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10.11.03

It's Working So Well We Can Stop

At Meetings, U.S. To Seek Support For Broad Ozone Exemptions

The two-decade effort to eliminate chemicals that harm the ozone layer faces its most serious test in recent years this week as the Bush administration seeks international support for broad exemptions to a 2005 ban on a popular pesticide.

Many American farmers say the pesticide, methyl bromide, is vital as they try to compete with farm production in countries where fields are tended by low-paid laborers. Critics of the proposed exemptions, led by the European Union, say that substitute chemicals are already in wide use and that the American request threatens progress toward repairing the ozone layer, which shields the earth from radiation that causes cancers and other problems.

... [California Rep. George P.] Radanovich replied, "The intent of the legislation is to preserve the use of the only effective and affordable pesticide available for certain crops until an alternative is developed."


The dynamics of this proposal bring together a number of issues about how the current administration, and the crony capitalists it represents, think about the environment.

The most obvious comparison is to the Kyoto Protocol. In Kyoto and the ozone rules (the Montreal Protocol), developing countries are given exemptions to environmental standards. The theory is that forcing them to play by the same rules would hamper their achievement of economic success (since they don't have the resources, built up over decades of the early "dirty" phase of development, to invest in clean technology). And in both cases, this element of the rules is at the center of the administration's stated objections. I doubt Bush would go for any effective climate change measures, but he (along with the Senate) says one of the biggest problems with Kyoto is that it doesn't require developing countries to make emissions reductions. Likewise on the ozone front, we're seeing a complaint that developing countries are allowed to continue using methyl bromide, thus giving them an unfair advantage. Given how heavily subsidized -- to the detriment of the competitiveness of developing-world agriculture -- US farming is, I'm not inclined to be too sympathetic. Perhaps the situation is different for the specific crops that most benefit from methyl bromide, but I'm still skeptical, given that fruit and vegetable farming in Florida -- one of the key crops in contention -- has been both politically corrupt and damaging to the environment for reasons that go far beyond methyl bromide. Further, I'm resistant to the idea of sacrificing the environment (particularly since the worst effects will be felt not by the American famers using the chemicals but by people in far-away places like Australia) in order to maintain a level playing field for the most advanced countries.

Second, the contention that there are no good alternatives and that the US wants to continue using methyl bromide only until they're discovered is contrary to the history of international ozone protection treaties. We'll assume for the moment that the farmers, rather than the opponents who argue that there are substitutes already available, are correct here. There were similar concerns raised when the first aspects of the Montreal Protocol went into effect and restricted chemicals like freon and aerosol propellants. Yet as it turned out, the loss of those chemicals spurred research and innovation leading to the development of new chemicals that were all-around better than the old ones. Allowing the US to get out of methyl bromide restrictions will reduce the impetus for the very R&D that the farmers say they're waiting for.

This brings us to an important point about how capitalism as we know it works: it gets stuck in ruts. The costs of entry to many markets allow large companies to dominate them. These companies don't like innovation, because it shakes things up. They'd rather keep producing the products they know how to produce with the equipment and political concessions that they've already got set up. A prime example is the energy industry. The industry is, at present, geared mostly toward fossil fuel production. Innovative ideas that could replace fossil fuels are bought out by the big companies, then put on the back burner where they won't threaten present operations. The pesticide industry would like to stay in its rut, continuing to prodce methyl bromide rather than investing the effort in developing new, more environmentally friendly, formulas (and certainly rather than adopting techniques that would reduce the need for chemical pesticides). Likewise with the farmers who use methyl bromide.

A final point relates to an issue brought up in John Quiggin's criticism of "skeptical environmentalist" Bjorn Lomborg. One of Quiggin's complaints is that Lomborg "tries to argue against environmental policies by pointing to improvements generated by those very policies." This strategy has been used by the Bush administration before, in pointing to improvements in air quality since the passage of the Clean Air Act as evidence that we can weaken the Act. We see it surface in the push for exemptions from Montreal, as the administration points to improvements in the ozone situation since the implementation of Montreal as proof that they should be able to get out of their Montreal obligations. There's an added twist here, though: the improvements they point to haven't actually begun yet. Ozone-depleting chemicals have long lifespans, so it will be some time before we really start to see the effects. That means there's even less reason to allow loopholes in the rules.

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