By Donella Meadows
–May 17, 1990–
Last week in Geneva the United States positioned itself for the fourth time in six months as an international pariah by refusing to go along with a global environmental agreement. The issue this time was a fund to help Third World nations adopt measures to restore the ozone layer. The Bush administration refused to support the fund.
This refusal is ignoble three times over: 1) It abandons leadership on ozone policy, an arena where the U.S. was in the forefront throughout the Reagan years. 2) It is ungenerous where generosity would be inexpensive, easy, and even to our own benefit. 3) It interrupts one of the best-news stories of our time, the process by which the world’s nations are trying to avert a severe environmental threat before it actually happens. The ozone negotiations have been one of the few signs that the human race might be collectively rational enough to ensure its own future on Planet Earth. Now the United States is acting as spoiler.
We humans have moved pretty fast, for us, on the ozone problem. In 1974 scientists predicted that manmade chemicals called CFCs could deplete the stratospheric ozone layer. In 1978 the U.S. was the first nation to ban the use of CFCs in aerosol sprays (followed by Canada and Scandinavia, but not the rest of Europe or Japan or the USSR). But the use of CFCs went soaring up for other purposes: for blowing bubbles in plastic foam, for refrigerants, for cleaning electronic circuit boards.
In 1985 scientists reported a drastic loss of ozone over Antarctica. By 1987 proof that CFCs cause this ozone hole was established beyond all doubt. In that same year the world’s major CFC-producing nations (including the USSR, Japan, and Europe) signed the Montreal Protocol, agreeing to cut production by 50 percent by 1998. The U.S. State Department was a prime mover in attaining that historic agreement.
Many people worry, however, that the Montreal Protocol does not go far enough. A 50 percent cut will allow CFCs to go on increasing in the atmosphere for a century or more, more than doubling their current level. The resultant thinning of the ozone layer will allow damaging ultraviolet light to reach the earth. That could produce not only an epidemic of skin cancers and eye diseases, but also the destruction of green plants and the devastation of life in the oceans. Given that scenario, it makes simple sense to use some other chemicals for our air conditioners and plastic foam.
In 1989 both the United States and the European Community again led the world by stating their intention to stop CFC production and use altogether. Du Pont, which produces 25 percent of the world’s CFCs, announced it would discontinue their manufacture. Now the problem is to convince other parts of the world to follow suit. India’s CFC use has been increasing at 30 percent per year. China is planning to supply 200 million households with refrigerators. Those two nations alone could undo the CFC reductions of the rest of the world. The ozone layer they would destroy stretches indiscriminately over us all.
Hence the recent meeting in Geneva, a preparation for a formal worldwide strengthening of the Montreal Protocol.
The Third World nations are playing their own ignoble role in the negotiations. They have discovered the power of environmental blackmail. We’ll go on poisoning the planet unless you buy us off. You rich countries have created most of the pollution; we demand the right to do the same so we can develop too. If you don’t like that, pay up.
It’s not an attitude that should be rewarded; but the price is cheap, and the Third World honestly needs the money. Substitute chemicals will be more expensive. Current production plants will have to be retooled, equipment replaced, workers retrained. Investment is needed to reduce the Third World’s particularly wasteful CFC use (from bad manufacturing, poor maintenance, harsh environmental conditions, and inadequate insulation).
The international fund for these purposes, which the Bush administration opposes, has been set at $100 million a year (much of which will be paid promptly to Du Pont for CFC substitutes). The U.S. share would be $15-$20 million — the amount our government spends in 10 minutes; one ten-thousandth of the deficit; about 10 cents per American; or alternatively two cents out of every dollar of the excise tax our government has imposed on the CFC industry.
Environment ministers around the world found it “totally unacceptable” that we would scuttle a crucial international agreement for this paltry sum. A U.S. official at the meeting called it “a major embarrassment” for the United States.
In the last six months the foresighted environmental leadership that was promised and practiced by the government of this country has disappeared. If you want to know where it went, you can listen to the gossip and theories from Washington. Personally I don’t care where it went. I just want it back.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990