Protecting ozone protects relations

The George W. Bush administration fails to protect the ozone layer and the rift grows. Not the rift in the layer itself – a stratospheric layer of gas that protects the earth from cancer-causing ultraviolet rays. But the rift between the United States and the rest of the world on matters of global import particularly in regards to the environment. The tact taken by the Bush administration – anti-environmental unilateralism – will likely have significant consequences on the Earth’s habitability for future generations and certainly has negative consequences on U.S. foreign policy today.

In 1987 the Montreal Protocols, ultimately endorsed by 163 nations, were ratified. The protocols unified and committed the world to the protection of the ozone layer. They called for the reduction and ultimate abandonment of CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances. Last week, the Bush administration announced it would apply for numerous “critical use” exemptions for methyl bromide, an insecticide and fumigant, due to be phased out completely by 2005 in developed nations – including the United States – under the protocols.

The Montreal Protocols, 10 years in the drafting, are a triumph of international cooperation. Thus far, the United States has complied with the reduction requirements. Instead of continuing to abide by the spirit of the treaty, however, the Bush administration was poised to file numerous exemption requests. Rather than discontinue methyl bromide usage, the United States would increase it past current levels.

By undermining the Montreal Protocols, the United States would weaken what is widely hailed as the most effective piece of environmental protection ever enacted. Although victory is difficult to declare as CFCs can take up to 100 years to decay, the ozone hole over Antarctica shrunk for the first time in 2002 and atmospheric concentrations of CFCs have been steadily declining. This success is remarkable given the difficulty of achieving international consensus on environmental protections. Conflicting interests due to differing environments, economies and stages of development often stymie negotiations.

Thus, the suggested weakening of the protocols through an abuse of the critical use exception is angering our allies abroad. Previously, critical use exemptions have been granted under the treaty for such usages as asthmatic inhalers. Included in the current contemplated requests, however, are usages such as insecticides for golf courses and chrysanthemums. Even if the administration does not take the environmental concerns seriously, it should recognize that U.S. allies abroad do.

Global opinion is already turning against the United States because of previous unilateral actions. In the last two years the United States withdrew from two foundational international treaties: the Kyoto Protocols and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Both withdrawals met universal condemnation and were characterized by the international community as: “regrettable,” “a mistake,” “dangerous,” and a “lack of international responsibility.”

Most recently, international skepticism is on the ebb because of the situation in Iraq. The White House has sent repeated signals that global approval would be welcome in an invasion of Iraq but ultimately not necessary. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently dismissed German and French concern of Iraq as the echoes of “Old Europe.” And even if the tide was to swell and it was to face universal opposition, the United States has indicated it would proceed in an action against Iraq on its own terms.

Therefore, the administration should save face and refuse to make the requests. Making the requests signals to the world that the United States is willing to sell short universal approval for local economic gain. Taken separately, the exemptions might seem reasonable to the administration. It might wish to alleviate any further economic harm to an already downward-spiraling economy. But in the context of previous exemptions and a continually tarnishing U.S. reputation, the request for the exemptions is unwise; it squanders political capital. As the United States searches to build coalitions and define itself in a new geopolitical balance, it must choose its diplomatic battles as carefully as it does its military battles.