We're All Environmentalists Now ... Right?
Eileen Claussen
Round Two - September 15, 2000

Bill McKibben has identified an important difference between environmental problems for which there are clear "technical fixes" and problems that are wide-ranging and complex and that defy easy solutions. More than anything else, it is the complexity of this latter group of issues -- from climate change to preserving biodiversity on land and in the oceans -- that has stymied the traditional players in global environmental governance and contributed to the frustration all four of us have expressed about the lack of concerted action and real results in addressing the environmental problems we face today.

From Post & Riposte:

"Back in the days when I was chairman of an environmental action group (New Mexico Volunteers For the Outdoors), we received a request from some hunters. They wanted us to sponsor an erosion control and dam project. They asked for our help because we had the contacts in the BLM and Forest Service who would have to approve any project on public land.

It was quite an interesting meeting with my board of directors. To put it kindly, some members of the board (notably the chairman of the local Sierra Club) were less than enthusiastic about letting hunters help in our efforts. This in spite of the fact that the board thought that this was a very good project.

Ultimately I convinced the board that the value of the project outweighed the opposition to the people proposing it. We went ahead and sponsored the project. We built quite a nice series of check dams. The hunters provided the majority of muscle."
--Marty Halvorson - 10:25am EST, Sep 15, 2000.

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But the complexity of the global environmental agenda is not the only reason why global institutions and national governments have failed in adequately addressing these issues. Governments around the world have entered the century in a position of weakness. This is true not only in the United States, where government has been divided along partisan lines for the better part of the past two decades, but also in other countries where parliamentary majorities often are quite small. The result is gridlock and a sustained lack of leadership in dealing with these issues.

Other factors in the failure of the traditional forms of environmental governance include everything from the increasingly large gap between the wealthy and the poor (within countries and between them) to thorny questions of how much national sovereignty should be given up, and under what circumstances. All of these are difficult issues to resolve. And the fact is, they are not getting resolved under the current systems we have for governing the interactions between human society and the environment.

This leads us to the question of what new systems we can create that will respond more effectively. I believe that environmental progress in the twenty-first century will depend largely on the development of nontraditional systems of governance -- as opposed to the traditional systems embodied in institutions, treaties, and governmental mandates.

The news media, the Internet, and nongovernmental organizations all will play important parts in nontraditional governance, but the most powerful and most important player, I believe, will be the global business community. On this point, I agree with Mary Gade's assertion that America's future environmental policy should be participatory, including a combination of "public stewardship and personal (and corporate) responsibility."

The benefits of active involvement by industry in environmental issues was clear in 1987 during negotiations on the Montreal Protocol (the treaty that banned the chemicals that deplete the ozone layer), when the companies that produced and used ozone-depleting chemicals -- and that were developing substitutes for them -- were very much engaged in the process. As a result, there was an honesty about what we could achieve, how we could achieve it, and when. And there was an acceptance on the part of industry that the depletion of the ozone layer was an important problem and that multilateral action was needed.

Fortunately, we are starting to see the same kind of acceptance and understanding from industry on climate change and other global environmental issues. Many businesses no longer view these issues as a threat to their very existence. They accept that something must be done, even when doing so may be difficult and expensive. They understand that the smartest approach for industry is to help shape solutions instead of having solutions imposed on them by others. And they are using environmental issues to promote new thinking, new efficiencies, and new growth.

But these and other existing efforts will not be nearly enough to successfully address global climate change or any of the other serious issues that we face. Committed industry leaders are helping us gain a perspective on what needs to happen -- and how our objectives can be achieved. But, in order to succeed, we need a governmental framework, nationally and internationally. This is where we are falling short.

What we need is leadership rather than "followership" from our politicians. We need to depoliticize the environment, and make it a truly bipartisan, or better still, a nonpartisan issue. Major change, as would be required to address our warming globe, will always cause economic disruptions, and there will always be winners and losers. But strong leaders, acting in the long-term interest of everyone, can facilitate change by making transitions easier, and by compensating those who will be hurt.

Gregg Easterbrook raises the intriguing possibility that by the year 2100 all of our current environmental problems will be solved. I wouldn't want to rule that out, but it will only happen if we can rise above the politics of the last decade and build a consensus that includes nongovernmental organizations, the business community, and our politicians. Will the current crop of candidates for President of the United States, the Senate, or the House be up to this task? In an election season, no candidate wants to be too far ahead of public sentiment on any significant issue. And the voting public, while supportive of environmental causes, has not put these issues firmly on the political agenda. So "followership" is not a choice. But leadership is. We just haven't seen it yet.

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

Return to Introduction

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.