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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Secretary of State

Air Date: Week of

Warren Christopher tells Steve Curwood how environmental issues have influenced US foreign policy, and describes the State Department's role in conservation.


CURWOOD: When we think of foreign policy, generally what comes to mind are peace treaties and trade agreements. But Secretary of State Warren Christopher is now pushing environmental issues to the diplomatic forefront. In a February memo he told State Department officials to identify environmental issues that affect US interests and develop specific plans to deal with them. He also focused on the environment during a trip to Latin America, where he called for greater protection of the Amazon rainforest, and during what was billed as a major foreign policy address delivered recently at Stanford University. But all this attention comes at an interesting time. President Clinton has made it clear that environmental protection is going to be one of his core campaign issues. I asked Secretary Christopher if his embrace of ecology is linked to politics.

CHRISTOPHER: Absolutely not. I don't do politics; this is really a natural follow-on, on things that I've started at the beginning of my administration with the President's strong encouragements, setting up the under-Secretaryship for global affairs. I think it's important, it's come home to me during the three years that I have been Secretary of State and especially in some of my recent travels, I was struck by the tremendous importance of preserving the rainforests, the need to find new uses for rainforest products. The governor of that area said to me, he thought that there was no longer a sense of competition between the economy and the environment, but actually they needed to be made compatible. But in addition to that, being in Ukraine at the time of the 10th anniversary of Chernobyl and going through a hospital, a children's hospital, where they're still treating children as a legacy of that terrible event, those are only two of the things that brought this home very graphically to me.

CURWOOD: You're responsible for our national security and our international security. How does the environment relate to that?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, it relates in 2 ways. First it relates very directly, in the sense that environmental forces, environmental threats, transcend boundaries, and so the effects of environmental degradation frequently is felt by American citizens. You can see that very clearly in the ozone depletion situation, in the climate change. Equally important, though not so well understood, is the effect of the environment on instability abroad. Environmental problems can aggravate existing problems and sometimes give rise to tensions between countries that play themselves out in conflicts.

CURWOOD: Can you give me a case in point?

CHRISTOPHER: I can give you a case in point in the sense that in some countries that we might have an adversarial relationship with, one of the areas in which we have much common ground is the environment. Take the situation with China. When I meet with the Chinese, one of the subjects they're very interested in talking about is the importance of cooperating on the environment. And within a month they'll be sending a team to meet with us on environmental issues. That's the kind of an issue on which the cooperation is so obviously important, it gives us a way to have a dialogue and find common interests.

CURWOOD: Why should China listen to our concerns about this? I mean, this is the way we industrialized.

CHRISTOPHER: I think China recognizes that with their tremendous population and their relative shortage of resources in relation to the population, they've got a problem that must be dealt with. You know, simply because we may have made mistakes in an earlier period of our history, other nations with much vaster populations and fewer resources simply won't be able to afford the kind of extravagances that we did in earlier years. There's a very strong desire on the part of the Chinese to cooperate and consult on this issue, I think in large part, because they recognize the tremendous problems created by their enormous population.

CURWOOD: What is in the best interests of the United States in terms of helping the Soviet, the former Soviet Union deal with its environmental problems?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, we're working at it from a number of different aspects. As you know, President Clinton will be going to Moscow for a nuclear safety summit later this month, and there will have an opportunity to promote nuclear safety, to promote dealing with nuclear plants in a safe way that leads of course into the Chernobyl situation where we urgently have to help ensure that, so far as possible, that there are no more Chernobyls.

CURWOOD: Does that mean money from us, do you think?

CHRISTOPHER: Certainly that would mean money from the international community to close down Chernobyl and to help Ukraine afford more modern emphasis on these safer nuclear plants.

CURWOOD: The climate change convention is coming up in what? Nineteen-ninety-seven?


CURWOOD: Again. What do you think we should do at those negotiations, and how well do you think we're doing here at home in terms of meeting the obligations that we had expressed -- I know they're voluntary -- back when the agreement was signed in Rio?

CHRISTOPHER: Steve, I think that's one of the major issues for 1996. To do the preparation so that can be a successful conference in 1997. There's really been a change in the scientific judgment about it, whereas there used to be some doubt. There now seems to be a strong consensus of scientific opinion that climate change is affected by the actions of human beings. So we've got an opportunity here to begin to convince others and to take actions ourselves to deal with climate change. Otherwise we're likely to find ourselves costing just billions of dollars to our industry, to our insurance companies, as the effect of climate change begin to sweep over us. There's no more important environmental issues, I think, facing us right now than that.

CURWOOD: One of the treaties it cited as a success is the Montreal Protocol and the ozone layer, that called for phasing out CFC production worldwide. But the Customs Service tells us now that CFC smuggling from developing nations is the number 2 problem it faces after drugs, and the price of freon is as low as ever. Are we having a problem trying to enforce this?

CHRISTOPHER: Yes. I think there's unquestionably an enforcement problem. But we've made great progress on this front. There are some chemicals that remain where enforcement is necessary, but we've got a structure -- I think the world has recognized the importance of this -- indeed we plan, in 1997, to have a conference on the implementation of existing agreements. One of the problems in international life is too often agreements are entered into but they're not carried out, they're not implemented, they're not complied with. So we're going to have a conference devoted to that particular issue and certainly the ozone agreements will be focused on there.

CURWOOD: Does that mean the US will wind up as the world's environmental cop?

CHRISTOPHER: No, I think it means that the United States leadership will be vital in order to get the job done.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us.

CHRISTOPHER: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Warren Christopher is Secretary of State of the United States.



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