The US Won't Be Shielded In the Event of a Biocrisis

Clinton and the Senate must signal support for Convention on Biological Diversity

ALTHOUGH other failed legislation engendered higher-profile battles, one important victim of partisan gridlock was the Convention on Biological Diversity, aimed at combating rapid loss of biological diversity worldwide.

The Senate's failure to ratify this treaty relegates the US to mere ``observer'' status at December's conference of treaty partners, at which upward of 92 other countries will make decisions about access to the world's genetic resources. Those decisions will almost inevitably harm American industry. To prevent further environmental damage, President Clinton and Senate leaders should speak up quickly.

Negotiated as part of the 1992 Earth Summit, the convention already is international law. It provides for a globe-spanning cooperative effort to address accelerating extinction of species and loss of natural habitat. So important are these problems that in 1990, President George Bush's blue-ribbon Science Advisory Board identified them as two of the biggest threats to the global environment and human welfare.

Obstructionist politics

In the current political climate, such weighty concerns seem to count for nothing. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, by a 16-to-3 vote, reported the treaty for ratification in July. But a handful of obstructionist senators essentially threatened to filibuster the treaty into oblivion. The principal excuse was that the treaty would hurt US industry. Although the complaints were all immediately answered by the Clinton administration, and many leaders of the allegedly endangered industries publicly endorsed the treaty, ratification died under the threat of a filibuster.

The first Conference of the Parties will soon meet to decide all-important rules on treaty procedure, financing and funding priorities, and provisions regulating the use of and trade in genetically altered or modified organisms. The parties are also expected to discuss the patenting and regulation of trade in new seed types and drugs based on plant extracts, and the creation of a clearinghouse on biological data.

Decisions not reached by consensus will be voted on by nations that have ratified the treaty. The US will be an outsider, seriously handicapped in its ability to influence treaty implementation and protect American interests. Lack of US support for the treaty, which began with the Bush White House, could easily provoke other countries to deny US agricultural, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology companies needed access to foreign genetic resources.

Because the US has such strong influence, no global environmental treaty that it resists has much chance to succeed.

If biodiversity loss is not stemmed, the harm will be staggering.

The cost of noncompliance

We face the extinction of species important to the food and pharmaceutical industries. Even more ominous is the potential for damage to the biosphere's life-support services - such as decomposing waste and generating fertile soils, producing the healthy air we breathe, and controlling floods, pests, and insects.

Some of our elected leaders may believe we can shield America from the effects of a biocrisis. That is folly. No nation can long remain materially wealthy while the whole world becomes biologically poor.

The hope now must be that our lawmakers still have the capacity to transcend petty politics and send a signal to the world that the US is committed to the treaty.

The president does not require any new legislation to implement the requirements of the treaty. He should, therefore, immediately declare an intention to issue executive orders to put the US into compliance with the letter and spirit of the treaty - whether or not it has been ratified by the US Senate.

Next, he should approach the current and future Senate majority leaders, Democrat George Mitchell and Republican Robert Dole, for help. Mr. Dole has an opportunity to demonstrate how under his leadership the Senate can move the country forward on important issues.

The three should announce that when the Congress reconvenes Nov. 30 (when the treaty parties will begin their meeting) its international agenda will include not only consideration of the Uruguay Round of GATT but also the ratification of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Because the House has no role to play in ratification, there is no reason the treaty cannot be easily approved in the two days allowed for the lame-duck session.

These steps would allow the US delegation to the Conference of the Parties to win at least some deference for its views and interests, even though it has no vote. The US should play a part in improving the biological resource legacy for future generations. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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