For more than a century, the United States has taken the lead in organizing international responses to international environmental problems. The long list of environmental agreements spearheaded by the United States extends from early treaties with Canada and Mexico on boundary waters and migratory birds to global agreements restricting trade in endangered species and protecting against ozone depletion.

In the last two decades, however, U.S. environmental leadership has faltered. The best known example is the lack of an effective response to climate change, underscored by the U.S. decision not to join the Kyoto Protocol. But that is not the only shortfall. The United States has also failed to join a large and growing number of treaties directed at other environmental threats, including marine pollution, the loss of biological diversity, persistent organic pollutants, and trade in toxic substances.

In this paper, we urge the U.S. government to ratify ten of these treaties. We focus on these agreements not only because they address important environmental problems, but also because they do not cause the fierce partisan debate that has unfortunately hampered U.S. policy toward climate change. All ten of these agreements enjoy bipartisan support. All ten have been signed by the United States: five by Republican administrations and five by Democratic administrations.

Signatures alone do not make these treaties binding. The treaties must also be ratified, which generally requires that the Senate provide its advice and consent by a two-thirds vote. In some cases, implementing legislation must be enacted by both houses of Congress. It is here that the process has broken down. The Executive Branch has sent each of these agreements to the Senate, albeit sometimes after a lengthy delay. But the Senate has given its advice and consent to only one, which nevertheless still awaits the necessary implementing legislation.

Both the Executive Branch and Congress have contributed to this problem. In some cases, presidential administrations have failed to urge prompt approval of an agreement or to propose implementing legislation. In others, the Senate or Congress as a whole has failed to act despite encouragement from the Executive Branch. Although the reasons for the delays vary from treaty to treaty, the delays are alike in their unconscionable length. As Table 1 shows, the United States signed eight of the treaties more than a decade ago. A ninth treaty has been waiting nine years. The average time since signature is 13 years, and the average time for those pending Senate approval is more than eight years.

The failure of the United States to join these treaties undermines global environmental protection. The treaties set out standards and create institutions designed to find and implement solutions to problems of critical importance. They have attracted support from other countries, including our closest allies. Indeed, several are among the most widely ratified treaties in history. In every case, the regimes these treaties have established are less successful without U.S. membership than they could be with the full engagement of the country with the largest economy and the largest environmental impact.

The failure to ratify the agreements also harms specific U.S. interests. The treaties reflect U.S. proposals and positions. By failing to join them, the United States is not taking advantage of the benefits for which it negotiated, including being able to make claims to the resource-rich continental shelf off the U.S. coast, reducing marine pollution affecting U.S. waters, ensuring U.S. access to foreign plant gene banks, and receiving reimbursement for the costs of responding to environmental emergencies in Antarctica. The failure to join the agreements also prevents the United States from fully participating in their ongoing interpretation and implementation, which often involve issues that directly affect the United States. More generally, the failure to follow signature with ratification undermines the ability of the United States to influence future negotiations by tarnishing its reputation as a country that delivers on its promises.

If ratifying these treaties would be onerous or expensive, then the delays might be more understandable. But that is not the case. In some instances, no implementing legislation is needed. In others, only minor legislative changes are necessary. None of the agreements would require major changes to U.S. law. And none would erode U.S. sovereignty.

For all of these reasons, the Obama Administration and Congress should work expeditiously to clear the backlog of treaties in ratification limbo and restore the United States’ leadership in international efforts to protect the global environment.

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White Paper

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Co-authored by CPR Member Scholars Mary Jane Angelo, Rebecca Bratspies, David Hunter, John H. Knox, Noah Sachs, and Sandra Zellmer. Originally published at http://www.progressivereform.org/articles/International_Environmental_Treaties_1201.pdf.