THE United States stands victorious as the world's only superpower. However, an emerging conflict - an environmental cold war - could become a major threat to global security, and the US is ill-prepared to deal with it. Unlike traditional defense issues, this conflict is not between East and West. Rather, it engages North (industrialized countries) vs. South (the developing world). Without international cooperation - and recognition of the South's vital role in devising solutions - the world can do little to avert environmental ruin.
Environmental crises are fundamentally international because they originate from multinational sources and cross national borders. Deforestation in Brazil, Africa, and Asia contributes to global climate changes. Industrial and automobile air pollution fuels the global greenhouse effect and acid-rain problems. The accident at Chernobyl rained nuclear radiation over Sweden, Finland, Italy, Germany, and France.
Resolution of such crises requires the cooperation of developing countries. If they don't agree with global initiatives, these countries can jeopardize the future of the planet's environment and create major threats to global security. The indispensability of global cooperation gives unprecedented power to historically impoverished nations.
For example, China and India do not participate in the Montreal Protocol for the reduction of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Although they currently account for only 15 percent of CFC use, this figure is projected to rise to 50 percent by the end of the decade. China alone plans to manufacture 800 million CFC-using refrigerators in the next few years, enough to do catastrophic damage to the ozone layer.
Developing nations argue that they cannot afford to invest in CFC-substitute technologies unless they receive financial and technological aid from the North. They are in a hurry to improve the standard of living of their exploding populations through industrialization. If the 3 billion people living in developing countries reach standards of living prevalent in the industrialized North, we can expect devastating environmental destruction.
Yet North telling South to slow its economic development in the interest of the global environment is hypocritical, since developed nations have destroyed much of the environment while industrializing.
The stage is thus set for the environmental cold war. In the coming years, we should expect North-South conflicts over such international quandaries as reducing greenhouse gases, curbing nuclear proliferation, and disposing of hazardous wastes.
Few mechanisms currently exist for North and South to communicate. Over the past 40 years, many international treaties, laws, institutions, and intelligence and monitoring systems were set up to manage East-West relations. With the exceptions of the United Nations Environment Program, such mechanisms do not exist between North and South nations.
The UN program is insufficient for coordinating the many complex issues involved in global environmental crises. We need environmental forums in which representatives of industry, government, scientific establishments, and the public can discuss issues of mutual concern. We also need new research institutions that will generate the information necessary for informed dialogue.
Only after effective means of dialogue are established can substantive issues be addressed. Foremost among these is the transfer of environmental-protection technologies to South nations. Scientists, engineers, and policymakers must be engaged in these discussions. Who will develop these technologies? Who will pay for them? How will they be distributed, operated, and controlled? How can international market systems be modified to promote wide dissemination?
If the US is going to succeed in this new environmental cold war, it must develop a new arsenal of weapons. Luckily, we do not need nuclear and chemical missiles in this arsenal. We do need visionary thinking, backed with solid research into alternative, environmentally safe technologies.
We need the ethical resolve to set a new course for world action through our example, not through preaching. And we need political leadership. Such is the environmental challenge of the 21st century.