Global warming emerged as a significant global political issue in 1988. 1 NASA scientist James Hansen’s statement to the US Congress that ‘it is time to stop waffling so much. We should say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here’ (quoted in Pearce, 1989:1) has often been taken as a defining moment. This came on the back of the biggest drought in the US since the 1930s, as well as freak weather patterns across the world, and the realisation that the six hottest years on record were in the 1980s. These events made claims by scientists such as Hansen about possible global warming increasingly plausible.
The events of 1988 stimulated a flurry of international conferences, and a major scientific assessment of the state of knowledge about global warming, in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As the momentum was maintained, climate politics ‘matured’, with formal negotiations to an international treaty starting in February 1991. These led to the signing of a ‘Framework Convention on Climate Change’ at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 (United Nations, 1992). 2 At the same time, many industrialised states adopted unilateral targets to limit their own emissions of the gases believed to cause global warming. After 1992, states continued to negotiate between themselves how to respond to global warming, in particular how to build upon the Framework Convention. They also began to grapple with the practical problems of implementing the commitments they had unilaterally or multilaterally signed up to.
Popular interpretations of the politics of climate change quickly emerged. Some commentators advanced a variety of conspiracy theories. Warren Brookes, writing in Forbes magazine, suggested that ‘just as Marxism is giving way to markets, the political “greens” seem determined to put the world economy back into the red, using the greenhouse effect to