Analysis: UN Continues to March Left on Environment Issues

Published April 1, 1999

Klaus Topfer was named Director General of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) approximately a year ago. At the same time, he was named chairman of a task force charged with setting a consistent environmental policy for the United Nation’s many departments and programs.

Topfer is a familiar and disappointing figure to advocates of sound science and market-based policies. As Germany’s environment minister, he was responsible for implementing that country’s “green dot” program, which forced the manufacturers of packaging to retrieve and recycle their products. The ill-conceived plan was enormously costly and probably environmentally damaging.

Topfer’s position as head of UNEP makes him an important player in global environmental debates. He would become even more important if, as some are advocating, UNEP is given authority to act as the final arbiter of what constitutes sound science on virtually any environmental controversy.

President Jacque Chirac of France, in a speech delivered last November, called for “establishing an impartial and indisputable global center for the evaluation of our environment.” We need a center, he said, that “embodies the environmental conscience of the world. . . . It should be given the task of federating the scattered secretariats of the great conventions, gradually establishing a World Authority, based on a general convention that endows the world with a uniform doctrine.” The UNEP, according to Chirac, “should be responsible for putting this into effect.”

Topfer’s views on science, economics, and international relations expressed during a recent interview (see sidebar for excerpts) raise many red flags for advocates of sound science and market-based environmental protection.

Topfer’s Take on Global Warming

According to Topfer, the scientific debate over global warming is over, and it is simply a matter of convincing policymakers “that the scientists are right; that yes, we are changing the climate by human activities.” Topfer himself is already convinced: “It is absolutely time to act because there are repercussions in the change of climate now.”

But as has been reported in Environment News and elsewhere, many prominent scientists do not believe general circulation models are sufficiently precise to show a human influence on the global climate, much less establish the need for immediate action. The Oregon Institute Petition, for example, now signed by 17,000 scientists, urges “the United State government to reject the global warming agreement that was written in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, and any other similar proposals.”

Even the chairman, Dr. Bert Bolin, and lead science author, Dr. Benjamin Santer, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations’ scientific advisory group, have said “the climate issue is not ‘settled’; it is both uncertain and incomplete” (Bolin) and “it will be hard to say, with confidence, that an anthropogenic climate signal has or has not been detected” (Santer).

The IPCC has been widely criticized for politicizing the global warming issue and misrepresenting the degree of certainty within the scientific community. A “World Authority” on science operated by Topfer’s UNEP would almost certainly be worse. The most extreme voices in the environment debate would achieve what they could not achieve through scientific research and debate: consensus that global warming is a legitimate environmental threat.

Not Just Global Warming

Topfer’s views on resource depletion are similarly extreme. He is convinced the planet’s “limited natural resources” will run out, the result of “over-consumption” by developed nations. He refers to The Limits to Growth, an alarmist tract published in 1974, as a “wonderful book,” even though its authors erroneously predicted widespread and crippling depletions of oil and other natural resources in the 1980s and 1990s.

In fact, natural resources are becoming more plentiful over time, as shown by declining real prices for most minerals as well as food. Any serious student of the issue learns that human consumption of most minerals is so tiny compared to available resources, and substitutes for the truly rare materials are so readily identified and exploited, that physical limits on the supply of natural resources do not meaningfully limit human prosperity.

Market Economist, Free Trade Opponent?

Although he claims to be a “market economist by my conviction, by my education as well,” Topfer shows little understanding of free trade. He supports a complete ban on the export of hazardous waste and claims the prosperity of developed countries impoverishes less-developed countries, a process he calls “beggar thy neighbor.”

Banning trade in hazardous wastes means every nation must choose among three options: acquire and master the advanced technologies needed to safely store and recycle waste; master the even more advanced technologies required to avoid hazardous waste production; or prohibit any economic activity that might produce hazardous waste. For poor countries and countries that lack geographic space, any of these choices will impose huge social welfare costs.

The service that free trade provides is allowing nations to take advantage of comparative advantages–their own as well as those of their trading partners–to solve problems and address needs at the lowest possible cost. Comparative advantage is a product of the division of labor, which economists since Adam Smith have recognized to be the cornerstone of economic growth and prosperity.

Trades between individuals do not occur, in the absence of coercion, unless both sides foresee a benefit. This is no less true when trades occur among individuals residing in different nations. In fact, the opportunity for mutual benefit may increase the greater the dissimilarities of climate, natural resources, and cultures of the traders. The notion that one nation’s prosperity may cause another country’s poverty flies in the face of the fundamental relationship created by trade.

Finally, Topfer’s interpretation of international relations is also peculiar, but not unfamiliar. The export of hazardous waste to developing countries is a “neocolonial approach,” he says, and asking developing countries to control their greenhouse gas emissions “is really imperialism.” Like the Marxist historians with whom he apparently agrees, Topfer forecasts a class war between the developed and developing countries, even going so far as to call it “a new cold war.”

From his outdated opinions on global warming and resource depletion to his crypto-Marxist vision of the future, Topfer is decidedly out of step with sound science and the global advance of democratic capitalism. It is sad, but perhaps inevitable, that a person with such views would climb the ladder to a position of influence at the United Nations. It is alarming to contemplate such an individual in the role of “World Authority” on all matters environmental.

Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute.