The United States was an early leader in the field, dating at least to the aforementioned congressional climate change hearings during summer 1988. Experts such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Jim Hansen first sounded alarms as to the severity of the climate change problem. Four years later, at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the United States continued to actively participate in climate deliberations on the international stage. President George H.W. Bush attended what was at the time the largest gathering of world leaders in history, signing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), one of the five major agreements reached at what has since been referred to popularly as the Earth Summit.
But both President Bush's presence and signature were couched within political compromise. Bush feared mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions would severely hamper the U.S. economy, and only agreed to attend if the final document would go no further than suggesting voluntary limits by each country. His famous saying was that America's way of life was not up for negotiation. Popular opinion in the United States had yet to grasp the concept of sustainable development, the idea that economic development and environmental resource protection can go hand in hand.
Thus, the great irony of Rio is that a conference that was intended to firmly establish the 1987 Brundt-land Report's definition of sustainable development, outlined in their publication Our Common Future as development that meets the needs of the present generation without sacrificing the needs of future generations, actually did the exact opposite. An entire cohort of American diplomats handcuffed themselves by bowing to the popular connotation that a tension existed between economic and environmental health. For the next decade and a half, American climate change politics would be shaped primarily by President Bush's language, one that insinuated a trade-off between environmental protection and economic development and completely ignored the underlying foundation of economic health, namely a healthy environment.
The following year, President Bill Clinton, after defeating President Bush in his reelection bid, was faced with precisely this type of obstacle in public sentiment. Despite placing perhaps the most qualified environmental politician of his generation in the number two slot of the Democratic ticket in 1992, President Clinton was unable to generate much political traction when it came to the climate change debate during the eight years in office with Vice President Al Gore, Jr. Two key examples bear out this point. The first is the attempt early in Clinton's first administration to institute a British thermal unit (BTU) tax, one that would raise taxes for a family income of $40,000 by approximately $17 a month and those making under $30,000 by none at all. This proposal failed in short order and reinforced the perception in American politics that the public will not pay to solve a long-forming, distant problem with uncertain consequences. There are simply too many more immediate concerns the average American faces on a day-to-day basis.
The second major example rests squarely upon the foundation of the international climate change debate, the Kyoto Protocol. In the lead-up to the United States signing that international treaty in December 1997, Clinton Administration officials took a central international role. With the preceding April 1995 Berlin Mandate, for instance, the United States was a passionate supporter of the argument for differentiated responsibilities, where the industrialized world would agree to restrict its emissions on the average of 5 percent below its 1990 levels before the developing world would do so, much like the Montreal Protocol had divided the world between developed and developing world.
But well before Vice President Gore left for Kyoto in late 1997 to join the U.S. delegation led by former senator Tim Wirth (D-CO), the U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan Byrd-Hagel Resolution, which stated that body would only support a treaty that included all countries of the world. Touting what would come to be labeled global apartheid, the Byrd-Hagel Resolution demonstrated an overwhelming sentiment, passing by a vote of 95-0. Thus, despite signing Kyoto, Clinton never submitted the treaty for ratification in the Senate, a constitutional requirement that dictates any international treaty must receive two-thirds Senate support before becoming force of law.
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