Going Right: A Global Mercury Treaty Defies the Odds

In my line of work it always seems like there are 99 ways for things to go wrong and only one way for them to go right. This week, however, defying all odds, something really big went right on the topic of global mercury pollution, and those of us who have been working to reduce mercury use and contamination for decades are still pinching ourselves.

The Obama Administration, less than one month old, went into its first international negotiation on an environmental matter with the stunning announcement that the U.S. supported an immediate start to negotiations for a legally binding treaty to reduce mercury. Following that opening, the administration took a leadership role in the negotiations all week. And on Friday, the world walked away with an extraordinary agreement to begin negotiations (while taking steps to deliver real-world reductions at the same time), all to be completed by 2013.

As the New York Times noted in today's papers;

The United States resistance to binding international controls on mercury, a potent neurotoxin, evaporated at a United Nations-sponsored meeting in Nairobi this week, as 140 nations agreed Friday to draft a treaty to control mercury releases into the atmosphere. Most human-produced mercury emissions come from power plants and small-scale gold mining. The agreement calls for negotiations to begin in 2010 and a final draft to be completed by 2013. Susan Keane, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that Washington's about-face changed the dynamics of the conference, helping bring around other resistant states, notably China, whose mercury emissions dwarf those of any other country.

For more than five years, progress on mercury pollution, which requires coordinated reductions in use around the world, has been at a standstill, largely because of unyielding opposition of the Bush Administration. Opposition to doing something proactive for environmental health protection. Opposition to setting a precedent for mercury control that they themselves had no interest in meeting in our own country. And most of all, opposition to collaboration and negotiation in a global government framework of any sort, for fear of the precedent success could create for global warming negotiations.

Despite the best efforts of an international coalition of non-governmental organizations called the Zero Mercury Working Group (of which we are a part), excellent background studies, and the support of all of Europe and much of the developing world, we spent five years getting absolutely nowhere on this topic thanks to the Bush Administation's stubborn opposition.

The fur had to really fly for the U.S. to change its position so quickly. That's where the "ninety-nine things that could go wrong" came in. We thought that given the tight time constraints, the most we could hope for was a lack of vehement opposition to a treaty proposed by European governments. However, as my colleague Susan Keane reported from the negotiations, what we got was good old fashioned US leadership that charted a new course on mercury protections around the world, setting a strong example to influence others to do the same.

Barak Obama already had a great track record on mercury. He and he alone reached out to us when he was the junior Senator from Illinois, interested in doing something meaningful on mercury pollution when he read an excellent series on the problem that had appeared in the Chicago Tribune. And the office's initial inquiry to us about how the Senator could help solve this problem was just the beginning; they reached across the aisle to Alaska's Lisa Murkowski to co-sponsor a bill that would ban the export of surplus mercury from the U.S. into global commerce, thereby reducing the supply glut that kept prices low and sparked demand for the toxic metal in industries in the industrial world. The mercury export ban passed the U.S. Congress in the fall of 2008, signed into law at the end of the Bush term.

Despite the positive start and new past leadership, however, I've worked in D.C. a long time, and there have been issues I've worked on where progress has been depressingl slow through both democratic and republican administrations. The Obama slogan "Change we can believe in" had a certain ring to it, but I was feeling a bit cynical about what might really be possible.

Then this. I'm here to tell you: This was the real deal, a decisive shift in position on a topic of real impact , and not one that was receiving significant media attention or scrutiny in advance. The State Department staff, with the nod from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, worked with EPA staff, with the nod from Administrator Lisa Jackson, and got the job done.

The result: I'm in awe. Thanks you guys! And we'll be with you every step of the way in the upcoming negotiation, partnered through our Zero Mercury Working group with NGOs around the world to make a great and effective treaty happen.