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U.S. should lead in to saving planet's ecosystems, panelists say

STANFORD -- U.S. leadership is essential to saving the planet's ecosystems, but the time for action is short. And leadership may have to come from individuals, businesses and the states, because the Bush administration is not showing the political will to do the job, several panelists told a crowd of 1,500 at a Stanford centennial roundtable on Sunday, Sept. 29.

The roundtable, "Saving the Planet: What Price? What Priority?" was chaired by environmental law expert Gerald Torres of the University of Minnesota Law School. He led a discussion among eight experts from government, business, academia and the environmental movement.

There was broad agreement among them that environmental concerns are good business and good government policy, but that sometimes- unrelated political issues like abortion tie up action.

There are 10 years to take action on global environmental issues, before major systemic changes start to occur, warned Sen. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.). "The world is looking to the United States as the leader," he said. "If we do not lead, that is an excuse to others not to lead."

With the end of the Cold War, he said, the United States has unprecedented opportunities to turn our attention to energy conservation, expert pollution-control technology and global population control -- and to change policies such as the cutting of Northwest forests at a loss to the taxpayer, and the West's "use it or lose it" water policy.

"Good economics provide opportunities here, but we are lagging," Wirth said.

Wirth said the White House "hides behind uncertainty" on the issue of global environmental change. The administration has been "willing to spend billions on the 30 percent chance of Soviet attack," he said, but not to make decisions on environmental policy because scientists cannot provide absolute proof of global warming.

"No responsible scientist can provide a certain outcome," Stephen Schneider agreed. "We are performing a vast scientific experiment (in altering global climate), and we cannot wait until we have a certain outcome,"

Schneider, head of the Interdisciplinary Climate Systems Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., was one of the first scientists to sound the alarm about global warming.

He said the public had to get involved in issues that require political will, and that one of the "problems to solving problems" is the public's fear of its own ignorance about scientific matters. He urged individuals to get involved in the debate by questioning experts: "Ask them what can happen, ask what are the odds, and ask them how do they know," he said.

"There isn't any more toxic agent on earth than poverty," said Walter P. Falcon, director of Stanford's Institute for International Studies and professor of international agricultural policy. Falcon said that in his discussions with leaders of Third World countries, it is clear that most of them see the environmental problems they must solve. But they need time to solve these problems, Falcon said.

Falcon classed the most pressing of these in three categories: population pressure, which means both pressure on resources and a need for development to create jobs; agricultural issues; and water issues -- "in the next 100 years, the problems of non-sustainable water usage will be much more serious than oil."

"There has to be a new model of development: how to get all nations to the 21st century without repeating the mistakes of the 19th. Let's have honesty among nations and not let environmental issues keep the Third World out," he said.

Falcon took the Bush administration to task for hampering international efforts to address population growth. "The administration's inability to deal with the 'A' word -- abortion -- means population issues get left off of many agendas," he said.

Jessica Tuchman Mathews echoed Falcon in calling for the separation of the issues of abortion and population control.

"The world is on the cusp of the greatest change in national sovereignty since the advent of the nation-state," Mathews, vice president of the World Resources Institute and a columnist for the Washington Post, said. Economic affairs, telecommunications, travel and environmental concerns "make national borders irrelevant in a way they never were before," she said. Global warming, population growth and other environmental issues are all international concerns. And because the end of the Cold War has released people's time and attention, there is an opportunity for international institutions, businesses and individuals to have an impact on the way these concerns are addressed.

"We need to recapture a sense that the future matters, that we are responsible for posterity," Mathews said.

Mathews warned that U.S. credibility is low on many environmental issues such as timber cutting, energy policy and acid rain; "we have to get our own house in order first." But Pieter Winsemius, chairman of the Netherlands' Society for Nature Conservancy, echoed Wirth's theme, saying that in energy policy, for example, European interests are so fragmented that they would welcome leadership from the outside.

The key to finding environmental policies that can be effective and efficient is to get people to change their behavior, Winsemius said -- but individuals will not change if they do not believe the change is fair. This means that people from government, business and environmental movements must work harder to understand each others' concerns if they are going to be effective.

The United States has an enormous untapped potential to meet national and international energy requirements through energy efficiency, said John Bryson, chief executive officer of Southern California Edison Co. His company, one of the largest energy utilities in the world, has concluded it can meet the non-current needs of its customers over the next decade with efficiency measures -- "and we have concluded this is the least costly means."

Bryson said technological improvements, including solar and wind power sources and better electric cars, will make electrification part of the solution for the future. He urged a change in regulation policy to offer businesses the flexibility to meet environmental needs at the least cost.

"Sound environmental practices now and in the future are likely to be good business," Bryson concluded.

Robert Stavins, a senior research associate of Harvard University's Center for Science and International Affairs, echoed Bryson's call for a change in regulatory policy. "We fool ourselves and mislead ourselves if we don't consider economic considerations when we set standards and goals," he said. He called for more systems like the pollution-trading credits in the latest Clean Air Act.

"This is not a call for laissez-faire, leaving it up to the market," Stavins said. "It is a call to harness the market to help solve environmental problems."

Earth Day founder Denis Hayes, now president of Green Seal, a nonprofit organization that seeks to mobilize American consumers on behalf of environmental issues, traced the history of the modern environmental movement and pointed out its many victories. However, he said, "if you look at the global issues . . . it may be impossible to find one in which we are not worse off now that we were in 1970."

It is time to put decisions in consumers' hands, Hayes said. Increasingly it is clear that, given a choice, consumers will buy environmentally responsible products. "We may be on the threshold of a perestroika in the United States that will dwarf the perestroika in the Soviet Union. If it happens, it will emerge from the grass roots."

Hayes urged individuals -- as consumers, citizens and employees -- to consider the implications of their decisions.

"Ask yourself, what's the right thing to do, then do it."



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