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United States: Climate Policy

United States: Climate Policy


The United States is the world's third most populous country. It is also its wealthiest and most militarily powerful country, its largest consumer of energy, and its second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (just behind China, which edged it out in 2007). Its policy on global warming is therefore an important influence on the actions of other countries and future global climate.

The U.S. policy on climate change can be divided roughly into three periods. The first was the early period of growing awareness from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, when scientific understanding of the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change was just beginning to become clear. The United States participated in worldwide negotiations that led in 1992 to the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a nonbinding treaty calling for reductions in greenhouse emissions worldwide.

The second period went from 1993 to 2001, the eight years of the Bill Clinton administration. At this time, U.S. federal policy was divided between adamant Congressional opposition to binding emissions limits and somewhat timid White House support for such limits. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997, an addendum to the UNFCCC that required binding emissions limits, was signed by the Clinton administration in 1998. However, by U.S. law, treaties do not enter into force unless both signed by the executive branch and ratified by the legislative branch. Congressional opposition was so intense that the Kyoto Protocol could not be ratified. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration withdrew the United States formally from the Kyoto Protocol and, with minor shifts, pursued a consistent policy of opposing mandatory emissions caps of any kind.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Reagan Administration and First Bush Administration (1980s-1993)

Scientific understanding that human activities were changing the world's climate in a dangerous way by increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasesbecamefirmerinthe 1980sas earlier uncertainties were decreased by accumulating scientific evidence. In 1987, during the second term of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), the United Nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC has been influential in shaping world perceptionofclimate change andin 2007sharedaNobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore (1948-).

The first report of the IPCC came out in 1990. Written by hundreds of scientists, economists, and government officials appointed by the U.S. government and scores of others, the report affirmed the reality of anthropogenic climate change. In response, states attending the Second World Climate Conference in 1992 (including the United States) resolved to design a treaty framework for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions.

During the presidency of George H. W. Bush (1924-), the United States increased spending on climate change science from $209 million per year in 1989 to $1.775 billion in 1993 (figures in constant 2005 dollars). It also participated in the negotiations that led up to the creation of the UNFCCC in 1992 at the Earth Summit in RiodeJaneiro,Brazil. The United States signed the UNFCCC, as did more than 150 other countries. In October of 1992, President Bush sent the treaty for ratification to the U.S. Senate, which voted to ratify by a two-thirds majority.

The treaty featured a voluntary, non-binding commitment that the industrialized countries of the world— the United States and 37 others, referred to as the “Annex I” countries because they were listed in an appendix to the treaty called Annex I—would by 2000 have restricted their greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels. It also stated that all countries, including those not on the Annex I list, would make efforts to restrict their greenhouse-gas emissions in a way that would not injure food production or economic development. According to some policy analysts, the UNFCCC lacked binding targets because the United States conditioned its signature on their absence.

Clinton Administration (1993-2001)

The UNFCCC called for a series of Conference of the Parties (COPs) to be held annually to revisit the treaty's concerns and produce new agreements as called for by the developing science of climate change. In the second COP, in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1996, the parties to the treaty agreed that voluntary emissions caps were inadequate, and that legally binding targets for emissions by Annex I countries should be negotiated. At the following COP, in Kyoto, Japan, the parties adopted the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC. The gist of the protocol was that Annex I countries would be committed to mandatory greenhouse emissions caps while developing nations, including China and India, would not commit to any obligatory limitations. This was a point of contention in U.S. political circles, as forecasts called for developing nations to be emitting the majority of greenhouse gases sometime in the early 2000s.

On July 25, 1997, while the Kyoto Protocol was still being negotiated, the U.S. Senate passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution (Senate Resolution 98), which stated the Senate's intention to oppose any climate treaty that injured the economy of the United States or did not mandate emissions limits for developing (non-Annex I) nations. The resolution was passed 95 to 0. Thus, although the United States signed the Kyoto Protocol on November 12, 1998, the administration of President Bill Clinton (1946-) never sent the treaty for ratification to the Senate.

Second Bush Administration (2001-)

When President George W. Bush (1946-) took office, he founded an administration that was both openly and privately friendly to industry voices rather than to environmentalist or scientific perspectives on climate change and energy. These industry voices were opposed to the scientific consensus view of climate change and have largely shaped U.S. climate policy under the Bush administration.

One of the administration's first projects, overseen by Vice President Dick Cheney (1941-), was to write a new national energy policy. During the drafting of the policy, representatives of dozens of energy-industry groups met with Cheney or his staff, according to a list drawn up by the administration and leaked to the New York Times in 2007 after six years of legal efforts by the White House to keep it secret. Parties consulted in drafting the new energy policy included the vice president of the oil company ExxonMobil, the head of the Enron Corporation, and representatives from British Petroleum, Duke Energy, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Mining Association, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, and more. All these groups were opposed to any government action on climate change that might, they feared, decrease their profits. Representatives of 13 environmental groups were also given an audience by the energy task force—in a single mass meeting, without the vice president present, and only after the energy policy's text had, records show, already been drafted.

Vice President Cheney personally rejected the scientific consensus view that climate change is real and anthropogenic. In 2007, even after the release of the IPCC's 2007 Assessment Report declaring the global scientific view that human-caused climate change is “unequivocal,” Cheney told viewers of ABC-TV that “We're going to see a big debate on it [climate change] going forward, the extent to which it is part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which it is caused by man.” Republican Christine Todd Whitman (1946-), appointed by Bush as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2001, told an interviewer for Rolling Stone in 2007, “I don't see how he can say that with a straight face anymore.”

Bush, while still a presidential candidate, had said that he favored mandatory caps on greenhouse emissions. For example, in September 2000, he announced that he intended to set mandatory CO2 reduction targets for power-plant emissions. On February 27, 2001, shortly after the Bush administration took office, EPA head Whitman announced that the Bush administration supported the Kyoto Protocol. However, this position was swiftly reversed. In March 2001, in a letter to four Republican senators who requested clarification of his stand on climate change, Bush repudiated Kyoto, said he would not regulate CO2 emissions, and claimed scientific uncertainty about climate change.

U.S. policy since that date has been consistent: namely, the United States officially acknowledges the reality of climate change but insists that scientific doubts are too great to justify mandatory actions of whatever kind, especially actions that might threaten U.S. economic interests. The National Energy Policy drafted by the Cheney task force was released in May 2001 and included no provisions for modifying U.S. energy supply or usage to mitigate global climate change.

In June 2001, Bush announced an initiative that would, as described by a White House fact sheet, commit “America to an aggressive new strategy to cut greenhouse gas intensity by 18% over the next 10 years.” He also announced the establishment of a U.S. Climate Change Science Program that would coordinate climate science research in 13 federal agencies.


ANTHROPOGENIC: Made by people or resulting from human activities. Usually used in the context of emissions that are produced as a result of human activities.

BYRD-HAGEL RESOLUTION: U.S. Senate Resolution 98, proposed by Senators Robert Byrd and Chuck Hagel while the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated. This resolution rendered it politically impossible that the United States would ratify Kyoto, stating the Senate's intention to oppose any climate treaty that injured the economy of the United States or did not mandate emissions limits for developing (non-Annex I) nations (as Kyoto did not). Passed 95 to 0 on July 25, 1997.

EMISSIONS CAP: Government-mandated upper limit on total amount to be emitted of some pollutant (e.g., carbon dioxide) by all polluters in a country, region, or class.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE (IPCC): Panel of scientists established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1988 to assess the science, technology, and socioeconomic information needed to understand the risk of human-induced climate change.

RENEWABLE ENERGY: Energy obtained from sources that are renewed at once, or fairly rapidly, by natural or managed processes that can be expected to continue indefinitely. Wind, sun, wood, crops, and waves can all be sources of renewable energy.

The 2002 strategy, however, involved no mandatory caps, and critics were quick to point out that cutting greenhouse-gas intensity did not necessarily mean reduced emissions. Intensity is the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per dollar of gross domestic product, and GDP was projected to grow by more than 18% over the 10-year period, which would lead to an increase in emissions, rather than a reduction, even if the intensity-reduction goal were met. In June 2001, Bush stated publicly that how much of global warming was human-caused was still uncertain; however, most scientists already agreed that most present-day global warming is human-caused. It was not until July 2005 that Bush publicly stated that humans are definitely contributing to global warming. And in January 2007, he mentioned global warming in a State of the Union address.

Impacts and Issues

Efficacy of Measures

U.S. refusal of mandatory emissions caps has been cited by China and other developing nations as justifying their own refusal of such caps. In turn, the non-capping of developing nations' emissions by the Kyoto Protocol has been cited by the United States as a reason for refusing caps. In any case, current U.S. policy will not result in reduced greenhouse emissions in the foreseeable future. According to the 2007 United States Climate Action Report—a report required at regular intervals by the UNFCCC and released by the administration itself— the Bush administration's intensity-based climate policy will have resulted in an 11% increase in U.S. greenhouse emissions from 2002 to 2012. This would be only .6% less than the growth over 1992-2002. Critics have argued that the administration's climate policy has been little different from “business as usual.”

The Climate Change Science Program has been relatively successful. A 2007 review by the National Academies, the official scientific advisory group of the U.S. government, found that the program had helped resolve some scientific questions about global warming. However, the report stated that little effort had gone into understanding the impacts of climate change on human beings, only $25-30 million out of $1.7 billion spent. Also, delays had been rife: only two of the 21 major reports on climate issues promised by the program had been delivered in final form, with only three more in draft form. The National Academies also stated that U.S. failure to fund Earth-observing satellites was “perhaps the single greatest threat to the future success” of climate research.

Allegations of Silencing Science

Even while funding research on climate change, the administration has, critics claim, sought to mute scientific pronouncements about global warming that might alarm the public and increase political pressure for more drastic action. In 2001, the White House appointed Philip A. Cooney, chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Cooney had been a lobbyist and “climate team leader” for the American Petroleum Institute, an oil-industry group opposed to mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. Although a lawyer with no science training, Cooney made hundreds of changes to official EPA documents before their release, all tending to cast doubt on the reality and urgency of human-caused climate change. For example, Cooney made more than 100 such changes to the EPA's “Our Changing Planet.”

In an internal memo, as reported in The New York Times in 2005, senior EPA scientists complained that one EPA major report, as altered by Cooney, “no longer accurately represents scientific consensus on climate change.” Two days after the Times reported on the changes Cooney had been making to EPA and other documents, Cooney resigned. The next week he was hired by the public-affairs department of the oil company ExxonMobil, fueling criticism that the administration had been pandering to corporate interests by suppressing alarming science.


According to the National Academy of Sciences: “The Earth is warming.”

“Climate is conventionally defined as the long-term average of weather conditions, such as temperature, cloudiness, and precipitation; trends in these conditions for decades or longer are a primary measure of climate change. The most striking evidence of a global warming trend is closely scrutinized data that show a relatively rapid and widespread increase in temperature during the past century.”

“The rising temperatures observed since 1978 are particularly noteworthy because the rate of increase is so high and because, during the same period, the energy reaching the Earth from the Sun had been measured precisely enough to conclude that Earth's warming was not due to changes in the Sun. Scientists find clear evidence of this warming trend even after removing data from urban areas where an urban heat-island effect could influence temperature readings. Furthermore, the data are consistent with other evidence of warming, such as increases in ocean temperatures, shrinking mountain glaciers, and decreasing polar ice cover.”

SOURCE: Staudt, Amanda, Nancy Huddleston, and Sandi Rudenstein. Understanding and Responding to Climate Change. National Academy of Sciences, 2006.

EPA Controversy

In 2005, state governments and environmental groups sued the EPA in federal court. They claimed that the EPA had been deliberately heel-dragging, refusing to even evaluate whether it should try to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on April 2, 2007 ruled against the EPA. The court deemed that Section 202 of the Clean Air Act does authorize the EPA to regulate emissions from motor vehicles on the

basis of their possible greenhouse effect, and that the EPA is not permitted to allow “policy considerations”— e.g., political pressure from the White House or elsewhere—to influence its decision about whether to regulate. The 2007 Supreme Court decision requires the EPA to evaluate the danger posed by greenhouse gases emitted by automobiles and to regulate them if it finds that they endanger public health or welfare.

However, under the ruling the EPA is allowed to continue to not take any action for an indefinite time. Critics asserted that it seemed unlikely that any action would be taken by the EPA until some time after a new presidential administration is inaugurated in January 2009.

Legislation in the 110th Congress

Boosted by the IPCC's strong report on climate change in 2007, which declared global warming “unequivocal” and called for an 80% reduction of global greenhouse emissions (below 1990 levels) by 2050 to avert climate disaster, a plethora of climate bills were introduced into the 110th Congress in both the House and Senate in 2007. The announcement in October 2007 that the Nobel Peace Prize was being awarded to the IPCC and to former Vice President Al Gore also strengthened the political forces calling for meaningful action on climate.

Although any bill featuring mandatory caps faced almost certain presidential veto (which can only be overridden by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress), there was much speculation in late 2007 that a major climate bill of some type would be passed. S. 280, sponsored by Senator Joseph Lieberman (Independent-CT), proposed a greenhouse-gas cap-and-trade program covering the commercial, industrial, electric, and transportation sectors of the U.S. economy (about 85% of emissions). A cap-and-trade program is one which defines a mandatory total cap on the emissions from a given sector, but allows individual entities in that sector to trade or sell their share of those emissions to each other. According to this legislation, the cap would take effect in 2012 and would reduce emissions to 60% below 1990 levels by 2050. The bill also calls for research on abrupt climate change and other issues.

Another bill, S. 309, sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent-VT), called for an economy-wide greenhouse-gas cap that would take effect in 2010 and bring U.S. emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, as called for by the IPCC. The bill would also require greenhouse emissions standards for vehicles by 2010 and for new electric power plants opening in 2012 and beyond. It would also require growth in renewable electricity generation. As of October 2007, neither of these bills had yet come to a vote in either the House or Senate. Any bill not voted on by the end of the 110th Congress, on January 3, 2009, would have to be re-introduced in the 111th Congress.

As of early 2008 it was widely expected that whether a Republican or Democratic administration took office after the year's U.S. presidential elections, the country would be forced by scientific and public opinion to take more substantial action on climate change than the Bush administration had.

Bush Proposal for Voluntary Caps

In 2007, dozens of world leaders gathered in New York at the United Nations for a major summit on climate change. Notably, President Bush did not attend any of the day's events except the dinner. Rather, he declared a parallel, independent “US-EU Summit” in Washington, D.C., for later the same week, promoting his concept of voluntary, nation-by-nation greenhouse limits as opposed to any kind of international treaty. According to a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report, Bush told delegates that “Each nation must decide for itself the right mix of tools and technology to achieve results that are measurable and environmentally effective.”

Bush's proposals met with a cool reception, however, even from longtime U.S. allies. The British climate envoy, John Ashton, characterized the United States under Bush as “isolated” on climate issues. “I think that the argument that we can do this through voluntary approaches,” Ashton said, “is now pretty much discredited internationally.” South African Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said, “We think that the U.S. needs to go back to the drawing board.”

See Also Climate Change Science Program; Energy Industry Activism; Environmental Policy; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Kyoto Protocol; United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); United States: State and Local Greenhouse Policies.



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Web Sites

Bamberger, Robert. “Energy Policy: Historical Overview, Conceptual Framework, and Continuing Issues.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, January 30, 2003. <> (accessed October 28, 2007).

“Bush Climate Plans Spark Debate.” BBC News, September 29, 2007. <> (accessed October 28, 2007).

“EXCLUSIVE: Cheney on Global Warming.” ABC News (transcript), February 23, 2007. <> (accessed October 28, 2007).

Leggett, Jane A. “Climate Change: Science and Policy Implications.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, May 2, 2007. < pdf>. (accessed October 28, 2007).

Meltz, Robert. “The Supreme Court's Climate Change Decision: Massachusetts v. EPA.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress,May 18,2007. <> (accessed October 28, 2007).

Ramsuer, Jonathan L., and Brent D. Yacobucci. “Climate Change Legislation in the 110th Congress.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, July 17, 2007. <> (accessed October 28, 2007).

Yacobucci, Brent D., and Larry Parker. “Climate Change: Federal Laws and Policies Related to Greenhouse Gas Reductions.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, February 22, 2006. <> (accessed October 28, 2007).

Larry Gilman

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