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The US Threw Away Its Chance To Be An Environmental Leader In The 70s
Recently declassified documents paint a grim picture of the US's past and present environmental stance.
The US has a history of leading the world, from groundbreaking civil rights to winning the space race, having a world-beating economy and even a military that is currently keeping vast swathes of the globe safe. But the US has lagged massively behind in one crucial area, environmentalism. It has persistently and aggressively downplayed its role in destroying the Earth and avoided any calls to take responsibility for the damage it has caused. This is incredibly perplexing, as there have been many leaders within the US who wanted environmental protection and climate change action to become a priority, such as Al Gore and Obama. So, why? Is it corruption? Is the US fossil fuel industry driving politics? Short-sightedness? No, none of these. In fact, recently declassified documents show that this all started in the early 70s, with a meeting in Stockholm. Let me explain.
The National Security Archive is a non-profit watchdog operating from the George Washington University, which sifts through declassified US documents to piece together previously unknown history. A recent report of theirs details recently declassified documents showing how the US’s opposition to compensating poorer countries for environmental damages stretches back to the early 1970s. This bombshell report says that “These records shed light on the various ways that the US government has tried to avoid getting what President George H. W. Bush called a ‘big bill’ for its environmental impacts in talks about compensation, liability, and reparations programs meant to alleviate the impacts of climate change,” and how it set a precedent followed by every president since Nixon.
It all started in 1972, two months before a UN conference in Stockholm, when African countries banded together and called for “full compensation and reparations” for any damage and exploitation done to their natural and human environment by developed countries, such as the US. This remarkably progressive movement had some solid arguments for their case, stating, “The very principles of international law imply, for countries which have suffered from exploitation in the course of history or are still suffering from it, a right to reparation by the countries which have partially based (and continue to base) their growth on this exploitation.”
The US understood just how serious these calls for reparations were. America had undergone unprecedented growth over the previous 50 years, fuelled mainly by cheap resources and labour exploited by both its own country and African nations. They had to tread exceptionally carefully. These calls for reparations will be brought up at the next UN conference in Stockholm, and they had to be ready.
This was a pivotal moment for the environmental movement. If the US admitted to its damages and exploitation, and agreed to long-term compensation based on the economic growth they received from human and environmental damages (which is what the African nations proposed), it would set a significant international precedent for the rest of the developed world to follow. The US already had precedent for such environmental and humanitarian liability with nuclear technology. The Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test that went catastrophically wrong in 1954 caused extensive environmental and human damage to the Marshal Islands and parts of Japan, leading to long-term US aid and compensation (watch Kyle Hill’s fantastic video here to learn more).
Would the US step up to the plate? Well, you can probably guess what happened.
An intelligence note from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research written just days before the conference stated that the calls for reparations were most likely unserious and did not mean “actual reparations.” Instead, they say it is a veiled attempt to get aid. This Trumpian post-truth downplaying of solid evidence and logic is a crude yet effective way to control the narrative and undermine an opponent. The note stated that the call to link the environment and development was a sign of increased African militancy, which would be with us for years to come. Yet again, another post-truthism, as even back in the 70s, the connection between environmental damage and a country’s development was well-known. These calls weren’t a sign of Africa uniting and getting hostile, just them wanting to have their equal share of the pie. But this intelligence note set the stage for this ethical and solid argument to be buried with unfounded American anxiety.
But oddly, this anxiety did have a positive side, kind of. These declassified documents show that the US feared that it would be counter-productive if they refused to pay reparations. To translate that, it could lead to a more politically united Africa, capable of meeting and even threatening the US on the international stage. As such, they suggested a more “hands-off approach” to satiate their appetite while not actually addressing the problem at hand. That way, Africa doesn’t politically unite to lobby for reparations, and the US avoids linking development-related environmental and human damages to reparations, ensuring they can continue to pillage foreign resources to fuel their growth without fear of consequences.
As such, the US Stockholm delegation, led by Russell E. Train (an early environmentalist and career politician) and Christian Herter Jr. (politician ex-vice president of Mobile Oil), opposed linking reparations to the US’s economic growth. Instead, they offered to pay a one-time lump sum of $40 million ($291 million in today’s money) into a $100 million ($728 million in today’s money) UN environmental fund, which was accepted and quelled the calls for reparations.
If the African coalition were thinking long-term, they would have said no to this fund. It legitimises what the US had done without actually fixing the damage they had done. In other words, these African nations would still be far from equitable and not get their fair slice of the pie. But short term, that fund could help them dramatically, and many of these nations were desperate, so they accepted it.
They had done it. The US had got away with environmental and humanitarian equivalent murder; all it cost them was a piddly little bit of money (in the grand scheme of things), and they were free to continue their raping of the natural and human worlds in the quest for economic growth! Train and Herter reported the conference as an overall success to President Nixon, despite having to pay “compensation for the LDCs (Least-Developed Countries).”
To rub salt in the wound, Train later sent a memo to President Nixon that said it was evident “that it is not possible to discuss environmental protection with the LDCs completely outside the context of development objectives.” I mean, if your nation was given a significant economic and environmental disadvantage because another had come along and exploited your workforce, stolen your natural resources, and damaged the other natural resources you had, all to fuel their rampant development, you would strongly link the two.
Sadly, Train and Herter’s efforts at the Stockholm conference set a precedent for the next 50 years. Since then, the US has prioritised its economic growth, downplayed its role in global environmental destruction, and downplayed its role in holding other countries back through environmental exploitation.
Just imagine if Train and Herter had made a different decision. They would have set a precedent for international responsibility and environmental and humanitarian damage liability. The global ecosystem and maybe even current humanitarian issues might not be entirely solved, but they would almost certainly be better, and our pathway to net-zero would be a whole lot clearer and far less politically charged.
But that might be dangerous utopian thinking. Let me explain.
One of the main ways the US exploited and damaged these African nations was through coal. They imported African coal at a bargain bucket price, short-changing them for a valuable commodity and driving cheaper, dangerous, and more environmentally damaging mining practices.
Back in the 70s, a country’s carbon emissions closely tracked its economic growth; the two were interlinked. This means that if a country has plentiful cheap energy, it can do more work, make more significant technological advances, prosper and increase its GDP. So, the US did depend on cheap African coal to grow its economy.
Breaking this link would require some seriously massive technological leaps. Low-carbon energy like wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear power and geothermal power would need to be developed further, scaled and become a cheap viable option for widespread use. Vehicles would need to become far more fuel efficient or even turn to alternative fuels like hydrogen or batteries. As such, it is only recently that the link between economic growth and carbon emissions has been broken.
But, we only have these technologies because of developed nations’ economic growth. You see, economic growth directly drives technological advances as more funds are available for education, research and development. In fact, most of our current climate technology, from EVs to renewables, has been developed and honed by the US and its mega economy.
So, in a weird way, Train and Herter’s amoral decision to prioritise their economy and disregard their country’s role in environmental and human destruction enabled the economic conditions necessary to develop the technology needed to save the world. So maybe, if you take a hard-line realist’s viewpoint, they made the right decision. But even then, This doesn’t excuse the damage that has been done.
It is time for developed nations to take responsibility for the damage they have and will cause. Luckily, such an international agreement was reached at COP27 last year, ensuring vulnerable countries have the funds they need to survive climate change. But there is an air of “too little too late” about this. While the US and many other countries have tried their hardest to ignore the catastrophic impact they have had on the planet and many of the people who call it home, the bill is now due. You can only run away from the truth for so long. Hopefully, we can make up for our past vandalism, save the world, and make planet Earth a far more equitable place to live.
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