While it might seem the problem is ripe for negotiations among national governments, an international relations specialist at the University of Washington, Bothell, suggests that effective answers might require efforts on the regional and local levels as well.
"There is no one magic solution to international environmental problems," said Nives Dolšak, an assistant professor at UW Bothell. "I believe actions need to be taken at all of these levels. The question is what actions are taken at which level."
Dolšak cites research by her colleague Dan Jaffe that pollution generated in China has at times degraded air quality in the Pacific Northwest so much that the region was out of compliance with federal rules. That research also has demonstrated that particulates from the Gobi Desert could have had health effects as far away as the southeastern United States.
She notes the governments of Japan, Korea, the United States and Canada - as well as two or three Canadian provincial governments - are working together to provide monitoring in China so they can document when pollution is likely to have an impact in other countries. Results of the monitoring are given to China's national government as well as those in provinces where the pollution is being generated, so they can begin trying to curb emissions.
Japan has the most at stake, she said, because it is most directly affected by acid rain resulting from Chinese pollution. The other nations also are affected, but in Canada and the United States the effects often are confined to smaller regions, mostly along the West Coast.
"Many of the same activities that produce global climate change also cause the pollution that's coming here," Dolšak said. "At the federal level, we have decided not to get involved in global climate change policy, but the states and cities are doing a lot."
Local and regional involvement in solving problems with global resources is the focus of Dolšak's presentation Friday during a symposium on the international transport of air pollution, held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle.
She noted that there are many common-pool resources - oil reserves, forests, aquifers, even the Internet. There is competition for access to each, but in each case it is difficult to exclude others. For instance, a popular Web site might become unavailable if too many users try to visit that site at the same time.
Likewise, the atmosphere is a common-pool resource needed by everyone, but one that can be limited in its usefulness because of pollution. That is a growing issue as fossil fuel burning for industry, transportation, heating and cooking has increased human effects on global climate change.
Protecting common-pool resources, Dolšak said, could be the domain of national governments, local and regional governments, private industry, or a combination of the three. She noted that in some cases, industries already trade pollution credits so that all remain within set standards.
Likewise, national governments already negotiate with each other. She noted that European nations for several years have had an agreement aimed at curbing effects of one country's air pollution on another nation. But increasingly Europe must deal with pollution from North America. International pressure can be effective, she said, but the question is how much pressure would it take for the United States, for instance, to get China to reduce its emissions.
Dolšak believes local and regional governments could be the wild card in such negotiations because many are already used to working with local governments in other nations. There are, for example, a multitude of sister-city-type agreements among local and regional governments of various nations.
"We probably don't have to go east to Washington, D.C., before going west to Beijing," Dolšak said of the West Coast. "We have to explore what can be done at the subnational level that has implications for the international community."
For more information, contact Dolšak at email@example.com