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13.3: The Environment

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    In 1968, Garret Hardin wrote The Tragedy of the Commons, which refers to how each sheep owner in the Middle Ages in Europe had the incentive to maximize use of common grazing areas to raise the greatest possible number of sheep. However, this resulted in overgrazing and destruction of the land so that it was unusable for anyone. Similarly, factory owners today want to maximize production and car owners want to use their cars freely, so they put more emissions in the atmosphere; timber companies want to sell more wood, so they cut down all the trees; fishing boat owners want make more money, so they catch all the fish; chemical plant owners want to save money, so they dump toxic wastes in the river.

    As a response to these issues, since the 1970s many countries have enacted regulations regarding air and water pollution, waste disposal and other environmental problems. Since environmental problems cross borders, there have also been attempts to deal with these problems on the international level.

    There have been over 30 global international environmental agreements and many more regional ones, as nation-states increasingly recognize that environmental problems connect strongly to national security, economics and human rights. For instance, when the Sahara Desert grows, people attack their neighbors to take their land. A long drought in Syria fueled migration to the cities and the rebellion against the Asad government. As deforestation in China increased, did costly flooding. Dams, deforestation, mining and industrial development displace farmers and indigenous peoples. More extreme weather has caused a doubling of deaths and destruction in the U.S., and increased poverty, refugees, and conflict all over the world. The Pentagon says that climate change is the most dangerous threat to world peace.

    -The 1972 Stockholm Conference was a landmark. For the first time, it put a list of principles on the global agenda, such as the necessity of protecting the environment in both your own country and your neighbors. Out of this conference came later agreements to reduce pollutants such as acid rain (smoke that combines with water in clouds to form sulfuric/battery acid), which was harming forests, lakes and lungs.

    -The 1987 Montreal Protocol successfully limited Freon and similar ozone-destroying CFC chemicals, in order to preserve the ozone layer in the atmosphere, which protects us from harmful rays from the sun. As a result, the ozone layer has stabilized and is predicted to recover within 40 years.

    -The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio focused on sustainability. Issues included global warming, endangered species and crashes in fisheries. Some agreements were reached on biodiversity and climate change.

    -The 1997 Kyoto Protocol set goals for reducing global warming emissions. However, when Bush 2 became president, he withdrew the U.S. from the treaty. Bush said he did not want to hurt the economy. Despite that, enough countries signed on to Kyoto for it to come into effect and Europe and Japan made serious efforts to reduce emissions, greatly increasing conservation, energy efficiency and the use of alternative energy. (Not-very-sunny Germany is the world’s largest producer of solar power.)

    -Conferences in Copenhagen in 2009, Cancun in 2010 and Durban in 2012 were disappointing, only producing agreement for countries to individually set lower emissions goals. India and other countries want to develop their economies, and ask why they should limit their prosperity when the West causes most of the global warming problem. (The top 10% produces 50% of greenhouse gases, whereas the bottom 50% produces only 10%.)

    Although global warming emissions keep increasing, there has been some progress. U.S. power companies have started using cleaner natural gas because increased production has reduced prices. Also, the Obama administration set reduced emissions by coal power plants and higher gasoline mileage standards for cars (although Republican states sued to stop them). Together, all of these reduced emissions. In addition, Obama also secured an agreement between the U.S. and China, the two biggest polluters, in which China agreed to reduce burning coal. This set the stage for the 2015 Paris Accords, where the entire world agreed to reduce emissions.

    Donald Trump withdrew from the Accords, but the other 192 countries in the world are following its provisions. Trump is also reversing coal plant and mileage standards, and the U.S. is increasing emissions once again.

    Meanwhile, CO2 levels and temperatures have been steadily rising, bringing more extreme weather, fires, bleaching of coral reefs, droughts and species extinctions. Melting ice and rising oceans threaten the 80% of cities that are on the shoreline and will make low-lying Pacific Island nations like Kiribati disappear. The 2019 follow-on climate conference in Madrid climate conference produced little progress.

    As we mentioned earlier, lack of water is becoming an issue, particularly in the American West, Northern China, Southwest Asia and the Middle East. In Russia, the once-huge Aral Sea has almost disappeared. Aquifers all over the world are falling. The number of dams and disputes over the sharing of water are increasing. However, there have also been regional agreements on subjects such as reducing pollution and sharing of rivers.

    Another issue is deforestation, which continues in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Amazon and Russia, with illegal logging increasing global warming, displacing native people from their land, and wiping out endangered species. Deforestation is so severe in Haiti that it causes flooding, and the border with the neighboring Dominican Republic can be seen from the air. Since Bolsanaro became president of Brazil, there have been continuous, massive forest fires in the Amazon rain forest to clear land for farms and ranches.

    Also, fisheries are crashing all over the world because of new fishing technologies and government financial support for more and larger bottom trawlers, which catch EVERYTHING in the ocean. Most fishing limits are imposed too little, too late, after most of the fish are already gone. Ninety percent of larger fish have already been taken. The EU and U.S. have set some sustainable fishing limits in some waters, but most fishing is still unregulated. In addition, warming oceans mean that the fish are moving North to new waters. The situation is approaching a crisis. Aquaculture can reduce pressure on wild stocks, but has problems of pollution, disease and GMO fish escaping into the wild.

    NGOs are very important in environmental matters, often informally setting the agenda and sometimes taking significant independent action. The Nature Conservancy bought up and/or cancelled third world debt in return for setting up nature reserves. Rainforest Action criticized Burger King for cutting down Brazil rainforests to graze cattle. Greenpeace targeted Brazil’s mahogany trade. The Worldwide Fund for Nature publicized the use of body parts from endangered species for medicine. Sea Shepherd so effectively harassed Japanese whaling ships that they cut their hunting season short. Basketball star Yao Ming publicly campaigned in China against shark fin soup and the slaughter of elephants for the ivory trade. The Chinese government later took shark fin soup off the menus of official banquets and recently announced that it will make the ivory trade illegal.


    Issues such as population, human rights and the environment, which used to be considered pure domestic matters, are now clearly on the international agenda, as indicated by the number of international conferences, agreements and programs.


    1. Give one modern example of intervening and one of ignoring human rights violations.

    2. Give three examples of human rights outside of the usual political context.

    3. Go to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( Are there any some countries might disagree with? Which ones? Why Are there any that you disagree with? Which ones? Why?

    4. How do countries like China criticize the human rights agenda?

    5. Which areas will see a population decrease in the coming decades? Why?

    6. What will happen to 1) China and India 2) the U.S. 3) Sub-Saharan Africa’s population in the coming decades?

    7. Give three examples of international environmental problems.

    8. Give three examples of international environmental agreements.

    This page titled 13.3: The Environment is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lawrence Meacham.

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