This article from the New York Times highlights one of the more interesting shifts in environmental policy-making over the past decade and a half. Europe used to import its environmental laws (and, to some extent, its environmental ethic) from the United States. But as environmental policymaking in Washington, DC has stagnated, Europe has taken the lead, particularly in preventing pollution and climate change.

Of particular interest is Europe’s new Reach program, which is the world’s clearest embodiment of the so-called Precautionary Principle—the idea that chemicals should be tested for safety before they’re widely used in industrial applications or consumer products. According to the abovementioned article, Reach…

would place the burden of proof of safety on the producers before its sale, rather than waiting for problems to spur regulation later. It would force American chemical companies to comply with the legislation in order to continue exporting to Europe – and raises the fear of similar legislation in the United States.

A precautionary approach would have required testing of flame retardants known as PBDEs, which are now found in every North American tested, and at levels 20 to 40 times as high in the US and Canada as in most European nations. PBDEs have been found to impair neurological functioning in mice and rats, even at very low levels.

Not surprisingly, US industries are trying to kill the Reach program, or at least narrow its scope. And US environmentalists are trying to keep that from happening. But what a shift: North American environmental policy is now being fought out in the corridors of power in…Brussels.