This month's 10th anniversary of the UN Montreal Protocol to stop depletion of the earth's protective ozone layer is truly cause for celebration.
The world is expected to be spared severe agricultural and ecological losses and millions of cases of skin cancer thanks to this historic accord, agreed to by former President Reagan and now ratified by 161 other nations.
But just as important is the protocol's precedent-setting process of accord that now offers a hopeful template for action for the 165 nations expected to gather in Kyoto, Japan, in December to discuss the potentially catastrophic problem of global warming.
Because of the Montreal Protocol, production of chlorofluorocarbons, the most voluminous ozone-depleting substances, has dropped by more than 75 percent since 1988, according to UN statistics. Scientists working with the UN to assess the status of the ozone layer estimate that the ozone layer may fully recover by about 2050 if all parties to the protocol continue to meet their obligations.
While stronger agreements are still necessary on the phase-out of additional ozone depletors such as methyl bromide and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, the protocol proves that nations and their business communities can cooperate and avert global environmental and health disasters by adopting scientifically sound and economically sensible pollution-control strategies.
Now, as representatives go to Kyoto to consider global warming, there's no longer room for doubt that global warming is the environmental problem of our generation. An international consensus has emerged among scientists that a human influence on climate is already apparent and that a warming unprecedented since the dawn of civilization is likely to happen in the coming decades. (The warming results from the production of heat-trapping gases.)
No environmental issue is more critical to the earth's sustainability or raises the possibility of so many tragic economic and human consequences as global warming. Destruction of entire forest systems and watersheds, rising sea levels, flooding, drinking-water shortages, and the northward spread of tropical diseases are just some of the potential outcomes if nations fail to slow the global warming trend.
As dire as these predictions are, there's hope.
As their counterparts did in Montreal a decade ago, the Kyoto delegates must ask not whether we are destroying the sensitive balance of Earth's climate, but instead ask how, in an economically sensible manner, we can turn back the warming before it's too late.
Finding answers to this question won't be simple. Bold multilateral steps, even beyond those taken to accomplish our landmark arms-control agreements, will be necessary if the Kyoto delegates are to avert the looming threat to geopolitical and environmental stability posed by climate change.
Our best hope for such a far-reaching global environmental agreement lies in the adoption of an international greenhouse-gas emissions budget system with binding caps on pollution, as well as market-oriented incentives for all nations to participate in keeping emissions at or below budget levels.
To reach this type of international agreement, the Kyoto delegates will have to renew their commitment to the global environment and to all nations that share the Earth.
This month's celebration in Montreal should inspire just such a renewal and help make it possible for the world's nations to forge the unprecedented yet critically important partnerships necessary to stem the global warming trend.
* Annie Petsonk is the Washington-based international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund.