Beyond the Brazil Summit: Conserving Biodiversity
Peter H. Raven
During every second that President Bush and other leaders spend at this week's Earth Summit in Brazil, the world will lose nearly one acre of forest. Each day hundreds of species will vanish. When the conference ends and everyone returns home to deal with other problems, this destruction will continue.
In the 20 years since the world last paused, in Stockholm, to ponder its environmental plight, an area of tropical forest has been cleared equal to all of the United States east of the Mississippi River. A fifth of the topsoil from the world's arable lands is gone.
We must not allow these trends to continue after the politicians depart from this week's conference. Decisive action is needed to deal with global warming and other environmental problems. As a biologist I worry especially about continued destruction of tropical vegetation and species. During the past 30 years about one-third of the tropical rain forest has disappeared. An equal amount may vanish over the next 30 to 50 years, taking with it a quarter of the world's species diversity. Arid and semi-arid regions also are losing species at alarming rates.
The loss of this biological heritage is incalculable. We depend on animal, plant, fungal, and microbial species for food, fuel, fiber, drugs and raw materials. Our agricultural
bounty is based on formerly wild plant and animal germplasm. Living organisms mitigate pollution.
The public demand for action to preserve forests and "biodiversity" has grown tremendously. That's good, because scientists alone cannot solve a problem that involves politics and economics as much as science. But even as we act, we must plug some significant gaps in our understanding of the problem.
A National Research Council committee, which I chaired, concluded recently that a lack of scientific information is hampering our ability to comprehend the magnitude of the loss of biodiversity, prevent further losses, and formulate sustainable alternatives to depleting resources. Answers are unavailable for seemingly simple but important questions: How many species are there? Where do they occur? What is their ecological role? What is their status — common, rare, endangered, extinct?
To date, about 1.4 million kinds of organisms have been assigned scientific names, but coverage is relatively complete only for a few taxonomic groups such as plants, vertebrates and butterflies. Most groups and many major habitats such as coral reefs or forest canopies remain poorly studied. Estimates of the Earth's total species diversity range enormously, from 10 million to 100 million. That's like calculating a fortune without knowing whether you have dimes or dollars.
Although the situation is too critical to wait for research to reveal in full detail how we may sustain biodiversity permanently, the U.S. Agency for International Development and similar bodies should move aggressively to resolve these many scientific questions.
The most basic research requirement is to gain a better sense of "what's out there." We need to know more about how biological diversity is distributed, how it is faring, how to protect it and use it in a sustainable manner, and how to restore it.
With biological resources disappearing so quickly, it also is essential to identify the most effective methods for preserving and restoring ecosystems. Genetic engineering and
other scientific advances have the potential to boost agricultural production, thereby reducing the need to clear undisturbed forests. Botanical gardens, seed banks and other facilities could help preserve information on biodiversity. Yet many nations with the highest concentrations of biological diversity are crippled by persistent poverty and high rates of population growth. We must learn how to help their local institutions make things better.
The best way to deal with the problem is through a series of what might be called national biological resource commissions, which bring together the private and public sectors of countries in studying how to economically exploit biodiversity for national benefit while conserving it for future generations. The Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad in Costa Rica is an excellent example. Similar organizations are being formed in Taiwan and Mexico. They deserve our support.
The loss of biodiversity is irreversible; species that are lost are lost forever. The potential impact of that loss on the human condition, on the fabric of the Earth's living systems and on evolution itself is immense. A delay of even five years will be too late to prevent staggering losses. When the Brazil conference ends, the real challenge begins.
May 31, 1992
Peter H. Raven is director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.
* * *
Faltering Science in the Rain Forest
Thurman L. Grove
It's been weeks since the world packed up its cameras and left the Earth Summit in Brazil for other issues. But deep in the Amazon jungle, where few politicians or journalists tread, the battle to preserve the world's biggest rain forest continues.
At the forefront of that battle are scientists racing to categorize and study the forest's plants, animals and other ''biodiversity'' before it disappears. These Brazilian experts have foregone comfortable careers in the cities to carry out research for little pay or recognition. They are true heroes on the environmental front lines.
With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, I recently led a National Research Council team that visited many of these scientists. We found their situation intolerable. Their pay is pitiful, equipment is falling apart, and working conditions are needlessly dangerous. If Brazil and the international community are serious about saving the rain forest, they need to help these scientists immediately. Otherwise, the world may lose its last chance to learn about — and perhaps preserve — this precious ecosystem, which helps cleanse the world's atmosphere.
Two Brazilian institutions are primarily responsible for our knowledge of the Amazon forest and its inhabitants. The Emilio Goeldi Museum in Belem, near the mouth of the Amazon River, was established in 1866. The National Institute for Research in the Amazon, in the middle of the forest, was established in 1952. Together they house irreplaceable collections of biological and cultural materials, much as the Smithsonian Institution serves as the treasure trove for our country.
Both Brazilian institutions are in jeopardy. The Goeldi Museum attracts a half-million visitors annually to see the excellent zoo and educational programs. But money now is so tight that the veterinarian who cares for the animals has no running water in his clinic. Caretakers prepare food for
the animals in a condemned building with no refrigeration — this in a tropical country where food spoils quickly. There even are shortages of the stainless steel pins used to mount butterflies.
At the forest research institute, meanwhile, the walls are scorched because the electrical circuits cannot handle modern equipment. There is no safety equipment to protect against noxious fumes and other dangers. The library lacks money to buy books, much less to connect with "on line" scientific data bases via computer.
Most worrisome is that priceless collections of Amazonian plants at both institutions are imperiled by a lack of reliable air conditioners and dehumidifiers. From a biological standpoint, this is like taking the Declaration of Independence out of its protective case at the National Archives and placing it outside in the afternoon sun. The Amazon is home to countless species, some of which undoubtedly could yield new medicines and other products to improve life not only in Brazil but in the United States as well.
The people we met at these institutions were very dedicated. They live thousands of miles from their professional colleagues and extended families. Many could earn more money with less trouble in Sao Paolo or Rio de Janeiro. Yet they stay, trying to do scientific work that is essential to preserving our planet's precious biodiversity.
Their plight is not just Brazil's problem but our own. If the Rio conference taught the world anything, it is that environmental problems such as saving tropical rain forests extend beyond national borders. Brazil contains more than a third of the world's tropical moist forests, but is clearing the land at an alarming rate. Unless this changes, the entire planet could feel the consequences.
The United States has pledged to contribute to an international effort to help Brazil reduce deforestation. But it has not yet contributed the money, much less taken any leadership in bolstering these faltering scientific efforts. At the least, the United States should support international efforts aimed at rebuilding the Amazonian institutions and helping the experts who work there.
While others make speeches about the Amazon, the sci-
entists in the Amazon are facing the daily rigors of living in a hostile environment characterized by heat, humidity and disease. They are the ones doing the hard work. If we meant what we said at the Earth Summit about helping other countries preserve the Global Commons, here's a chance to prove it.
September 6, 1992
Thurman L. Grove is professor of soil science and assistant dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University.
* * *
The Perilous State of Science in the Former Soviet Union
Few people know more about earthquakes and related natural phenomena than V.I. Keilis-Borok. He is one of Russia's most renowned scientists and a foreign associate of our own National Academy of Sciences. I conducted research with him for more than 20 years.
His current salary is equivalent to $15 a month.
My friend Volodya is not alone. Many senior researchers in the former Soviet Union are being paid less than Moscow's bus drivers. They lack the funds to run their computers, restock their laboratories or pay for scientific journals. University faculty are bringing their own light bulbs to lecture halls. The largest scientific publishing house in the former Soviet Union reportedly has turned to publishing a book on astrology to raise cash.
All this has attracted attention in the United States, mainly because of fear that former Soviet weapons experts may go
to work for Iraq or other countries eager for their expertise. But that danger is only the most obvious reason why our country should greatly expand its efforts to assist scientists and others whose expertise is essential for the former Soviet Union seeing its way successfully to a future that so heavily affects our own.
Our Academy has been in almost daily contact with colleagues in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other scientific centers. They have cited example after desperate example of how world-class research is being suspended due to a lack of budgetary support and an exodus of experts.
It is hard to overstate the magnitude and importance of this teetering scientific enterprise. The former Soviet scientific system must remain vital if reform efforts are to succeed. Russia and the other states need technical expertise to achieve economic growth, clean up the environment, expand agricultural output, provide health care and meet other essential goals.
Since these nations are home to some outstanding research groups, it also is in our own interest to collaborate with them. Firms from Germany, Japan and other countries already have begun searching out commercial targets, with strong backing from their governments. U.S. companies and government should be seeking similar business alliances before the best opportunities disappear.
The former Soviet Union also is home to many research facilities, data sets and other scientific resources whose value is less commercial but perhaps even more profound. Years of study that could benefit the world may be damaged or lost.
At a recent meeting at our Academy requested by D. Allan Bromley, assistant to President Bush for science and technology, more than 100 U.S. scientists and engineers warned that time is of the essence. Our government must act immediately and aggressively to help reorient the basic science and technological capabilities of the former Soviet Union and stem the brain drain of its experts.
Congress and the administration deserve praise for their recent efforts to provide funds to help dismantle the nuclear weapons complex within the former Soviet Union and pro-
vide new opportunities for its weapons scientists. But we must not ignore the many talented scientists who did not participate in Soviet military research. The best of these civilian scientists should be recruited for joint projects with our own experts. Programs are in place to promote this.
Rep. George Brown, chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has called for the establishment of a binational science foundation to pay for basic research in Russia and elsewhere. Other proposals would refurbish former Soviet labs and libraries. A number of U.S. companies, meanwhile, are prepared to consider commercial, non-military business arrangements in the former Soviet Union if given the go-ahead from the Defense Department.
These and other initiatives are a small fraction of the total funds being considered to help prevent economic collapse and other turmoil in Russia and the other republics. The total is a large sum at a time of economic recession in our own country but small when compared with the burden we may face if economic recovery and democratization fail in the former Soviet Union. Stopping the free fall of science and technology there is an investment in our own country's security, economic and other interests.
Russia and the other republics have a proud scientific and technological tradition. They have given the world the periodic table, the first orbiting satellite, and many other breakthroughs. If they now become scientific backwaters, we all lose.
May 10, 1992
Frank Press is president of the National Academy of Sciences.
* * *
Guatemala: Attacks on Scientists and Research
Eliot Stellar and Carol Corillon
On a radiant morning in Guatemala several months ago, tourists blithely explored the colonial city of Antigua and shopped in the colorful Indian market in Chichicastenango. Although Guatemala is just a few hundred miles south of the Texas border, most Americans are unaware that some 40 thousand people, mostly Mayan Indians, have been killed or made to "disappear" for political reasons.
We spent that bright day in Guatemala City learning the chilling facts of the murder of anthropologist Myrna Elizabeth Mack Chang, and expressing concern to government officials about her death and the deaths of more than 30 other scientific colleagues in Guatemala who, during the past 10 years, have been murdered for political reasons or abducted and never seen again. We used the Mack case, which has now entered a crucial phase, to symbolize the continuing assault in Guatemala on scientific researchers — an assault that should concern anyone who cares about scientific freedom.
We visited Guatemala as part of a five-person delegation from the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academy of Sciences and the Committee on Health and Human Rights of the Institute of Medicine.
Mack conducted field work on Indian peasants displaced during the 1980s because of the guerrilla war. She wrote about the effects of the government's repatriation policies on their lives and about their treatment at the hands of Guatemala's powerful army and civil patrols. She gave the Indians a voice. As a result, her own voice was silenced.
On the evening of September 11, 1990, Myrna Mack was approached in Guatemala City by one or more assailants. An extensive struggle ensued and she was stabbed 27 times. Her murderers fled with her field notes.
Although Guatemala's guerrilla war has subsided, political killings have not. Two weeks before our visit, Manuel
Peña, a history professor at the University of San Carlos, was shot dead by at least two assailants using automatic weapons. Peña worked with the underprivileged and internally displaced.
These assaults have a chilling effect on other researchers in Guatemala. As one scientist who worked with Mack told us: "We were not aware of the consequences of our academic work . . . and now we are too frightened to carry the work forward."
The police officer who investigated the crime was himself killed, in front of his family, shortly after implicating the military in his homicide report. A former soldier in the intelligence branch of the Presidential High Command has since been charged with Mack's murder and is under arrest. There is speculation that other members of the military also were involved in her murder.
At the request of the Mack family, the courts have called a number of witnesses, including a former president of Guatemala and military officers. The army has complied with a court request for a large number of records that might shed light on the case. After passing through a dozen or so courts, the case now is at a crucial stage known informally as "the trial phase." That the trial has progressed so far is a hopeful sign, although, as with the peace talks with the leftist guerrillas, progress has been distressingly slow.
We spoke with Guatemalan government and military officials who expressed support for the policy of President Jorge Serrano Elias to improve human rights abuses and reach a just resolution of the case. We visited Myrna Mack's parents, siblings, and 18-year old daughter, who have been unrelenting in their demands for justice despite potential repercussions to themselves. They told us that the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala has encouraged them and maintained firm pressure on the Guatemalan government to resolve the case. Mack's friends and scientific colleagues also have been tireless in keeping the case alive.
Coming as we did from a country where free scientific inquiry is taken for granted, we were deeply impressed by the difficulties and dangers that Myrna Mack faced out of dedication to her work, and by the courage of her family and
friends following her murder. The rest of the world, particularly fellow scientists, should join them in demanding that those who murdered Myrna Mack, as well as those who planned the crime, be prosecuted and punished. Thirty years of murder with impunity in Guatemala must be reversed.
September 27, 1992
Eliot Stellar, chair of the department of cell and developmental biology and University Professor of Physiological Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, chairs the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academy of Sciences. Carol Corillon is the committee's director.
* * *
The Next Refugee Crisis and the U.S. Response
Carl E. Taylor
Last year new waves of desperate faces from Iraq, Haiti and Hong Kong joined the familiar starving babies from Somalia and Sudan. It's too soon yet to know where this year's refugees will originate. The one thing that is certain is that new refugees will appear somewhere.
The number of refugees and displaced persons worldwide has increased almost geometrically to between 30 million and 50 million. Yet because the problem seems relentless, one can easily feel hopeless.
Even with our current preoccupation with domestic issues, we must resist such ethical numbness. The problem of refugees is changing in ways that demand new solutions. The victims increasingly are not able to cross international borders but are "internally displaced persons," mostly women
and children, unable or unwilling to leave their country. Even though the threat of war between the superpowers has declined, changing world politics are exacerbating local conflicts and ethnic hostilities.
Many of these displaced persons face appalling conditions. In 1988 the death rate of one internally displaced population in Sudan was 60 times greater than that of non-displaced Sudanese. The horror of thousands of Kurdish children dying needlessly from dysentery and pneumonia on bleak mountains was similarly grim.
Helping displaced persons can be much more complicated politically and logistically than assisting international refugees. The 1967 United Nations Protocol on Refugees was designed to help those who have crossed borders. To avoid infringing on national sovereignty, however, no protocol exists to prevent mass human rights violations among internally-displaced populations in places such as Afghanistan, Angola, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq and the former Soviet Union. During the recent refugee crisis in Liberia, for example, many relief agencies said they were unable to help because the problem was an internal one.
Another basic inadequacy with the current relief system is that it is designed to deal with sudden emergencies. But increasingly, refugees and displaced persons require long-term assistance. Some Cambodian refugees have now lived in Thailand for 15 years. Thousands of Palestinian youngsters have spent their entire lives in refugee camps. These people have needs that go beyond food and emergency care.
Mental health care, for example, might seem like a luxury for refugees. But one recent study of children in Mozambique, victimized by war and displacement, painted a bleak picture. Among 500 children averaging 12 years of age, 77 percent had witnessed death, 88 percent had witnessed torture, and 51 percent had been tortured themselves. More than half had been kidnapped from their families. Most of these children had sleep disorders, body pains and various behavior problems, symptoms of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. Many had become ruthless boy soldiers.
In cases like these, mental health care is essential. Other
kinds of services — such as basic education or job training – also are needed as short-term crises become long-term impasses.
Then there is the explosive question of repatriation. Many Americans felt outrage when officials in Hong Kong forced Vietnamese refugees onto airplanes bound for home. Yet now our own country is considering similar deportation of refugees from Haiti. Most refugees around the world want to return home, but effective approaches to repatriation still must be developed and evaluated.
Overall, a great deal has been learned about how to save lives and promote health among refugees and displaced persons. But this knowledge, which ranges from choosing the best sites for refugee camps to providing security and psychological support, has not been applied consistently, despite the indefatigable efforts of aid workers.
It is time to develop a more effective U.S. response. At a meeting I chaired for the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, experts said a new framework of international cooperation could make much better use of limited resources in helping both refugees and displaced persons. Recent decisions in the United Nations are establishing improved mechanisms and new authority to coordinate relief efforts and promote future development.
These efforts show promise, and we can be hopeful about the future. Although the numbers of refugees and displaced persons is increasing, so is our capacity to change course and provide assistance more effectively. To save lives, however, we must sustain the political and moral commitment to put this growing knowledge to work.
February 2, 1992
Carl E. Taylor is Professor Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University.
* * *
The Science of Middle East Peace
Mention ''the Middle East problem'' and most people think of the peace talks and other political developments. But here in the region there is an equally pressing problem that, since it has little to do with politics, gets far less attention.
It is the need to expand water supplies, protect the environment, boost agricultural yields, control disease, and improve the standard of living by taking advantage of science and technology. If Israeli and Arab experts began working together more actively on these problems, they could ease many of the region's underlying pressures. Who knows? They might also inspire greater cooperation in the political arena.
Before the Gulf War, for example, the hottest issue in the Israeli newspapers was the lack of rainfall. Water levels of major lakes were falling and the country's groundwater resources were threatened.
The immediate cause of the shortage was drought and excessive use of water resources. But a more decisive application of science and technology could have eased the problem by reducing the cost of desalinating water, improving irrigation, allowing waste water to be reused more effectively and preventing the intrusion of saltwater into the water supply. Although Israel has been a leader in many of these fields, there is great potential to do more. Similar approaches could be applied in neighboring Arab nations.
If global warming causes a shift in world rainfall patterns, the need to expand water supplies in the region could become even more acute. Regardless of their nationality, local experts should be working together to avoid such a calamity. Indeed, many believe that issues related to water are more of an incentive for collaboration than for conflict.
For the past several years, scientists from Israel and Egypt have begun working together on projects in agriculture, marine science, and health through the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program. Experts from Morocco and Jordan are
expected to join the effort shortly. However, the opportunity exists to do much more.
All of the nations in the Mideast, for instance, share abundant sunlight, which can be harnessed to produce electricity and reduce the use of environmentally damaging fossil fuels. Israel, a leader in constructing solar energy facilities, could share its technology with others while working with its neighbors on large regional projects and new advances.
Technical experts in the Middle East also should be working together on mathematics, space, psychology, theoretical physics, the social sciences and technology to ensure that the whole region moves forward to a better life in the 21st century.
It helps to recall that Haifa is only 78 miles from Beirut, 82 miles from Amman and 90 miles from Damascus. Those distances are but a fraction of the distance between hundreds of U.S. research centers. Of course, even short distances can become huge when blocked by fear and hatred. Scientists alone cannot end the passions that inflame the Middle East. But because science is inherently universal and uncontained by boundaries and nationalities, scientists and other technical experts can provide a model of how former enemies might work together.
More than 2,000 years ago, the great Egyptian city of Alexandria was the world's leading scientific metropolis, a place where East and West joined together in the pursuit of knowledge. It contained the greatest library of the ancient world, one that attracted scholars such as the Greek mathematician Euclid. This legacy of scientific cooperation in the Middle East needs to be revived.
My university, the Technion, opened its gates in 1924. Its first catalog stated that the university was established to educate people both here and in neighboring countries to help solve technical problems. This vision, I hope, may yet become true.
One of the most talented students I had was killed in action in the Yom Kippur War. He was not alone. Too many future scientists and engineers on both sides of the Middle East conflict have died before having a chance to help solve the region's many problems. Their potential to
serve as a unifying force in a region now split apart by enmity and nationalism has been largely overlooked. The Middle East problem is not entirely political. It's time we gave scientists and other technical experts more of a role in solving it.
June 14, 1992
Zehev Tadmor, a chemical engineer, is president of the Technion, Israel's leading university of physical science and technology.
* * *
The Unwelcome Return of Malaria
Charles C.J. Carpenter
Imagine that every person in the United States — all 250 million or so — woke up tomorrow with a disease that causes high fever and chills, sometimes progressing to kidney failure, shock, coma and death. Now add another 50 million people to the total and you begin to grasp the dimensions of a worldwide health threat that requires not imagination so much as recognition.
Its name will surprise you: malaria.
Almost 300 million people in the world today are infected with malaria, and about 1.5 million of them — mostly young children — die each year from the disease. More than 2 billion people are at risk. In many tropical areas, malaria is out of control.
If you think this is a problem only for developing countries, think again. About 7 million U.S. citizens travel abroad every year to countries in which malaria is endemic. Anyone booking a trip to parts of Kenya, Thailand, and other popular destinations should be concerned about it. More and more Peace Corps volunteers are infected. Our military
lost more days of work among its troops to malaria than to combat injuries during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Even within our borders, malaria rates are increasing, although recent cases have been treated successfully. San Diego has had several outbreaks. New Jersey had one. My own tiny state of Rhode Island had 25 reported cases last year, compared with four in 1984.
A committee of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, which I chaired, reported recently that this already staggering toll is getting worse. Once thought to be nearly under control as the result of insecticide spraying and other measures, malaria has made a dramatic resurgence during the past two decades.
The disease, which has plagued mankind for centuries, is caused by a parasite that enters the blood through a mosquito bite. Malaria actually is not a single disease but has many variations. There is no vaccine of proven effectiveness. Many of the drugs used to prevent and treat the disease, notably chloroquine, have lost their effectiveness as the parasites have developed resistance.
Previous efforts to bring the disease under control have emphasized particular strategies, such as eradicating mosquito breeding areas or developing a vaccine. It now is clear, however, that this search for a magic bullet ignores the tremendous diversity of the disease. No single strategy will be applicable in all malarious regions. What's needed is a broad and diversified effort combining both malaria research and control.
On the research front, a priority of the U.S. government should be to work with other scientists around the world to develop an effective vaccine. Research efforts also must include strong support for the development of new drugs to prevent and treat the disease. Significant gaps still exist in our basic understanding of the disease. It is not known, for example, why certain people succumb to it while others do not.
At the same time, there is an urgent need to improve malaria-control programs in the field. Much illness and death could be prevented through improved education, diagnosis and treatment. People should be encouraged to use
bed nets, screens and mosquito coils to protect themselves from mosquitoes. They need help with low-cost projects like draining and filling stagnant pools of water. Higher-cost efforts such as widespread spraying of insecticides also should be pursued when appropriate. A shortage of research scientists and public health experts familiar with the disease must be addressed.
The United States is the biggest single contributor to malaria research and control activities; the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research has the world's most successful anti-malarial drug development program. Yet government support for U.S. efforts has lagged over the past several years, and there is a lack of coordination among the federal agencies supporting malaria research and control activities.
We have to do better. Unless things improve soon, the outlook for malaria control is bleak. The annual number of deaths is equivalent to the population of some U.S. states, and many millions of people are ill. This is not only a foreign aid issue but a threat to our own domestic public health. This ancient disease is back with a vengeance, and we need not only to recognize but to confront it.
November 10, 1991
Charles C.J. Carpenter is professor of medicine at Brown University.
* * *
Creating a Better Atmosphere After the Earth Summit
Robert M. White and Deanna J. Richards
Although there was discord a plenty and widespread criticism of the United States, the recently completed Earth Summit in Brazil accomplished much in setting up an international framework for action.
Now comes the hard work of achieving the goals reached in Rio. More than any other industrial nation, the United States needs to follow through and show its commitment to working with developing countries on specific environmental problems. No issue offers a greater chance for success than eliminating chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the other industrial substances that are depleting the earth's ozone layer.
The United States and other industrial nations now consume as much as 90 percent of the world's ozone-depleting substances. Yet use of the substances by developing countries in refrigerators, air conditioners and other products is growing rapidly. China seeks to put a refrigerator in every home. Like other countries, it needs refrigeration not only for family kitchens but also for jobs such as keeping vaccines cold.
In 1987 most of the world's nations agreed in Montreal, with U.S. leadership, to phase out CFCs. Three years later, as scientific evidence of ozone depletion mounted, they accelerated the process and established a multilateral fund in the World Bank to help developing countries deal with the problem. The United States has contributed consistently to promoting the use of new alternative technologies.
Although it has been less than a decade since scientific evidence confirmed that CFCs and other substances are depleting the earth's ozone layer, companies in the United States and elsewhere have mounted innovative efforts to develop alternatives that cause less environmental harm. Progress has come quickly. Experts from around the world agreed at a recent National Academy of Engineering work-
shop that the remaining technical problems are less daunting than the political and economic questions of how to transfer the emerging technologies to others who need them.
Developing nations will find it difficult to pursue these alternatives on their own. The United States, by contrast, is well situated to share its growing expertise. Only by doing so can it protect the stratospheric commons. From Sri Lanka to Sao Paolo, developing countries are almost certain to increase their production and use of ozone-depleting substances in the near term, although they have agreed to phase out these substances eventually. They need technical guidance and resources to do so more quickly.
Producing the alternatives is much more complex chemically than the one-step process used to make CFCs and similar chemicals. It can cost five times more to build a factory for the alternatives and three times more for some of the ingredients. Developing countries such as India and China already have made massive commitments to CFC production and are reluctant to see these investments come to naught.
It is unrealistic to expect developing countries, many of which can barely afford to produce refrigerators and other goods with the old methods, to convert to the alternatives on their own. The international community has promised assistance, which probably will need to be supplemented. Here is where the United States can exert leadership and weigh in to good effect.
Success in eliminating ozone-depleting chemicals may rest less with technological hardware than with "softer" approaches. For example, developing countries need to gain much easier access to information if they are to learn about the latest technologies. Other problems such as language differences, a lack of training mechanisms, and inadequate local skills and infrastructures all make it hard for developing countries to take advantage of alternative technologies. Many of the countries also need help putting market forces to work and providing private industries with appropriate incentives to invest in the production, distribution and recycling facilities needed to move away from ozone-depleting substances.
The United States must play an active role in helping build these local capacities and in promoting policies that
will unlock private sector investments. The fact is that no country has done more than ours to promote international cooperation in arresting global stratospheric ozone depletion. That environmental leadership was called into question amid the larger events in Rio. Now we have the opportunity to counter that impression — not with rhetoric but with action.
July 5, 1992
Robert M. White is president of the National Academy of Engineering. Deanna J. Richards, senior program officer at the Academy, helped organize an international workshop on eliminating ozone-depleting substances.
* * *
Ravages of Nature, Disasters of Mankind
Lawrence K. Grossman
Unless our attention is riveted on the tragedy of a sudden disaster like the earthquake that just hit Southern California, it is almost impossible to get anyone to focus on all that can be done to reduce the terrible toll of nature's ravages.
Unfortunately, whenever flood, fire, hurricane, tornado, volcanic eruption or earthquake does strike, television coverage usually is so apocalyptic that we are left with the hopeless feeling that we can do nothing to reduce nature's toll. We see the worst scenes repeated over and over again, of buckled bridges, caved-in highways, collapsed houses, out-of-control floods and fires, and people in agony. And we are confirmed in our sense of fatalism about the unpredictable
natural forces that periodically uproot lives and damage large parts of the countryside.
Ironically, today we can do far more to limit the losses caused by the rampages of nature than we can to control the often cruel rampages of our fellow human beings. While we cannot seem to meliorate ethnic and religious conflicts abroad or bring racial harmony to our own cities, there is no doubt that we can dramatically reduce the damage caused by floods in South Asia, hurricanes in the Pacific, earthquakes in Mexico and other natural disasters, especially those that strike our own country.
Recent studies of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco area and Hurricane Hugo, which hit the Carolina coast the same year, have shown that science and technology now make it possible to minimize the destructive consequences of even the most hazardous events of nature. Remarkably, in view of the millions of people who were affected, a total of only 90 were killed in those two natural disasters. Given their magnitude, the toll could have been infinitely worse and, in earlier years, certainly would have been.
Nevertheless, despite great advances in hurricane warning technology, earthquake-proof building design and emergency management, Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta quake still caused losses of more than $50 billion. More than a year later, thousands remained homeless.
Between 1964 and 1983, natural disasters killed nearly 2.5 million people and left 750 million injured, homeless or severely harmed, a terrible toll that could have been far less severe if proper precautions had been taken.
A report issued last year by a committee of the National Research Council offers a comprehensive program on how to reduce loss of life and property from natural disasters. Progress could be significant. As the report makes clear, "The United States is extremely vulnerable . . . . Direct losses from natural disasters in [this country], currently averaging $20 billion per year, continue to escalate."
I serve on that committee with a remarkable group of experts drawn from many disciplines — meteorology, engineering, seismology, volcanology, hydrology, and emergency
management, among others. I am not a scientist but a broadcast executive and I was stunned to learn just how wrong my own fatalistic thinking about natural disasters turned out to be. Like most people in the world, I assumed little could be done to mitigate the consequences of nature's wrath.
As the report points out, to save life and property we need a multi-pronged effort to identify the hazards that each of us faces in our own region, then make our families aware of how to protect against them. We need early prediction and warning systems, and organized community preparedness for emergency response. We need to pay attention to nature's ability to overrun certain vulnerable areas and to wreak havoc with fire, flood, wind, mud, lava and landslides. We need to design our lifestyles, buildings, roads and bridges to respect nature's power. And we need to know before disaster happens, not after, how to respond and then cope with recovery and reconstruction.
The lesson I learned from my own service on this committee is one everyone else should learn. Despite all the horrors you see on television when natural disaster strikes, it need not inevitably be calamitous. Individuals can act to protect their lives and homes, and those of their families. Communities and nations can do the same.
By dint of remarkable research and long experience, technologies and practices now exist that can reduce disasters' toll dramatically. It would be a shame to wait for still another Big One to hit before we finally get around to taking full advantage of them.
July 12, 1992
Lawrence K. Grossman is a former president of PBS and NBC News.