Global Greens: Inside the International Environmental Establishment

International Treaties Increasingly Shape U.S. Environmental Policy

AUGUST 01, 1999 by JANE S. SHAW

Only a policy wonk could love this book, but its contents are vital for understanding a major change underway in environmental and foreign policy. Ahead of many others, James Sheehan has recognized the growing power of the international environmental movement. Sheehan, who directs international policy activities for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, describes the exercise of this power in Global Greens.

The book centers on “NGOs” (non-governmental organizations) that emphasize environmental issues. To a person concerned about freedom, the term “non-governmental organization” may sound benign, but most NGOs are not friendly to liberty at all. They are ideologically committed to greater government control to address environmental problems, and they perceive international pressure as the way to achieve that control.

According to Sheehan, about 4,000 NGOs are actively involved in environmental issues. These include large environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, but also an array of others, including labor unions, so-called consumer groups, and women’s organizations. In general, their goals are to force changes in people’s lives, especially in the industrial countries, supposedly to protect the planet from human-caused harm.

The prominence of NGOs reflects the rise of international treaties as a way of dealing with environmental issues. For reasons that aren’t fully clear, the governments of the United States and other industrialized countries now allow international treaties to shape important parts of their environmental policies. According to Sheehan, the momentum began in 1972, with the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. It slowed during the Reagan administration, when President Reagan withdrew from negotiations over the Law of the Sea Treaty, but picked up again with the Clinton administration. Today, many NGOs are official participant-observers at United Nations conferences, summits, and functions. As the U.N.’s influence grows, so does theirs.

As a result, an ever-growing collection of summits, conventions, treaties, and frameworks undergird environmental policy in the United States. During the 1980s, Sheehan reports, 250 environmental treaties or conventions were enacted. Treaties, to cite just a few examples, limit the use of chemicals that are believed (by many) to deplete stratospheric ozone, ban trading in certain animal species, and have begun to influence the use of fossil fuels. Forty-seven places in the United States are now designated U.N. Biosphere Reserves (including the Everglades) and 19 are World Heritage Sites (including Yellowstone National Park). These give the green NGOs leverage to control land use in and around those places. The international noose is tightening.

In 1992, the Rio Summit (the U.N. Convention on Environment and Development) took center stage. This meeting launched a proliferation of activities and agreements, including a global-warming treaty (signed by President Clinton, but not ratified by the Senate); a U.N. commission on sustainable development; conferences on such topics as women, housing, and population; and the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility (which Sheehan calls a “$2 billion slush fund for Third World environmental projects”).

Sheehan describes in detail several important international treaty negotiations of recent years, including the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, the 1996 World Food Summit, and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming. He observes that NGOs did not always achieve their goals at such meetings. However, as time goes on, they have become increasingly adept at influencing treaties in the direction they want, a fact that bodes ill for our freedom and prosperity.

Sheehan’s reporting of each event is thorough and well-footnoted. In some of the negotiations he discusses, he was a firsthand observer. His book is clearly written and has no visible gaffes. It includes lists of prominent NGOs (including information about their funding) and other reference material.

Why then is it not more exciting? The reason is probably that it deals mostly with facts—a lot of facts—rather than with ideas. Sheehan provides extensive details that illustrate his theme: the growth of international environmental organizations. He doesn’t explore the reasons behind this growth or speculate on its future directions. Such discussion would have added interest.

Still, Sheehan has provided a valuable service in marshaling so much information about the network of environmental NGOs. His descriptions of the Greens in action around the world throw light on activities that have to date escaped widespread scrutiny, and provides material that I and others will draw on in the future.

Jane Shaw is a senior associate of PERC in Bozeman, Montana.


August 1999



Jane Shaw is president of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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