Environmental Protection and Foreign Policy

Published 03 Aug 2016

Environmental policy debates have evolved considerably over the past four decades, moving from the political fringe, through a Manichean phase pitting “the public interest” against ‘‘capitalist greed,” and finally into the mainstream, where environmental policies could be considered on their merits rather than as symbols. If in fact, we are all environmentalists now, the central issues today are what works, what does not, and what it costs.

Historically, environmental rules and regulations were primarily made at the sale or local level on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the emergence of the contemporary environmental movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s led to the greater centralization of environmental policy-making in both the US and Europe. In the US, this change occurred relatively rapidly. By the mid-1970s, federal standards had been established for virtually all forms of air and water pollution. By the end of the decade, federal regulations governed the protection of endangered species, drinking water quality, pesticide approval, the disposal of hazardous wastes, surface mining, and threat management among other policy areas. The federalization of US environmental policy was supported by pressure from environmental activists, who believed that federal regulation was more likely to be effective than regulation at the state level.

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Environmental Policies and Issues

Until about 15 years ago, the environmental policies in effect were heavily dominated by regulatory approaches. This applies particularly to the United States, where a great volume of new federal regulation to promote environmental quality was enacted during the 1970s none of which could be characterized as economic incentives. Since then, however, there has been a remarkable surge of interest in environmental incentive approaches in environmental policy. According to John Kingdon, research by interest groups and academics can be very important as a source of policy ideas and policy choices on the national political agenda. Kingdon’s premise is borne out in examining the history of environmental concern. Early scientific and popular writings in the environmental area were crucial in elevating ecological concerns to national prominence.

Most of the initial environmental literature focused upon what have come to be known as “Third generation” environmental problems. First generation environmental problems are most easily thought of as problems with clean air and clean water and typically stem from pollutants that remain in one medium, such as the air, water or land. The earlier writings in environmental studies were buttressed by research focusing specifically on air and water pollution. These writings and their focus on first generation environmental problems mobilized citizens behind environmental protection during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The national Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act are all responses to first generation environmental problems.

The second-generation environmental problems are caused by pollutants that readily move across different media (cross-media pollutants). Toxic and hazardous wastes are good examples of second-generation environmental problems. Public attention was focused on second-generation problems by episodes like those that the toxic contamination discovered at Love Canal in New York, and by warnings regarding the dangers of hazardous and toxic wastes in the popular and scholarly press. Addressing the problems associated with cross-media second-generation pollutants required a coordinated and integrated approach to environmental protection that the architects of traditional air and water quality regulations had not planned for. As a result, new environmental laws were enacted and applied to second-generation environmental problems.

For these and no doubt other reasons, understanding U.S. international environmental policy is central to the entire project of global environmental protection. However, understanding the foreign policies of the United States toward the environment is a complex undertaking, not least because the problems are so many and so complex, and because very many actors and forces are involved in shaping those policies. During the late 1980s and early l990s, environmental scholars focused most of their efforts on describing and discussing a new “third generation” of environmental problems. The third generation environmental problems also have cross-media impacts, but unlike second generation problems, third generation problems promise environmental effects on a regional or global scale. In fact, third generation environmental problems have the potential for altering or wiping out entire ecosystems. Acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, tropical deforestation, and global warming are all good examples of third generation environmental problems. Governments are only beginning to address the underlying causes of most third generation environmental problems. Recent events, however, such as the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which most industrialized nations agreed to nearly eliminate the use of ozone-destroying.

Currently, whenever new environmental policies are proposed, it is almost inevitable for economic incentive instruments proposed to receive the appropriate hearing. Researchers and policy analysts are also looking carefully to find ways of incorporating elements of economic incentives in existing policies. Understanding U.S. foreign policy and the ways in which it affects and has affected by the global environmental change is a prerequisite for understanding the larger international environmental debate and the intricacies of global collective action on environmental change. What is more, examining the role of the environment in U.S. foreign policy gives us a better understanding of the foreign policy of the U.S. government generally, which is beneficial for those hoping to understand the role of the United States in other issues that will confront the world in the twenty-first century. Perhaps it is due to the growth in awareness of economic incentive approaches among policymakers and policy analysts between 1970 and 1990. In the 1970s, these approaches were quite unfamiliar to choose the economics profession.

In the United States, however, where the concept of prior appropriation of rights to the environment by beneficial users is stronger environmental taxes have generally been resisted very effectively. By the I980s, the policy community was generally aware of a “quantity-based” environmental incentive alternative – tradable emissions permits – seemed to provide the same overall assurances of achieving environmental goals that were thought possible via direct regulation. Walter Rosenbaum has identified two “eras in U.S. environmental policy. The first “environmental era” began in the 1960s and extended into the late 1980s, encompassing the Environmental Decade of the 1970s, which saw the newest environmental legislation. Concern for domestic environmental issues rose in the United States during the 1960s, resulting in Legislation to improve water quality and to protect wild areas, such as the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the Wilderness Act of 1964. Public concern about environmental issues increased further in the 1970s, and the resulting pressure on politicians and policymakers Led to more laws to protect the environment in the United States. During the 1970s, landmark legislation was passed in the areas of air and water pollution, pesticides, endangered species, hazardous and toxic chemicals, ocean pollution, land degradation, wilderness protection, and energy use.

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