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#738 - Environmental Trends -- Part 2, 21-Nov-2001

Here we continue summarizing the main points from the 327-page
report titled OECD ENVIRONMENTAL OUTLOOK[1] from the Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development, which describes current
environmental trends in the OECD's 30 member nations.[2] (See
Rachel's #737.)

The OECD report forecasts environmental trends to the year 2020,
using a traffic signal to highlight major conclusions: green
lights where it's OK to "proceed with caution," yellow lights for
important issues that are still shrouded in uncertainty and red
lights for problems that require "urgent action" because they are
likely to "significantly worsen" by 2020. (pg. 279) Notice that
even the "green light" issues warrant only a "proceed with
caution" advisory from the OECD.

Here we continue listing the most important "red light" problems
that the OECD has identified:

** Energy: Total energy use will increase 35% in OECD regions by
2020, and 51% elsewhere in the world. Oil will remain the OECD's
energy mainstay, and the share of oil supplied by OPEC
countries[3] will increase from 54% today to 74% by 2020. Only 6%
of energy will come from renewable sources (such as solar power)
by 2020, says the OECD, and even this "will depend upon financial
incentives from government." (pg. 148)

The OECD report does not say so, but any such financial
incentives would be subject to challenge under World Trade
Organization rules as illegal restraints of free trade. The WTO
does not allow governments to subsidize particular industries,
such as solar energy, though of course military subsidies to keep
the oil flowing from the Middle East are allowed. By 2020, the
share of OECD energy supplied by nuclear power may decline
slightly from its current 11%, the OECD says, because the
technology lacks popular support everywhere. (pg. 148)

** Global warming: "Global warming is a reality," says the OECD
report. (pg. 157) As the Earth warms, we should expect more
extreme weather in some regions (floods, droughts, and perhaps
more "catastrophic" events such as large hurricanes and
typhoons). We should also expect the sea level to rise somewhere
between 6 inches and 37 inches by the year 2100, inundating
valuable and densely-populated coastal lands. (pg. 162) Serious
human diseases carried by mosquitoes, such as dengue fever (also
called "breakbone fever" because it is so painful) and malaria,
are likely to increase in both the northern and southern
hemispheres, says the OECD. (pg. 162) "The possible effects of
climate change are a widely recognised future threat to human
health," says the OECD. "Climate change might result in new
infectious diseases, as well as changing patterns of known
diseases, and loss of life due to extreme weather conditions."
(pg. 252)

"Overall studies show that some of the most adverse impacts [of
global warming] are bound to occur in the Southern Hemisphere
where countries are most vulnerable and least likely to easily
adapt to climate change," says the OECD. (pg. 162)

Humans are contributing to global warming by releasing
"greenhouse gases" -- mainly carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous
oxide. Of these, CO2 is the largest. The OECD forecasts CO2
emissions rising 33% in OECD countries and 100% in the rest of
the world by 2020. To meet the goals of the Kyoto agreement,
intended to curb the damage from global warming, OECD countries
will need to reduce their CO2 emissions by anywhere from 18% to
40% depending on what non-OECD countries do. (pg. 160) Given that
the U.S. increased its CO2 emissions 11% between 1990 and 1998,
even an 18% reduction by 2020 would require a Herculean political
commitment to reverse "business as usual." (pg. 159)

** Chemicals: Although the chemical industry creates large
quantities of hazardous waste, an even bigger problem is its
products. The OECD says there are somewhere between one and two
million chemical preparations on the market today, each a mixture
of two or more individual chemicals that do not react with each
other. Each of these preparations must be considered in light of
workplace hazards, accidents involving hazardous materials, and
harmful exposures of workers in other industries, consumers, the
general public, and the natural environment, says the OECD.
Unfortunately, there is "an immense knowledge gap about chemicals
on the market," says the OECD: governments "lack adequate safety
information about the great majority of chemicals." (pg. 223) The
"unknown hazard" from chemicals is a "major concern," says the
OECD. (pg. 226)

"Major concerns exist about the possible impact on the
environment and human health of substances produced by the
chemicals industry, which are found in virtually every man-made
product," says the OECD. "Many are being detected in the
environment, where particular problems can be caused by
persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals. Concern is
growing, for example, about chemicals which cause endocrine
disruption and which persist in the environment," OECD says. (pg.
223) Endocrine disruption refers to industrial chemicals,
released into the environment, that interfere with the hormones
that control growth, development, and behavior in all birds,
fish, amphibians, reptiles, snails, lobsters, insects, and
mammals, including humans.

Evidently the OECD does not have confidence that governments --or the
chemical industry itself -- can control the chemical
problem because the report explicitly says that vigilance by
non-governmental organizations -- the environmental movement --will
be "critical" to the success of efforts to assess the
hazards of chemicals that are already on the market. (pg. 233)
And of course assessing the hazards is only a first step --prelude to
the much more contentious question of curbs,
phase-outs, forced substitutions, or bans.

In sum, persistent toxic chemicals "are expected to continue
being widespread in the environment over the next 20 years,
causing serious effects on human health," the OECD says. (pg. 19)

** Human Health: "The loss of health due to environmental
degradation is substantial" in OECD countries. (pg. 253) The
"most urgent issues" are "air pollution and exposure to
chemicals," the OECD says. The "greatest cause for concern" is
the "threat of continuing widespread release of chemicals to the
environment." (pg. 252) "This is not only a question of the
amount of chemicals that end up in the environment, but more a
question of their characteristics and effects. Unfortunately, the
latter are often unknown, as the recent discovery of the
endocrine disrupting effects of certain pesticide ingredients has
shown," the OECD says. (pg. 252)

The OECD estimates that environmental degradation causes
somewhere between 2% and 6% of all human disease in OECD
countries and 8% to 13% in non-OECD countries. (pg. 250) In OECD
countries this presently translates into health-care costs
between $50 billion and $130 billion per year, the OECD says.
(pg. 252)

The OECD report highlights two kinds of air pollution that can
harm humans: ground-level ozone, and fine particles, both created
by cars and trucks. Ground-level ozone -- a component of smog --
exacerbates asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and other chest
ailments, and diminishes lung capacity even in healthy children.
Health standards for ozone are exceeded at 95% of monitoring
sites in the U.S. and Japan and at 90% of sites in Europe, the
OECD reports. (pg. 188)

Fine particles -- soot so small that you can't see it, except as
a haze -- presently kill twice as many people as automobile
accidents each year, the OECD says. (pg. 176) And particles
produced by diesel engines cause lung cancer -- in the U.S.
alone, an estimated 125,000 new cases each year, the OECD says.

Environment and health costs from transportation presently amount
to 8% of GDP (gross domestic product) in Europe, not counting the
costs of traffic congestion, the OECD says. (pg. 176) And motor
vehicles will increase 32% in OECD countries by 2020, and 74%
worldwide. (pg. 170) As we approach 2020, stricter emission
controls will reduce urban air contaminants in many OECD
countries, but much of the rest of the world will be driving
older cars and trucks without benefit of modern controls.

Environmentalists, of course, would like to add many details to
the OECD's sobering report. The most blatant omission is the
biggest killer of all -- the workplace environment. As we have
reported previously, work-related injuries and disease kill about
165 workers EACH DAY in the U.S. alone -- a mammoth, ongoing
human rights violation that the OECD report has managed to
ignore. (See RACHEL'S #578.)

By cherry-picking data and sometimes fudging the details, writers
like Bjorn Lomborg manage to confuse the public by claiming that
environmental problems have been exaggerated or don't really
exist.[4] But this is the wrong time to be pretending that all is
well because the trends are otherwise. The world's oceans,
forests and biodiversity are clearly in trouble. Global warming
is real and, given the political power of oil and coal companies,
intractable. Waste is immense and growing, but toxic PRODUCTS are
an even bigger problem. Toxic chemicals can now be measured at
low levels in the bodies of living things everywhere on Earth,
from the bottoms of the deepest oceans to the most remote
mountain tops. Exotic industrial poisons have been introduced
into all of us without our informed consent -- invading our
bodies even before we are born -- and new harms from these toxic
trespassers are discovered almost daily as ignorance and cover-up
give way to openness and knowledge. But we needn't wait for yet
another scientific study. We already know enough to act and act
decisively.

The basic problem is that "free market" ideology regards the
natural environment as an inexhaustible supermarket for raw
materials and a bottomless free toilet for wastes. Both of these
conceptions are dead wrong, and therefore "markets" must not be
free -- they must be moderated by social covenants and government
policies -- ranging from simple generosity and sharing on an
international scale, to fessing up and taking responsibility for
the consequences of our actions on a corporate scale, plus a
range of government sanctions and strictures, including
purchasing preferences, subsidies for clean technologies, green
taxes and fees, precautionary regulations and actions, guarantees
of workplace safety and health (with real teeth), stiff fines,
and even prison for repeat polluters. The key reforms must aim to
create a vastly more responsive democracy, allowing people to
make decisions by talking together about those things that affect
their lives, displacing the elitist corporate rule that both
Democrats and Republicans today call government.

Reversing environmental decline will require above all the
commodity in shortest supply: courageous political commitment and
democratic policy innovations based firmly and explicitly on the
principle of forecaring or precaution, to counteract decades of
"free market" theology that have left governments weakened,
democracy vitiated, and the environment inadequately protected.
If we and our unelected "leaders" can't -- or won't -- face up to
the necessary changes, the environmental outlook for our children
and grandchildren will be grim indeed.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] Available at http://www1.oecd.org/env/.

[2] Last week we mistakenly omitted Ireland, a founding member of
the OECD. Current OECD member nations include Australia, Austria,
Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France,
Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea,
Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland,
Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland,
Turkey, the U.K. and the U.S.

[3] OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, has
11 members: Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya,
Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and
Venezuela. See http://www.opec.org/.

[4] Bjorn Lomborg, THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST (Cambridge,
England: Cambridge University Press, 2001). See reviews of
Lomborg in NATURE Vol. 414 (Nov. 8, 2001), pgs. 149-150; and
SCIENCE Vol. 294 (Nov. 9, 2001), pgs. 1285-1286. And see
http://www.wri.org/wri/press/mk_lomborg.html and http://www.anti-
lomborg.com/.