President George Bush has brought the international treaty aimed at repairing the Earth's vital ozone layer close to breakdown, risking millions of cancers, to benefit strawberry and tomato growers in the electorally critical state of Florida, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
His administration is insisting on a sharp increase in spraying of the most dangerous ozone-destroying chemical still in use, the pesticide methyl bromide, even though it is due to be phased out under the Montreal Protocol in little more than a year. And it has threatened that the United States could withdraw from the treaty's provisions altogether if its demand is not met.
Talks on the unprecedented demand broke down without agreement at the conference in Nairobi this month as US delegates refused to consider any compromise. They even rejected a European Union proposal that would have allowed farmers to use the same amount of the pesticide as at present, even though this, itself, would violate the spirit of the protocol.
The crisis has come to a head at a particularly embarrassing moment for Tony Blair, who this week played host to George Bush on the first state visit by a US President. For three years, the Prime Minister has been quietly attempting to persuade him to stop trying to kill the Kyoto Protocol, designed to combat global warming. But now Mr Bush is trying to emasculate what the UN regards as the most successful international environmental agreement ever made.
It also comes at a critical time for the ozone layer. Scientists had hoped that it would be beginning to heal by now, but this autumn the ozone hole over Antarctica was at near-record levels.
Ironically the Montreal Protocol, agreed in 1987, was only brought about through the drive and commitment of the Reagan administration - in which George Bush Snr served as Vice-President. It was rapidly agreed after the shock of the discovery of the ozone hole - the size of the US - and findings that the layer had thinned worldwide.
The layer is made up of a type of oxygen so thinly scattered though the upper atmosphere that, if gathered together, it would girdle the globe with a ring no thicker than the sole of a shoe. But it screens out harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun that otherwise would wipe out life. As the layer weakens, increasing amounts of rays get through, causing skin cancer and blindness from cataracts.
The provisions of the treaty, forecast to prevent two million cancers in the West alone, have been progressively tightened as the use of ozone-destroying chemicals has been phased out in industrialised countries, developing countries follow after a period of grace. Methyl bromide, which has also been linked with prostate cancer, is one of the last to be controlled; developed countries agreed in 1997 to stop using it by the end of next year. So far they have succeeded in reducing it to 30 per cent of its former level by introducing substitutes.
Several countries, however, foresee difficulties in completing the phase-out in time, and have asked for year-long "critical exemptions" for some limited uses, as permitted under the treaty. But uniquely, the US, which already accounts for a quarter of the world's use of the pesticide, is demanding that it should indefinitely increase its use.
It is responding to pressure from farmers, particularly in Florida and California. While the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor has bolstered the Republicans' hopes in California, Florida is expected to be critical in next year's presidential poll - as it was in 2000.
When EU and Third World governments refused to agree to the demand at the meeting, the US said legislation had been introduced into Congress to exempt it from the treaty's provisions on the pesticide altogether. Claudia McMurray, the head of its delegation, said that this would "either put us out of compliance or would lead us to violate the protocol".
When all attempts at compromise failed, the meeting agreed to defer negotiations to a special "extraordinary" conference in Montreal in March. But unless Mr Bush has a change of heart, the world will then be faced with choosing between two alternative means of undermining the treaty: allowing the US to reverse the process of phase-out, with the risk other nations will follow; or seeing it ignore the agreement altogether.Reuse content