THE United States should be leading international efforts to protect the environment. Even with its budgetary constraints, the US can't afford not to support these efforts. Problems like ozone depletion affect all nations, and only concerted action can address them. That's why the Bush administration's decision in May to oppose a new fund to help developing countries stop the use of ozone-depleting chemicals was unfortunate and why last week's reversal of this decision is so welcome. The earlier position flew in the face of past US support for a worldwide reduction in the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other industrial chemicals that attack the upper atmosphere's ozone. President Reagan had heralded the 1987 Montreal protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer as a ``monumental achievement.''
Last Friday the administration reversed itself and agreed to contribute to the ozone fund. Lobbying to this end - from Capitol Hill, from the United Nations, and from such stalwart allies as Britain's Margaret Thatcher - had been intense. We hope, however, that the White House decision signified more than a pressure-induced change of course on this one issue.
The world's environmental agenda is loaded with heavy items. Global warming trends, the terrible pollution being unveiled in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, continuing deforestation in the third world - these and others issues demand attention. The US can't stand apart.
Immediate budget concerns shouldn't be allowed to eclipse the long-range national interest in global environmental protection, as almost happened with the ozone fund. Apprehension that one new international fund would lead to calls for others apparently seemed more urgent than scientific evidence that the atmosphere's ozone - which shields humans, crops, and wildlife from harmful ultraviolet rays - is being destroyed at a quickening pace.
To turn around that trend, industrialized nations have to lose their appetite for CFCs as refrigerants. Just as important, developing ones have to be kept from getting the CFC habit.
The amount the US will contribute to the international fund is relatively small - about $25 million, out of a total of $150-$250 million. It's not a lot of money considering the scope of the task. There's little time to lose if the goal of totally phasing out CFCs by the end of the century, backed by the US and most other countries, is to be reached.