- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

Is environmentalism dead? An essay highlighted in the New York Times in 2004 sparked a debate that continues today. The essayists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, lamented that “people in the environmental movement today find themselves politically less powerful than we were one and a half decades ago.”

But a new book published by scholar Bonner Cohen, “The Green Wave,” sets these ideas on their head. Mr. Cohen shows how environmental activists have had — and continue to have — a substantial influence on policy around the world. Their influence is clearly visible through their advocacy of the so-called precautionary principle, which holds that new technologies should be proven safe before they are used. The problem is that you can’t prove a negative, so applying this “principle” essentially grants regulators arbitrary power.

Mr. Cohen notes that early versions of the precautionary principle appeared in several international documents, including the United Nations World Charter for Nature (1982), the Nordic Council’s International Conference on the Pollution of the Seas (1989) and the Rio Declaration of Environment and Development (1992).

Environmental groups formalized the concept in 1998 when an assembly of 31 activists in Wisconsin released the “Wingspread Declaration.” It notes: “when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” A similar version of this principle was essentially endorsed by 180 nations as a provision of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000).

Mr. Cohen highlights how environmentalists have been able to use this “principle” to justify a host of foolish and often dangerous policy ideas. Consider biotechnology. Mr. Cohen notes that genetically modified (G.M.) crops have undergone extensive study by the world’s top scientific bodies. All report that G.M. foods pose no more risk than conventionally grown crops.

Yet the greens are undermining biotechnology’s use by arguing that no one can prove it safe, which threatens the critical role that G.M. food could play in expanding food production to meet the needs of the world’s growing population.

In 2002, for example, Zambia and Zimbabwe’s governments locked up warehouses full of U.S. G.M. corn that was donated by the American government to help feed people during a famine in these two nations.

“We would rather starve than get something toxic,” exclaimed Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa. (Apparently, anything not proven safe must be “toxic.”) But the starving citizens at home didn’t agree; they eventually broke into the warehouses and seized the corn.

The precautionary principle is also being used to justify a massive expansion of Europe’s chemical regulations under the so-called REACH proposal, writes Mr. Cohen. REACH — which stands for registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals — will impose a massive new paperwork structure on industry and will likely lead to product regulations and bans that will be very costly.

The United States will be affected because many of our firms export goods to Europe. Moreover, the greens and their allies at the U.N. are looking for ways to globalize the program. In fact, the U.N. has recently formed a program called the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which is slated to provide a voluntary regime to manage chemical use worldwide. Activists are working to ensure that this program follows the precautionary principle.

During the past round of negotiations, U.S. negotiators prevented direct reference to the precautionary principle in the program’s founding documents. However, the documents read that the program will “take into account” the wording of the Rio Declaration, which basically endorses the precautionary approach.

Supposedly, SAICM’s “voluntary nature” makes it an innocuous program. But Mr. Cohen shows how activists use such non-controversial, “voluntary” programs as part of a long-term strategy to advance binding programs. Their model is the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which started out as a voluntary initiative only to become an internationally binding program.

The Kyoto Protocol on global warming, Mr. Cohen points out, also started with a voluntary agreement, but eventually became an international treaty. The U.S. government has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but the U.N. has received enough national ratifications to make the program binding on those nations that ratified the treaty.

Mr. Cohen shows that environmentalism (and its calls to limit technology and progress) is alive and well. “The green power structure,” Mr. Cohen eventually concludes, “now has a prominent and well-padded seat at the table.” Unfortunately for those who prefer more freedom and less regulation, the environmental movement “will not be dislodged easily.”

Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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