In Kyoto, a Try at Next Big Eco-Pact
Countries will gather Dec. 1 to try to put teeth into effort to slow climate change.
It is illegal to test nuclear weapons on Pluto.Skip to next paragraph
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Or Venus or Saturn, for that matter.
And Chile, Uruguay, and the Philippines have been under legal obligation since 1981 to protect the moon's environment from the adverse effects of those countries' nonexistent activities there. The United States and Russia - the only countries that have major space programs - have only agreed to avoid contamination of the moon.
Such is the state of environmental protection in space, where humans are only beginning to venture.
But back on Earth, it's a different story. There are plenty of interests at stake - economic, social, and strategic - so governments have tended to protect the environment only when they see a clear and present danger.
Take the Dec. 1 climate change conference in Kyoto, Japan, where the world's environment ministers will try to set binding targets for cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. Governments are meeting because, over the past two decades, scientists have come to a consensus that human activities come to a consensus that human activities are altering the world's climate and may result in major disruptions, such as unusual weather patterns and a rise in sea level.
Ten years ago, large holes in the ozone layer were discovered and governments agreed to a phased global ban on the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) thought largely responsible. Twenty years ago, concern about the possible extinction of elephants, rhinos, and other creatures led to a 1979 ban on international trade in ivory, rhino horns, and other animal and plant products.
With the growth in awareness of global environmental problems, such agreements are appearing in greater frequency, slowly creating an international body of laws for the protection of the environment comparable to those previously negotiated to prevent warfare.
"The environmental movement started by looking at local problems and soon evolved to national, transboundary, and now global-scale issues," says Eileen Claussen, former assistant secretary of state for science and the environment. "Now, environmental ministers worldwide are increasingly teaming up on important issues to get senior decisionmakers in their governments to take action."
If successful, Kyoto will result in the latest in a series of international environmental treaties negotiated since the turn of the century. The increasing pace and scope of such agreements indicates an important shift in international cooperation, from a focus on issues of war and peace to the preservation of the planet itself.
Negotiating and enforcing international agreements have always been tricky. Unlike national laws, there is no world government to enforce compliance or punish cheaters. Useful agreements require all parties to have a stake in their smooth operation.
Thus the earliest treaties tended to focus on security concerns or improving uses of shared resources.
When the valuable North Pacific seal trade was in danger of following the seals into extinction, the four countries involved - Britain, the US, Russia, and Japan - spent 25 years negotiating a successful 1911 treaty to manage the resource. The US and Canada came to a similar accord in 1916 to protect migratory birds prized by hunters in both nations.
Two world wars and one Great Depression later, the focus was still on managing the commercial harvest of an animal species - this time whales. The major whale-hunting nations agreed in 1946 to form a management body, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), to ensure the long-term health of the industry.