LAST weekend's economic summit in Paris has pushed the environment - the global atmosphere in particular - to an important new level in world politics. Environmentalists in recent years have increasingly tied the state of natural resources to economic health and even national security.
The summit put an official imprimatur on these approaches, according to many United States environmentalists.
First, the environment dominated an economic summit for the first time ever. Second, both environmentalists and other summit watchers see world leaders' attention to the environment rising as it falls on East-West security concerns.
``As of this weekend the protection of the atmosphere became a defining international issue,'' says Joe Goffman, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.
The first ``green'' summit of the seven leading industrial democracies brought some environmental disappointments, too.
Little new action emerged in the final communiqu'e, the signed result of the summit. The statements on environmental issues consumed more than a third of the document but added very little to international action already under way.
``The good news is they have recognized the problem and written a lot of ink about it,'' says Dan Becker, the Sierra Club's specialist on global climate change. ``The bad news is they failed to act.''
Global warming has drawn more serious concern this year than any other environmental issue. The summit communiqu'e calls for the conclusion of a framework convention on climate change, which would set the stage for an eventual treaty guiding the international response.
This is encouraging to many environmentalists, even though most of the Western nations have already agreed to a White House workshop in October to prepare for a framework convention. The communiqu'e is the first formal agreement by major powers' top leaders to such a convention.
The model that environmentalists hope the leaders will follow as they deal with global warming is the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), gases used in aerosol cans and some refrigerators that deplete the protective ozone layer of the atmosphere. Western nations began preparing for the framework convention on limiting CFCs in 1985, and 24 nations signed the protocol, a sort of preliminary treaty, in 1987.
Last May, more than 100 nations agreed in Helsinki to strengthen the Montreal Protocol to phase out CFCs completely by the year 2000.
The summit endorsed the Helsinki accord and went a bit further, urging review of other ozone-depleting substances and development of alternative technologies for them.
To Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch, the specifics of the communiqu'e are less important than the new level of environmental discussion.
He contrasts the French military parade on Bastille Day as a traditional way of thinking about national security and the environmental discussion at the summit as addressing the emerging threat to the security of nations.
He notes with satisfaction the use of such language in the communiqu'e as ``ecological balance'' and ``sustainable development,'' although he wonders whether the leaders understand what a major commitment is really implied in such terms.
Mr. Goffman notes that many environmentalists have been saying for years now that atmospheric degradation would become a ``defining international issue'' on a scale with the cold war between Western and Eastern alliances over the past 40 years. ``This confirms our prophecy,'' he says.