Reclaiming Global Environmental Leadership

by John Knox

January 20, 2012

For more than a century, the United States took the lead in organizing responses to international environmental problems.  The long list of environmental agreements spearheaded by the United States extends from early treaties with Canada and Mexico on boundary waters and migratory birds to global agreements restricting trade in endangered species and protecting against ozone depletion.  In the last two decades, however, U.S. environmental leadership has faltered. 

The best-known example is the lack of an effective response to climate change, underscored by the U.S. decision not to join the Kyoto Protocol.  But the attention climate change receives should not obscure the fact that the United States has also failed to join a large and growing number of treaties directed at other environmental threats, including marine pollution, the loss of biological diversity, persistent organic pollutants, and trade in toxic substances. 

Today CPR publishes Reclaiming Global Environmental Leadership: Why the United States Should Ratify Ten Pending Environmental Treaties.  My co-authors and I show the importance of ten treaties and urge the Obama Administration and Congress to work together to ratify them.  Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, these treaties do not generally raise difficult partisan issues.  They were all negotiated with substantial U.S. input, and they all provide clear benefits to the United States – or they would if only the United States belonged to them. 

To take just one simple example, if the United States responds to an oil spill in Antarctica, it has no assurance that it will be repaid by the nation or company that caused the problem.  One of the treaties pending ratification, the Antarctic Liability Annex, provides a system through which those who respond to environmental emergencies in Antarctica are compensated by those who cause them.  Because of its capability to respond to emergencies in the hostile conditions there, the U.S. government is far more likely to receive payments than to make them.  And, indeed, the Liability Annex reflects bipartisan U.S. proposals.  Its negotiation was begun under Bill Clinton and completed under George W. Bush, and it was sent to the Senate for its advice and consent by Barack Obama. 

This bipartisan support is typical of these treaties.  All ten of these treaties have been signed by a presidential administration -- five by Republican administrations and five by Democratic administrations.  For the United States to join the treaties, however, signature is not enough.  In most cases, the Senate must provide its advice and consent by a two-thirds vote, and some treaties require implementing legislation to be enacted by both houses of Congress.  Here, the process has broken down.  In some cases, presidential administrations have failed to urge prompt approval of an agreement or to propose implementing legislation.  In others, the Senate or Congress as a whole has failed to act despite encouragement from the Executive Branch.  Although the reasons for inaction vary from treaty to treaty, the delays are alike in that they are all too long.  The average time since signature is 13 years, and the average time they have spent pending in the Senate is more than eight years.  

Ratifying these treaties wouldn’t be onerous or expensive, and none of the agreements would require major changes to U.S. law or erode our sovereignty. In fact, the failure to ratify the agreements harms our national interests.  The treaties reflect U.S. proposals and positions and are a product of negotiations and brokering by our past administrations.  By failing to join the treaties, the United States is not taking advantage of the benefits for which it negotiated, including being able to make claims to the resource-rich continental shelf off the U.S. coast, reducing marine pollution affecting U.S. waters, and ensuring U.S. access to foreign plant gene banks.  The failure to ratify the agreements also prevents the United States from fully participating in their ongoing interpretation and implementation, which often involve issues that directly affect the United States.

The failure to join the treaties also undermines global environmental protection.  Several of the environmental treaties are among the most widely ratified treaties in history, strongly supported by our closest allies.  In every case, the regimes these treaties have established are less successful without U.S. membership than they could be with the full engagement of the country with the largest economy and the largest environmental impact.  In short, the United States is abdicating its historic role as the leader in efforts to protect the global environment. 

Call me a dreamer, but it doesn’t need to be this way.  Although this Congress and the Obama administration have been unable to agree on much, they have been able to come together on some high profile treaties, including the New START treaty with Russia and trade agreements with Columbia, Panama, and South Korea.  In the same spirit, Congress and the Obama administration should reinvigorate efforts to ratify these ten environmental treaties, so that the United States can reclaim global environmental leadership on these issues.  Yes, we can.

Reclaiming Global Environmental Leadership: Why the United States Should Ratify Ten Pending Environmental Treaties was written by CPR Member Scholars Mary Jane Angelo, Rebecca Bratspies, David Hunter, John H. Knox, Noah Sachs, and Sandra Zellmer.

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John H. Knox is the Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law at Wake Forest University. He has taken a leave from CPR while serving as the United Nations' first Independent Expert on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. 

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