Storm Warnings Ahead

In Red Sky at Morning, the ultimate insider offers a devastating critique of global environmental efforts

A cynic picking up Red Sky at Morning (Yale University; 299 pages) might wonder why the international community should do better protecting the earth's life-support systems than it has done preventing nuclear proliferation, terrorism or the piracy of Britney Spears CDs. The answer, according to James Gustave Speth's book, which has the quiet, seething tone of an insider who believed in the system but witnessed only steady decline, is that a habitable planet is a prerequisite for dealing with all the other problems.

Speth either created or ran many of the most important environmental institutions of the past 30 years, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the U.N. Development Program. From these bully pulpits, he pushed for grand treaties and participated in earth summits. Now dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, he gives a failing grade to almost every effort: "The climate convention is not protecting climate, the biodiversity convention is not protecting biodiversity, [and] the desertification convention is not preventing desertification."

Speth meticulously chronicles decades of missed opportunities. As a Carter Administration official in 1979, he received a report signed by some of the most distinguished scientists of the day predicting that greenhouse-gas emissions would lead to a "conspicuous" warming by the end of the century. Even before that date, the warming was unmistakable.

He leavens this detailed history with dry asides. After ticking off two decades of techniques used to delay action on climate change — question the science, claim that the problem lies far off in the future and then switch to saying it's too late to do anything — he drolly notes, "The Bush Administration moved through this string of evasions in half a presidential term."

Speth recognizes that the very act of addressing problems through treaties is itself an evasion. The approach moved environmental issues into a province where negotiators have proved willing to settle for minimal requirements, constituencies are scattered and governments can grandstand. Indeed, most environmental treaties have the same effect as presidential commissions — they assuage the public's anxieties while forestalling real action.

The result of this dithering, argues Speth, is that whatever slack nature cut us is gone. Still, he hasn't given up. Now he's looking to scale up what he calls "jazz," the voluntary and improvisational efforts of those who believe the world should heed the traditional sailor's warning alluded to in the book's title. If people lead, maybe the leaders will follow.


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April 2004

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