by Nicholas Olsen
While governors and universities are to be lauded for this week’s meeting to develop a strategy on climate change, it’s only a first step.
The governors are right to meet together, because the environment is a global commons where pollutants do not remain contained within state and national borders, and connections among leaders are essential. But connections within the US or any other country for that matter are not enough. Global action is necessary.
Last fall, in one of Yale’s largest lecture halls in anticipation of a large crowd, less than one out of three seats went filled when the director-general of the World Trade Organization visited Yale and spoke about the “greening” of the WTO and its economic strategies for discouraging environmental destruction by corporations. His lecture went by largely unnoticed and unfortunately it is likely that the meeting of the governors will too.
Pascal Lamy, the director-general, is genuinely concerned with the environment – and fully aware of the challenges that stem from valuing some parts of the environment more than others – whether it be large mammals over insects as well as the preference for animals deemed cute over humans in need of food.
He recalled the movement to protect dolphins from fishermen and marketing campaigns that marked tuna as “dolphin-safe” – and early concerns about the need to likewise protect food sources like tuna: “Americans perceived their beloved TV Dolphin, “Flipper,” to be in danger. But, to some others both in the United States and elsewhere, whereas dolphins were indeed important, there were other species that were also in need of protection. Ones equally vital to our ecosystem.”
After hearing his talk, I wondered: Why do environmentalists count themselves among the WTO’s bitterest enemies?
I often feel that individuals who oppose large global institutions like the WTO corporations do so without having a clear reason why. Once I asked a friend why he was going to Washington to protest at a World Bank meeting. He was unable to explain until he had called another friend. The friend explained that a global organization would never be able to fulfill the needs of everyone it claimed to serve and could only be controlled by large corporations with only profit in mind.
Sadly few people realize that any group of people no matter how small is able to give suggestions and proposals to the WTO. “When it was established, the WTO court quickly opened its doors to what are called ‘Friends of the Court’ briefs (or amicus curie briefs) from concerned citizens, or basically ‘anybody who could help the court, and since then such briefs have not stopped flowing,” Lamy noted during his Yale speech.
The WTO seeks consensus from all member countries when creating regulations regarding trade. Naturally larger, more powerful countries are able to push smaller countries into agreements and exert more influence. Group consensus is also valued among the environmentalists and anarchists who oppose the WTO so much. Unfortunately, in such groups, older members frequently try to exert more influence in matters that affect the entire group. Groups often present their concerns as an isolated priority – and fail to see the connections that the environment might have with trade, food, health and population control.
The world’s biggest problems cannot be solved unless groups find connections. For example, the WTO and its opponents have many similarities than either may care to admit. Many in the US increasingly question the extraordinary waste of food in our country. The United States and many other countries provide food subsidies to farmers which pay for them to destroy large parts of their harvests or dump them on the global market. This practice hurts farmers in poorer countries who are unable to sell their products at the artificially lowered rates. Eliminating food subsidies to prevent the waste and enforced poverty are among the priorities of WTO.
It’s helpful that the US is entering the world dialogue on climate change and that governors are planning strategy. But the most useful strategy will require connecting many priorities and concerns, overcoming parochial greed, welcoming the best ideas regardless of the source, and supporting some global initiatives.
For global government to be successful it is necessary that everyone understand how it works and what they can do as individuals to influence policy. The corporations only hold the power when we let them.
Although an organization that guides the rules for trade, the WTO could serve as a model for group action on climate change. As Lamy said at the December meeting in Bali on climate change, “A multilateral approach to climate change, that centers on collective action, is absolutely key.”