Politics & Policy

Earth Sense in The Balance

Is President Bush prepared to Make Al Gore's vision a reality?

This week, Bush-administration officials are meeting in Vienna to discuss a United Nations plan to globalize environmental regulation. Dubbed the “Strategic Approach to Global Management of Chemicals” or SAICM, the program is anything but strategic.

SAICM would attempt to regulate basically all substances in commerce–manmade and natural–and would attempt to manage all the world’s solid and hazardous waste. And in time, it could easily spill into other areas–air and water.

If you read the documents published by SAICM negotiators, you might think you are reading Al Gore’s 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, in which he proposed making the environment the “central organizing principle for civilization.” In the chapter titled “A Global Marshall Plan,” Gore outlines a utopian vision for a “Strategic Environment Initiative” through which world regulators could effectively “discourage and phase out” supposedly “inappropriate technologies and the same time develop and disseminate a new generation of environmentally benign substitutes.”

This sounds an awful lot like SAICM’s “Global Action Plan.” Among 288 “concrete measures” proposed in SAICM’s plan are intentions to “restrict availability” of “highly toxic pesticides;” substitute “highly toxic pesticides;” “promote substitution of hazardous chemicals;” “regulate the availability, distribution and use of pesticides;” “halt the sale of and recall products” that pose “unacceptable risks;” “eliminate the use” of certain “hazardous chemicals;” and so on.

Such policies would be pushed by an international chemicals bureaucracy and implemented by “stakeholders”–government, industry, and nongovernmental organizations. Somehow we are supposed to believe that these parties know better than the rest of us–the actors in the world marketplace who must live with the consequences of such decisions.

While SAICM negotiators don’t want to acknowledge it, many products are valuable because they are toxic and even “highly toxic.” These properties provide important advantages, and their risks can be managed. Pesticides, for example, should be highly toxic to the vermin they are supposed to kill, while having little impact on humans when used properly. Chlorine is caustic and dangerous if misused–and for that we can thank its Creator. Indeed, chlorine’s potent properties will be crucial in helping control the spread of deadly pathogens in the hurricane-torn regions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

These states face risks that are all-to-common in poor nations–risks of cholera, dysentery, and other deadly water-borne diseases. The only difference is, the United States has access to disinfectants and many poor communities around the world don’t.

In 1991, residents of Peru and surrounding nations learned about the dire impacts of following the advice of regulators who suggested reduced chlorine use because of alleged risks associated with the chemical. According to the scientific literature on the topic, inadequate chlorination was a key factor in a cholera epidemic that started in Peru and spread throughout the hemisphere, leading to about a million cases of cholera and thousands of deaths.

If the United Nations truly wants to do something to improve the human environment around the globe, it would not spend any time or money empowering regulators to make more such horrific mistakes. Instead, it would be working on policies to promote much needed economic development.

Most of the world’s serious environmental problems are the effects of poverty in developing nations. On the top of the list according to a 2001 World Bank study-”Environment Strategy Papers: Healthy and Environment”–is inadequate sanitation. This is something that only economic growth can address through improved infrastructure and increased access to chemical disinfectants–such as chlorine.

Next on the list of problems is limited access to modern energy sources–including such things as electricity and fossil fuels. Lacking such amenities means that rural poor around the world rely on burning biomass fuels (such as cow dung) in their homes as an energy source. Resulting pollution leads to an estimated 1.7 million deaths annually associated with respiratory illnesses.

And as international bureaucrats at the United Nations lament the potential that someone might consume trace levels of chemicals found in plastic packaging, the absence of such sanitary packaging and refrigeration in developing nations kills tens of thousands every year.

The solution is not more regulation–but less. Indeed, these nations are least able to afford such regulatory burdens. Economic freedom and resulting growth would do far more to improve the human condition. Indeed, the authors of a World Bank report document the fact that pollution and environmental problems decline as gross domestic product increases.

While the Bush administration has not officially endorsed SAICM, it does appear to be silently following along. In August, the administration held a public meeting in Washington at which officials basically outlined SAICM’s progression.

Perhaps the administration’s excuse is that it needs a “seat at the table” to influence the outcome of any SAICM policies. But that’s just plain dumb. Bush did not go along with the creation of a global court to get a seat on the bench. Bush knew that any involvement with that global bureaucracy spelled disaster for Americans. Hence he deflated the entire initiative by publicly withdrawing all U.S. involvement.

It’s time he did the same with SAICM and any other green globalony coming from the United Nations. After all, human-well-being should the central organizing principle for civilization.

Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.


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