Hot Air over Kyoto: The United States and the Politics of Global Warming. (Environment)

By Wirth, Timothy E. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Hot Air over Kyoto: The United States and the Politics of Global Warming. (Environment)


Wirth, Timothy E., Harvard International Review


The year 2001 has been the most turbulent year in international global-warming policy since the tumultuous final round of negotiations on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. US President George W. Bush's decision in March to withdraw from further talks on the 1997 Kyoto Protocol may seem to be a potentially fatal blow to current international efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions. However, as the year draws to a close, the outlook for real progress is actually more mixed. The outlook is in many ways even more positive than it was in the final years of President Clinton's administration, which never mounted a serious campaign internationally or domestically after retreating from its public commitment to aggressive action on global warming within 24 hours of the successful conclusion of the Kyoto talks in December 1997.

The morning after the Kyoto agreement, Republican congressional leaders held a news conference declaring the Protocol "dead on arrival" in the US Senate, arguing that the document's failure to set binding emissions-reduction targets for China, India, and other major developing countries would economically disadvantage the United States. In response, the Clinton administration chose not to defend the Protocol's basic premise: industrialized nations, whose fossil fuel-based economic growth in the 20th century is largely responsible for today's increased level of greenhouse gas concentrations, should act first to curb their emissions growth. Instead, the White House announced that it would not send the agreement to the Senate for ratification without obtaining emissions-reduction commitments from key developing countries--a posture that directly contradicted the international negotiating position it had maintained for more than two years.

As it emerged from Kyoto, the Protocol was only a barebones framework of reduction targets and a hazy statement of the principles for meeting them. It would require several years of additional negotiations to build an international agreement on actual reduction mechanisms. But having trapped itself in a conflict between its international and domestic positions, the Clinton administration put the Kyoto process on a political back burner.

Progress at home also was slow in the wake of the Kyoto negotiations. While it was readily apparent that the debate over carbon dioxide emissions-reduction measures must begin quickly if the United States was to have any chance of meeting the targets it accepted at Kyoto, the Clinton administration never advanced a serious legislative proposal to begin the process. In August 1998, Vice President Al Gore summarily rejected a request from environmental organizations that the Clinton administration mount a fight in the US Congress to reduce emissions from electric utilities, which account for nearly 40 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, Clinton repeatedly signed into law Republican-sponsored riders to appropriations bills that barred the promulgation of new automobile fuel-efficiency standards.

To be fair, the Clinton White House faced a difficult domestic political situation. Control of both the House and Senate by Republicans closely allied with the oil, coal, utility, and automobile industries made domestic action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions difficult. This difficulty was compounded by alliances between a significant number of congressional Democrats and mining and autoworkers' unions. Achieving rapid ratification of an international global-warming agreement requiring a two-thirds Senate majority was clearly impossible under the circumstances. Breaking this complex knot of opposition over several years would have required a sustained commitment from the highest levels of the administration to spend a substantial amount of political capital on the issue.

That level of commitment, of course, was not forthcoming. Throughout 1998, scandal and impeachment absorbed much of the White House's energy. …

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