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A Green Foreign Policy | The Nation

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A Green Foreign Policy

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The power of the market, and of the giant corporations that dominate it, is the overriding political fact of our time. Traditionally, we think of foreign policy as something conducted among nation-states. But when fifty-one of the world's biggest economies are corporations rather than countries, old definitions no longer apply. To be realistic, a modern foreign policy must be directed at global corporations as well as at other countries.

About the Author

Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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To underline how climate change must become everyone’s issue, we asked writers on beats not usually concerned with extreme weather to weigh in.

According to the IPCC’s latest report, global warming is already hurting people, especially the poor, and is bound to get worse in the years ahead. 

This is especially true of environmental foreign policy. As much as OPEC and the world's governments, it is Exxon and the rest of the fossil-fuels industry that will determine our species' response to climate change. This is partly because they have the money to pay for campaign contributions and misleading advertising that influences politicians to drag their feet on the issue, but it's also because the companies control the energy production process; if they keep extracting and burning more fossil fuel--while also delaying the transition to efficiency and renewables--the problem will get worse no matter what is written in international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol, signed by governments in December 1997. Indeed, Exxon chairman Lee Raymond visited China a few weeks before the Kyoto conference to urge his hosts not to let unfounded fears of climate change reduce China's fossil-fuel consumption. Likewise, it is the corporate proponents of globalization more than their governmental counterparts who are most insistent about spreading the American model of hyperconsumerism around the planet, with all the additional environmental damage that implies.

Governments are not without considerable power of their own, however, which is why a forceful, creative environmental foreign policy could do so much to alter our disastrous current course. True, capital's global reach--its ability to play governments, workers and communities in one country off against those in another--gives it many advantages. But to prosper, capital still needs many things that only governments can offer: enforcement of the rule of law and respect for private property; a healthy, educated work force; a social infrastructure of communications, transportation and amenities; and much else. Therefore, astute government officials, especially in nations that are stable and boast large internal markets like the United States, should be able to bargain with corporations from a position of some strength. Moreover, much of the damage corporations inflict on ecosystems is now done with the encouragement of governments (and their proxies, like the World Bank) in the form of unwise subsidies and lax or nonexistent regulation. Since the 1992 Earth Summit, the World Bank has spent $13.6 billion on fossil-fuel development in China, Russia and elsewhere, subsidizing in the process such corporate giants as Exxon, while devoting only 1 percent of its energy loans to efficiency projects. Governments need only reverse such policies to effect great environmental improvement.

Of course, governments must want to do the right thing. Which is why a discussion of a corporate-savvy environmental foreign policy presupposes certain conditions not yet in place, especially the comprehensive campaign finance reform needed to free government policy from the grip of big-money interests.

But let's dream awhile. Let's assume that these conditions have somehow come into being and federal officials are seeking to formulate a principled, effective environmental foreign policy. What would it look like?

First, environmental values would be at the heart, not the margins, of American foreign policy. Just as the United States says it supports democracy and private enterprise in its overseas dealings, so it should support ecological sustainability. Specifically, an environmental foreign policy would: seriously address climate change; reverse subsidies and other policies that hasten rainforest destruction and the epidemic of plant and animal extinctions it causes; promote female literacy and equality as the surest step toward lower birth and poverty rates; adopt trade, aid and investment guidelines that promote solar energy, "drip" irrigation and mass transit, rather than fossil fuels, private cars and industrial-scale, chemically dependent agriculture; halt the dumping of toxic waste in poor nations; and require labeling and testing of all genetically modified organisms before allowing them onto the market.

Second, the President must make it clear that environmental issues matter in America's foreign conduct. Bill Clinton has, on the contrary, relegated them to the periphery. In pushing NAFTA, the WTO and other parts of his free-trade agenda, for example, Clinton insisted that environmental and labor considerations be handled in side agreements, rather than in the main agreements. That's not good enough. Policy-makers must recognize that the environmental crisis threatens consequences no less dangerous than shooting wars and trade disputes do. Unchecked climate change, for example, will swamp the coastal regions where one-third of the world's people live and generate more killer storms like 1998's Hurricane Mitch, bringing misery to millions and greatly worsening the already overwhelming global refugee problem. (Credible analysts project that the 25 million environmentally induced refugees in the world today could increase to 50 million or more by the year 2010.)

The environment therefore must be elevated to the same priority status within foreign-policy-making as security, economics and politics. In practical terms that means, among other things, assigning to the environment Cabinet-level authority, budgets and access to the President. The Clinton Administration took a step in this direction in 1993, when it created the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs position and appointed former Senator Timothy Wirth to the job. But the move, though impressive on paper--Wirth ranked very high in the State Department hierarchy--had little effect on overall policy, largely because Clinton and his Secretaries of State made it clear by their inattention how little they really cared about the Under Secretary's issues. Without concrete, outspoken support from the very top, the culture of the foreign policy bureaucracy will not change. Foreign-service officers must see that environmental expertise leads to the kind of quick promotion and choice assignment usually associated with security and political specializations.

Next, a substantive reform. It's one thing to give lip service to environmental values, another to integrate them into policy-making. One mechanism that could help is the environmental impact assessment, or EIA. Introduced thirty years ago in the National Environmental Policy Act, the EIA is now a basic tool of domestic environmental policy. In effect, it forces government and corporate officials to acknowledge the likely environmental consequences of a proposed course of action, even as it gives citizen groups a procedural basis for opposing or influencing the action, thus democratizing decision-making.

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