Center for Progressive Reform

Flagging Leadership

International Environmental Treaties Hampered by U.S. Failure to Ratify

Time was when the United States of America played a lead role in attacking international environmental problems, organizing global and regional responses. Examples include U.S.-spearheaded international agreements with Canada and Mexico on boundary waters and migratory birds, some dating back to the early 20th Century, and 1970s and '80s agreements restricting trade in endangered species and protecting against ozone depletion. 

In the last two decades, however, U.S. environmental leadership has faltered. The most prominent example is the U.S. decision not to join the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. But other, less publicized examples abound. The United States has also failed to join a large and growing number of treaties directed at marine pollution, the loss of biological diversity, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and trade in toxic substances. 

A January 2012 white paper by CPR Member Scholars Mary Jane Angelo, Rebecca Bratspies, David Hunter, John H. Knox, Noah Sachs, and Sandra Zellmer urges the U.S. government to ratify ten such treaties: 
  • Agreement on Albatrosses and Petrels
  • Antarctic Liability Annex
  • Basel Convention
  • Biodiversity Convention
  • 1996 London Dumping Convention
  • Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources
  • 1998 POPs Protocol to LRTAP
  • Rotterdam Convention on PIC
  • Stockholm Convention on POPs
  • U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea

Each of the treaties addresses one or more important environmental problem, but just as significantly, none is the source of fierce partisan debate of the type that has so frequently hamstrung U.S. policy toward climate change. In fact, all ten of these agreements enjoy bipartisan support, and all ten have been signed by the U.S. government, five by Republican and five by Democratic administrations. What’s missing is ratification by the Senate, and in some cases, implementing legislation enacted by both houses of Congress. It’s in Congress where the process has broken down.

As the authors observe, 

The failure of the United States to join these treaties undermines global environmental protection. The treaties set out standards and create institutions designed to find and implement solutions to problems of critical importance. They have attracted support from other countries, including our closest allies. Indeed, several are among the most widely ratified treaties in history. 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.

 The failure to ratify the agreements also harms specific U.S. interests. The treaties reflect U.S. proposals and positions. By failing to join them, 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, ensuring U.S. access to foreign plant gene banks, and receiving reimbursement for the costs of responding to environmental emergencies in Antarctica. The failure to join 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.
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