NEW YORK — On Sunday, April 22, a number of United States astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts will gather for Earth Day ceremonies at the United Nations. They will remind the world of the stunning view of the fragile planet Earth they once shared from outer space. Their message: Only concerted, united action can save Earth from the adverse environmental trends that now threaten to destroy it.
THE hope of these space travelers is to mobilize governments and citizens to act vigorously on the earth's behalf. Yet millions have already joined the green brigades. Quality of life concerns in many of the badly polluted nations of Eastern Europe (see story, Page 10) were key factors in the recent sweep of governmental changes there. And the number and variety of nongovernmental groups around the world that have strong environmental interests is growing. Many now sponsor global conferences once hosted almost exclusively by governments or the UN.
``We are witnessing the shaping of a new environmental consensus and a new value base,'' says Dr. Noel Brown, a Jamaican with a Yale University degree in international law who serves as the North American director of the Kenya-based United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). ``For the first time people are beginning to take personal responsibility for the effect their lifestyles have on the planet.''
He says such grass-roots efforts may well force governments in time to make needed tough environmental decisions. He credits people pressure in the US, for instance, with Washington's decision in the late 1970s to ban aerosol cans and in the late '80s to ratify the so-called Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion that set specific curbs on chlorofluorocarbon emissions.
``I put my faith in people,'' Dr. Brown says. ``Governments respond to political pressure.''
Nongovernmental groups were largely shut out of the 1972 global environmental meeting in Stockholm, which led to the founding of UNEP. However, Brown says that many in the UN have now come to look on such groups as allies. These organizations will likely play a critical role, he says, in the success or failure of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil. The meeting is expected to be the most important environmental gathering of the decade.
The North-South question of economic equity is sure to be one of the most sensitive topics. As the South (developing nations) sees it, the North (developed nations) was able to industrialize with few environmental controls and is now trying, unfairly, to hobble the South's progress by requiring the purchase of costly equipment and adding new environmental conditions to loans.
UNEP is currently doing case studies of 16 developing nations to calculate the cost of skipping to more-advanced, environmentally benign technology. Such costs, Brown says, relate directly to the ability of any country to uphold the treaties it ratifies.
Most developing nations are already heavily in debt. Many, such as his native Jamaica, which grows coffee for export in virtually every available plot, often overtax scarce resources just to service that debt, he says. Such nations want free and clear financial and technological help. They also want concessions in such areas as debt relief and higher export prices to take them through the transition.
``There's definitely an emerging polarization between the North and the South on the question of environmental protection,'' Brown says. ``But it's not simply a matter of `haves' versus `have nots.' It's an issue of equity. It's burden-sharing time.'' He says the question for the North is not whether it can afford to help but whether it will commit itself: ``The world is not poor - the global economy is now valued at $13 trillion,'' he says. ``Governments have all kinds of ingenious ways to get money, from lotteries to taxes.''
Many formulas, including taxes on fossil fuels, have been suggested. Brown favors a global subsidy, much as the US pays farmers not to grow crops, to maintain certain identified strategic resources and ecosystems around the world. ``We have a debt to the earth,'' he says.
ENVIRONMENTALISTS hope that a treaty on climate change will be ready for signature at the Brazil conference. UNEP, which has been asked by the UN General Assembly to draft it, will take many of its cues from the UN's Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which expects to come out with its research findings and recommendations by summer. The proposed treaty will likely include target numbers for reduced emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases thought to contribute to the warming of the earth's lower atmosphere.
The US has refused to endorse such reductions - urging instead more research - both at a conference last November in the Netherlands and in a speech by President Bush at an IPCC meeting in February. Environmental groups have sharply criticized the Bush administration for what they see as a backtracking on promises.
Such pressure on governments, says UNEP's Brown, is sure to play a significant role in the outcome of the 1992 conference. The meeting itself will have a crowded agenda. ``Any negotiating has to be done before Brazil - the work is now,'' Brown insists. He says it would be a ``cop-out'' for the conference to call for more research or reiterate past accomplishments. He is counting on people pressure, he says, to keep governments on track. ``The environmental agenda is really a people-driven agenda... . If the people surrender to the bureaucrats, they will simply write another report.''
One of the many groups in the US working hard in advance of the Brazil conference is the Global Tomorrow Coalition, a Washington-based association of more than 120 organizations. Its president, Don Lesh, says the job for groups such as his is to set priorities and communicate them clearly to governments as amendments or statements.
Many civic and environmental groups are also talking about holding a simultaneous televised satellite conference of their own in Brazil. The purpose would be to allow broader participation. ``We'd really like to see this conference have a positive outcome,'' says Mr. Lesh.
Just as in any of the environmental achievements of the past, cooperation will be key. UNEP, acting as a catalyst, has succeeded in a number of such efforts, including a plan to clean up the Mediterranean Sea that has Arabs, Israelis, Greeks, and Turks working together.
As Brown puts it, the struggle to preserve the environment has no winners or losers. ``This is one spaceship,'' he says.``There are no passengers. We're all crew... . No one can sit it out. It's a matter of investing in our survival.''