UNCLE Sam took a real hammering at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last year. While much of the rest of the world was looking to Washington for leadership on the issues that tie together global environment and economic development, the United States was perceived by many to be a roadblock to progress.
Although the US is often a convenient whipping boy in UN circles, there were legitimate reasons for criticism. The Bush administration refused to sign the biodiversity treaty, and it insisted on a watered-down version of the agreement on global climate change.
At one point, then-Sen. Tim Wirth, a Colorado Democrat and congressional leader on environmental issues, found himself in the frustrating and somewhat awkward position at Rio of defending the overall United States record on environmental protection at home (which in fact is second to none) but wondering aloud before the international press corps why his country seemed to be so reluctant about assuming a world leadership role.
Now, a new administration (with Mr. Wirth as senior State Department official in charge of global environmental issues) is in position to reassume that leadership, and all signs point to its doing just that.
Environmental lobbyists in Washington found UN ambassador Madeleine Albright's first speech touching on environmental issues - in this case global warming - "very positive," as one put it. Wirth's office at State saw a healthy increase in President Clinton's budget.
More significant may be the establishment of a new senior National Security Council (NSC) position for global environmental issues. Named to the post was Eileen Claussen, who did much of the staff work at the Environmental Protection Agency on ozone depletion and global warming. "She's one of our strongest advocates," said Liz Barratt-Brown, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The NSC has since identified a dozen key global environmental issues as needing attention and possible policy change under the Clinton administration. These include oceans, climate, biodiversity, US assistance abroad, trade, desertification, and forests. The State and Treasury Departments and the Office of the US Trade Representative are chairing working groups to formulate administration policy in each of the 12 areas. Vice President Al Gore (the Bush administration's chief Democratic critic at Rio) no doubt is keeping a close eye on all this.
On forests, the administration last week took two important steps. It indicated at talks in Geneva that it is willing to consider temperate forests (generally in the Northern Hemisphere) within the context of the 1987 International Tropical Timber Agreement. Why, timber-producing countries in the tropics have angrily wondered, should they be criticized for their forest practices when countries like the US and Canada may be cutting down too many trees as well?
The administration last week also announced the next step in its promise at the recent "timber summit" in Oregon to come up with a plan in 60 days to break the "forest gridlock" in the Pacific Northwest. This includes the formation of three interagency working groups on ecosystem management, labor and community assistance, and agency coordination. How the Clinton administration handles the issue in this country could well have broader importance as the talks on international forest issues resume this sum mer. It's a clear opportunity to lead by example.
But forests are just one part of the picture on global environmental issues. During the first six months of the Clinton administration, more than 100 international meetings concerned with the environment (including population and development) will have been held. Topics range from hazardous waste to ocean dumping to coastal ecosystems. The Group of Seven economic summit in Japan this July will be another opportunity to more fully integrate environmental considerations into economic discussions.
Thus, the US will have many chances to take the lead on environmental issues. Meanwhile, Earth Day being this Thursday, look for President Clinton to do something symbolic in this regard - like signing the biodiversity treaty.