Sustainable Development in the United States

Serious consideration of sustainable development in American political practice and public policy is relatively recent. Although recognition of its importance is widespread, efforts to translate its implicit principles into political practice have been uncoordinated and inconsistent. At the federal, state, regional, and local levels, however, accumulating evidence shows that many of the ideas advocated by proponents of sustainability are being applied, often experimentally, in different policy domains.

As early as 1993, the National Commission on the Environment, a prestigious group of private individuals including four former heads of the U.S. EPA, called for rethinking environmental policies and urged that "U.S. leadership should be based on the concept of sustainable development, and the merging of economic and environmental goals in the concept of sustainable development can and should constitute a central guiding principle for national environmental and economic policymaking" [25].

In 1997, President Clinton took up the challenge by appointing a new President's Council on Sustainable Development. The council, consisting of some twenty-five leaders from industry, government, and the environmental community, met over a period of six years and issued several reports [25]. However, after 1997, the Republican-dominated Congress was indifferent or hostile to the idea of sustainability, and the council's work was largely disregarded by other federal agencies. The EPA did introduce some new community-based environmental protection programs to encourage state and local governments to adopt sustainable development projects, and other departments attempted to define sustainability goals and to remediate environmental degradation caused by federal agencies including the Department of Defense [26].

The federal government continues to promote the concept of sustainable development through incremental, modest innovations in its own structure, such as the Interagency Working Group on Sustainable Development Indicators and numerous study initiatives within virtually all major federal departments. For example, in 2002 and 2003 the EPA initiated several important reforms of innovative community-based approaches to environmental management that focus on citizen participation [27-29]. Several state governments in the U.S. have adopted environmental policy innovations in the management of hazardous waste. These state-sponsored, non-federally mandated initiatives to protect the environment support the general principles of sustainable development [30].

Among federal agencies, the ecological precepts on which sustainability ideas are grounded are being tested and implemented by the major land management agencies—the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service—through the development of ecosystem management. For the most part, however, sustainable development has been regarded as "someone else's problem" and has remained outside the vocabulary of U.S. politics, particularly at the national level [31].

Since 2001, President George W. Bush has not supported the concept of sustainable development, preferring instead the older concept of environmental "stewardship." His policies appear to assume that scientific and technological advances brought about by global economic growth will allow humans to overcome or adapt to future environmental challenges. As in the Reagan Administration, environmental concerns have been relegated to the margins of policymaking.

In fact, empirical evidence indicates that the U.S. does not fare well on measures of environmental sustainability. One quantitative index, developed at Yale and Columbia Universities, ranks the U.S. 45th out of 146 countries studied—behind nations such as Japan, Germany, Russia, and even Botswana, Croatia, and Estonia [32]. Further, the fact that the U.S. has not ratified international environmental treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol (1997), the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) and its Biosafety Protocol (2000), the Basel Convention on transboundary movement of hazardous wastes (1989), the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (2001), and the Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) does not speak well of U.S. global environmental stewardship.

President George W. Bush's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into effect on February 16, 2005, has isolated the U.S. from virtually all of the rest of the world on climate change diplomacy. More than 140 other nations have ratified the protocol, including all other industrialized nations, except Australia. Moreover, the U.S. has attempted to block negotiations on targets for further greenhouse gas reductions following the end of the Kyoto period in 2012 [33]. President Bush's separate plan for gradually reducing U.S. greenhouse gas "emission intensity" (the volume of emissions per unit of economic output) by inviting companies to voluntarily submit data to a national emissions registry is not likely to have much effect. According to one estimate, under Bush's policy, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will rise 14% over 2000 levels and 30% above 1990 levels by 2010 [34]. However, Bush's support for new technologies such as vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells and zero-emissions coal-fired power plants may help to provide solutions in the decades beyond that [35].

Several climate change bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress. The Climate Stewardship Act of 2003, sponsored by Senators Joseph Lieberman (Democrat, Connecticut), and John McCain (Republican, Arizona), failed to get passed by a 43-55 vote on October 30, 2003. This bipartisan legislation, which is likely to be considered again in the 109th Congress (2005-2007), would cap greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation, transportation, industrial, and commercial sectors in the United States at 2000 levels in 2010 and at 1990 levels in 2016 [36,37].

The European Union has already created a cap-and-trade program covering about half of its industrial carbon dioxide emissions, beginning in 2005. Because many multinational corporations are subject to these and other national restrictions (e.g., in Japan and China), pressure will likely mount for a similar

U.S. system that might be linked to an international trading regime in the future [38]. In the meantime, many state and local governments in the U.S. are taking actions to stem greenhouse gas emissions without waiting for the federal government to act [39,40].

The governments of many countries, particularly those associated with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have adopted many of the international standards for sustainable development in their national strategies and practices. However, the U.S. remains one of only six of the thirty OECD countries that do not have a national sustainable strategy. The U.S. has instead adopted a decentralized approach and emphasized public/private sustainable development partnership to promote economic growth, social development and environmental "stewardship" [41].

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