Roundtable
We're All Environmentalists Now ... Right?
Eileen Claussen
Round One - September 13, 2000

It is not an exaggeration to say that some of the greatest challenges of the next hundred years will involve the atmosphere, the oceans, and the land on which we live. And the solutions will not come easily or cheaply. No matter who is elected President of the United States this November, and no matter which party controls the next Congress, these are issues that will not go away. Dealing with them in ways that make both economic and environmental sense will be a large part of our country's agenda over the next century. So it is not too early to begin the debate on how they can best be addressed -- even in this year's presidential campaign.

What should our environmental priorities be? I see two issues that demand our focused and sustained attention: global climate change and the loss of biodiversity, both on our lands and in our oceans.

Most of the world's best scientists now believe that the earth is warming, and that a changing climate will have serious consequences for the United States and other countries. Rising sea levels will stress coastal communities that are already facing erosion, periodic storm damage, and pressures from development. We can expect both more droughts and more floods. The warming of the earth and ocean will almost certainly negatively affect our ecosystems, and even our health. And many developing countries are more vulnerable than the U.S. to the adverse impacts of climate change and less able to adapt.

The global nature of these impacts, together with the fact that countries throughout the world have played a part in bringing them about, means a global response is the only way to avert a possible disaster. But we have yet to see evidence that sustainable international and national regimes for mitigating climate change can get off the ground. Globally, we must work to further develop and refine our existing international agreements. Nationally, we must put in place serious programs to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions, and isolate those that we do emit. The striking success of our economy over the past decade -- even as emissions have remained relatively flat -- suggests that we can be leaders on this issue. And the fact that we emit far more greenhouse gases than any other country makes it clear that we must be leaders.

Species are disappearing from the earth at an alarming rate. Sadly, this is happening just as we are beginning to recognize and value biodiversity not merely for its own sake but also because of its role in supporting advances in medicine, in providing food and other products, and in sustaining healthy ecosystems. Despite widespread acceptance throughout the world that biodiversity loss is a problem, there is no global institution or treaty to deal with this issue effectively. Our challenge is to preserve biodiversity in the face of human consumption of plant and animal products, pollution, and the rapid destruction of forests, wetlands, and coral reefs to meet human needs. The United States must work internationally, nationally, regionally, and locally to conserve our major ecosystems.

Over-fished and polluted, the world's oceans are also in trouble. Approximately 70 percent of the world's commercially important fish stocks are fully or over-exploited. And every year, 27 million tons of fish, marine mammals, and birds are caught unintentionally and thrown back dead or dying into the sea. Some institutions and treaties are in place at both the regional and global levels to deal with ocean issues. But none has yet been able to respond effectively to the problems of unsustainable fishing practices, pollution, and other threats to ocean ecosystems and marine life. The next Administration will have to consider an overhaul of our international systems of ocean governance, and a strengthening of our institutions and arrangements for conserving marine biodiversity.

If this picture appears gloomy, it is worth mentioning that over the past several decades we have made enormous progress in cleaning our air and water and in controlling toxic chemicals and wastes. But the progress to date occurred with the backing of most citizens, and mostly in areas where gross pollution could be seen and felt. The problems we now face are both more global and harder to grasp. And while most Americans do consider themselves environmentalists, it is difficult for politicians to serve as leaders on issues where the costs occur in the short term, and the benefits are not immediately apparent.

The fact that these issues have not been given greater attention during the campaign does not bode well for balanced but effective action in 2001 and beyond. And this, of course, is exactly what will be necessary.

Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- September 20, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

Round Two -- September 15, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

Round One -- September 13, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

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What do you think? Join the debate in a special conference of Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.

Eileen ClaussenEileen Claussen is the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the president and chairman of the board of Strategies for the Global Environment. She has served as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and as a Special Assistant to President Clinton at the National Security Council, and has spent more than twenty years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She is a recipient of the Department of State's Career Achievement Award.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.