

Neither Bush nor Dukakis adopts such positions. Each extols the virtues of public service. This is a hopeful sign because if it turns out that the globe does indeed face a common threat of warming, the United States and other nations will almost certainly enter a period of government activism unlike any seen since the New Deal. For the world’s major environmental problems cannot be solved by leaving the solution to the invisible hand of the market place.

Acting according to the dictates of the free market alone, man will continue burning coal and oil regardless of the climate problems, as long as using these fuels is profitable. In search of fuel or wood, man will continue cutting down the tropical rain forests, which cover only 7% of the earth’s land surface but harbor at least 40% of all species. At this moment, for profit, loggers are cutting down the towering spruce trees in the Tongass National Forest, one of the world’s few temperate-zone rain forests, covering much of Alaska’s southern panhandle.


Yet the short-term profits from these timber operations will be dwarfed by the long-run environmental consequences. In April, 1987, several U.S. conservation groups and the Academy of Sciences in the Soviet Union launched a joint project to prevent further loss of tropical rain forests. They contend that up to 1 billion people will starve if the forests continue to disappear. For three quarters of all species exist in the tropics; and many improvements in temperate zone agriculture depend on genetic material developed from tropical sources. For that reason, even though the rain forests will come down by the logic of the free market, they should be protected according to the logic of geo-ecology. A prominent British politician, Shirley Williams, has even proposed that the developed North pay the underdeveloped South “rent for those environmental resources they do not wish to see destroyed.”

Dealing with the problem of global warming will also require new levels of superpower cooperation and government intervention. The Soviet Union and the United States now account for nearly 40% of the carbon dioxide levels from fossil fuels that appear to be threatening the climate. Like the pioneering September, 1987, international agreement to regulate the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons, any solution will require government controls. In the case of the 1987 agreement, there is a freeze on annual CFC consumption at 1986 levels in 1990, a requirement for a 20% reduction in July, 1993, and a further 30% cutback beginning in July, 1998.

Time may be short. As the Worldwatch Institute points out in its 1988 State of the World, four years ago the prospect of an actual global warming from the so-called greenhouse effect seemed remote. Today it seems at hand.

In 1983, Worldwatch hesitated to report as environmentally significant that some 8% of West German forests had suffered damage from air pollution and acid rain. Today more than half of West German forests suffer this damage. In Poland, chemical contamination has left only 1% of the water safe for drinking. And despite fears about global warming, world coal use continues to grow at a rate of 2.5% a year, led by China, the Soviet Union and the United States. The International Energy Agency estimates a 32% increase in coal-fired generating capacity among its member countries by the year 2000.


In short, the next Administration may confront the most ambitious environmental agenda in the nation’s or the globe’s history. It is still too early to rush into action. We still do not have reliable global figures on emissions of the most dangerous pollutants--sulfur, nitrogen and hydrocarbons. But we already know enough to recognize having entered a new era in the globe’s history.

Preconceived ideas will have to be abandoned. Entrenched interests will have to be confronted. And an unprecedented degree of domestic intervention and international cooperation will be necessary. Perhaps when Reagan’s successor meets Gorbachev, they can agree that there is a common enemy after all--not one from outer space but in our own behavior, which it is necessary but painful to change.