United states of America

THE UNITED states of America is the world's largest industrialized country and emitter of carbon dioxide. It is therefore widely regarded as the most significant contributor to global warming and climate change. U.S. climate change policies have never remained consistent, as they have tended to shift in accordance with the presidential administration in office. The current administration, led by George W. Bush, has come under particular scrutiny from the media, the scientific community, the general public, and other countries for its climate change policies.

The focus on climate change in the United States became particularly acute in the late 1980s and evolved out of concern about the growing damage to the ozone layer. For two decades, that problem had occupied the attention of scientists and policymakers. In the early 1970s, scientific researchers at the University of California in Irvine established clear evidence that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—chemical compounds made up of fluorine, chlorine, and carbon—were damaging the ozone layer, the thin protective layer above the Earth's atmosphere. The increased solar radiation entering the atmosphere as a result of this damage had the potential to cause health problems such as skin cancers and cataracts. At the time, CFCs were widely used as refrigerants, cleaning solvents, and the basis for aerosol products.

In October 1976, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibited companies from manufacturing CFC-based products unless they were essential and threatened to cancel the product registration of companies that failed to comply. The following year, the agency ordered a gradual phase-out of CFCs from household products such as deodorants, hairsprays, and cleaners. In 1985, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) created a framework convention for the protection of the ozone layer. It encouraged governments to adopt relevant measures to that end, devised a Conference of the Parties composed of governments that had ratified the convention, and appointed a UN secretariat to monitor and frame the actions of the Conference of the Parties. The creation of the framework convention paved the way for international negotiations over the regulation of CFCs. These negotiations, although initially hindered by energy interests in both the European Union (EU) and the United States, ultimately led to the Montreal Protocol of 1988, a worldwide treaty that mandated a staged reduction in the production and consumption of fully halogenated CFCs. The treaty was more lenient toward developing countries, as it gave them a 10-year grace period for the phase-out of CFCs and promised them technological assistance from industrialized nations in return for switching to CFC alternatives. The United States ratified the Montreal Protocol on April 21, 1988, and brought it into effect at the beginning of the following year.

During the next 18 months, the signatories of the Montreal Protocol realized that the original draft of the protocol did not go far enough in controlling CFC emissions. At the second Conference of the Parties in June 1990, delegates placed further restrictions on the production and use of CFCs and further reduced the acceptable level for CFCs in the atmosphere. The fourth Conference of the Parties, which took place two years later, led to further changes. For example, the United States had to limit its production of ozone-depleting substances in accordance with its own Clean Air Act. Over time, the Montreal Protocol virtually eliminated CFC emissions and significantly reduced the threat to the ozone layer. Ultimately, it was the model on which future environmental regulations were based.

international focus on climate change

At the same time as ozone depletion was occupying the attention of international policymakers, the issue of planetary climate change was also gaining ascendancy on the world stage. As a phenomenon, climate change was by no means new, having been identified by scientists in the late 1950s. However, in the 1980s, it became the focus of widespread public and political attention. In the summer of 1988, the United States experienced its hottest and driest summer since records began. Fire destroyed millions of acres of forest in western regions of the country, and in the south, barges and small boats became stranded as the Mississippi River began to recede. The Midwest experienced prolonged periods of drought, and across the country crop yields declined severely. On June 23, the temperature in Washington, D.C., reached a record 101 degrees F (38 degrees C).

In response to the extreme weather conditions, Senator Timothy Wirth (D-CO) convened a U.S. Senate hearing on the issue of climate change. Paul Revere, a scientist for NASA, confirmed at the hearing that extra carbon was building in the atmosphere and heating the Earth. His colleague James E. Hansen similarly asserted that the planet was experiencing its highest temperatures of the 20th century. Both men used the phrase "the greenhouse effect" to describe global warming. They also claimed that global warming was occurring as a result of human activity, especially the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

Just days after the Senate hearing ended, politicians, officials, and scientists gathered in Toronto, Canada, for an environmental conference. The delegates proposed a 20 percent reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions by 2005, although they based this proposal less on firm economic and scientific analysis than on a desire to show their commitment to solving the climate change problem. Later that year, in December, the UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization jointly created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization designed to bring together climate information from around the world.


At a 1989 summit meeting of the world's seven largest industrial democracies, it was apparent that the EU and United States were becoming increasingly divided over global warming. West European countries thought that the evidence about climate change was irrefutable, whereas George H.W. Bush, the American president, argued that the matter required further research. A number of factors accounted for the disparity between the two sides, particularly the fact that the United States was experiencing higher and faster population growth than Europe, and thus would be more adversely affected by limitations on carbon emissions and fuel consumption. In 1990, the IPCC released its first report, which reflected the general consensus of scientists that global warming was a serious issue.

The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, represented the first step toward international regulation of climate change. Attended by governments from around the world, the conference resulted in a treaty called the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), which sought to limit greenhouse gases at a level that would not interfere with the planet's natural climate system. It also established a new Conference of the Parties, a forum in which nations would meet and establish environmental standards. The United States, still under the leadership of George H.W. Bush, promptly ratified and implemented the treaty, as did the majority of governments at the conference. Industrialized countries also used the conference as an opportunity to adopt a program called Agenda 21, which promised development assistance to developing countries on the condition they took steps to adopt more environmentally sound policies.

In January 1993, recently elected U.S. president William J. Clinton assumed control of the White House. The vice president in the new administration, Albert Gore, had published a book the previous year called Earth in the Balance, which he hoped would alert the general public to the fragility of the natural environment. On Earth Day in April of that year, Clinton, in adherence with the stipulations laid down in the FCCC, publicly announced that he aimed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to their 1990 level by the year 2000. He also called for a tax on energy consumption, although strong opposition from the Democratic-controlled Congress thwarted this proposal.

The IPCC released its second report in 1996. The report stated that human activities were having a clear effect on climate change. Although some scientists were still skeptical about the findings, the majority agreed that global warming had become a major problem. In light of the evidence presented in the report, Conference of the Parties delegates sought further preventative measures. At the Second Conference of the Parties in Geneva that year, Timothy Wirth, now undersecretary for global affairs in the Clinton Administration, announced that the United States was willing to limit its greenhouse gas emissions if other countries were prepared to do the same. Delegates at the conference began to draw up a protocol for the framework convention that they could sign at the next Conference of the Parties, scheduled for Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. The most important aspect of the draft protocol was its proposal to reduce carbon emissions to a set level between 2008 and 2012.

As part of his ongoing efforts to underline his commitment to solving the global climate crisis, Clinton gave a speech at a special meeting of the UN in New York in June 1997. He proposed the development of new technology, the introduction of strategies such as emissions trading, and the adoption of measures that would protect the environment without impeding economic growth. He followed up this speech by holding a press conference with Gore at the White House the following month. At the conference, he reiterated his government's commitment to tacking climate change. The U.S. Senate, which had come under Republican control in the midterm elections, was becoming increasingly uneasy at Clinton's rhetoric, and in late July it adopted a resolution that warned the president to exercise caution at the forthcoming Kyoto conference. Known as the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, after its two main sponsors, the resolution advised Clinton not to accept terms that would jeopardize the American economy or place less responsibility for climate change on developing nations. Although opposition in Congress was mounting, Clinton stated at a meeting of the National Geographic Society in October that he supported reducing U.S. emissions to their 1990 level between 2008 and 2012. He neglected to explain, however, that the plan might have negative economic consequences for the United States.


The third Conference of the Parties took place in Kyoto, Japan, in November 1997 and was attended by 10,000 government officials from across the globe, as well as scores of lobbyists, observers, and media representatives. During the proceedings, the United States reiterated Clinton's plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to their 1990 level during the first commitment period, between 2008 and 2012. Most of the European countries felt that this measure was inadequate, and they demanded more substantial action. The dissension between Europe and America thwarted an agreement over emissions policy, and only a last-minute trip to Japan by Gore resulted in a compromise between the two sides. Gore said that the United States would reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to 7 percent below the 1990 level during the first commitment period, scheduled for 2008 to 2012, and the Europeans agreed to cut their emissions to 8 percent below the 1990 level during the same time frame. Overall, the Kyoto text only committed the 38 industrialized countries in attendance at the conference to reducing their emissions. It placed no obligation on developing nations, who argued that a binding emissions treaty would hinder their path to full industrialization.

The treaty, although open for signatures at the end of the conference, was by no means complete. A number of issues remained unresolved, including emissions trading and carbon dioxide sinks. Emissions trading, a policy strongly favored by the United States, would allow countries that had improved on their emissions targets to sell the difference to countries at risk of not meeting their targets. Many European countries were unfamiliar with this policy and were reluctant to adhere to it without full knowledge of its consequences. Australia, Japan, and the United States also advocated that carbon dioxide sinks—reservoirs such as forests and oceans that absorb carbon and prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere— should be included as part of countries' emissions targets. Clinton signed the treaty in 1998 but did not present it to the Senate for ratification.

The sixth Conference of the Parties opened at The Hague in the Netherlands in late November 2000. It was somewhat overshadowed by events in the United States, where the result of the November 7 presidential election was still in dispute because of ongoing recounts in the state of Florida. The key purpose of the conference was to establish the regulations for the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. For the previous three years, dissension and conflicting interests had prevented the protocol from coming into force. The Umbrella Group—a federation composed of the United States, Australia, Canada, and Japan and supported by energy companies and oil-rich countries such as Kuwait—argued that carbon sinks should be allowed to count as part of countries' reduction tar gets. The Umbrella Group also hoped to include a provision for emissions trading in the Kyoto regulations.

In its Third Assessment Report, published at the beginning of 2001, the IPCC further emphasized the role of humans in the climate change process. Discrediting the idea that global warming stemmed from natural phenomena such as volcanic activity and changes in the sun's radiation, the IPCC argued that the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas was the only reasonable cause of climate change. Moreover, it attributed global warming to an average temperature increase of just 1 degree over the previous century and warned that if fossil fuel consumption continued without restraint, the planet would experience an additional 3 degrees to 10 degrees of warming by the year 2100. The panel was confident, though, that there was still enough time to halt the process of climate change.


The same month the IPCC report was published, George W. Bush entered the White House, and he moved quickly to limit his country's responsibility for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. On March 28, he announced that he was going to withdraw the United States from the Kyoto Protocol. He justified his decision by arguing that the protocol would have a harmful effect on the American economy and that it unfairly placed most of the burden for reducing carbon dioxide emissions on industrialized nations. Dick Cheney, the vice president in the Bush Administration, openly repudiated the protocol. As an alternative, Bush proposed an extensive program of scientific research and technological innovation. To that end, he instructed the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to carry out an extensive study on the impact of the greenhouse effect. Bush's actions prompted outrage among the signatories of the Kyoto Protocol. Many of the EU member countries said that the United States had no right to reject the validity of the protocol.

The NAS released its findings in May 2001. The report reiterated that climate change was a very real phenomenon, caused predominantly by human actions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that if fossil fuel consumption continued without restraint, the planet would experience an additional 3 to 10 degrees of warming by the year 2100.

It concurred that there had been an average temperature increase of 1 degree F during the 20th century, and estimated that temperatures would increase between 2.5-10 degrees F (1.4-5.5 degrees C) during the 21st century. It further predicted that sea levels could rise as much as 3 ft. (1 m.) by 2100, resulting in adverse social consequences such as homelessness, starvation, and growing numbers of environmental refugees. Even in light of clear evidence about the harmful consequences of carbon emissions, the Bush Administration continued to circumvent the issue of climate change.

The same month as the NAS published its report, Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force announced a national plan to develop new sources of energy. Cheney publicly announced that the plan would secure America's energy needs for the long-term future, but the plan did not place any emphasis on conserving energy or making energy consumption more efficient. An environmental group later discovered that representatives from the energy industry had exerted a large degree of influence over the task force. A few weeks later, Bush revealed his plans for a U.S. Climate Change Initiative, which would support climate change research and manage the distribution of funding for such research.

An American delegation was present at the seventh Conference of the Parties in Bonn in July 2001, despite the United States' repudiation of the Kyoto treaty. Paula Dobriansky, the head of the delegation, agreed that it would not participate in any discussions pertaining to the treaty. However, the United States still made its presence felt at the conference. Dobriansky announced to a bemused audience that Bush was committed to halting the process of climate change and then went on to reiterate the administration's opposition to the Kyoto Protocol. She said that the United States would only stop other countries from adhering to the protocol if such actions harmed the country's interests. The conference was also notable for the fact that the EU finally consented to the idea of carbon sinks, agreeing to let countries include sinks as part of their carbon reductions. The EU also agreed that there should be no limit on emissions trading. Both provisions were included in the Bonn Agreement, which also stipulated that countries would be responsible for additional emis sion reductions in the second commitment period if they missed their initial targets.

In 2002, Bush announced that he aimed for an 18 percent reduction in the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. He proposed to achieve this through measures such as consumer information campaigns, new mandatory regulations, and partnerships with energy firms. He argued that his plan demonstrated his government's commitment to meet the terms of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. However, many scientists and politicians pointed out that Bush's plan only sought to reduce the intensity, and not the quantity, of greenhouse gas emissions. The scientific community predicted that if the United States continued to follow the same plan in the coming decades, it could potentially cause greenhouse gas emissions to increase 30 percent above their 1990 level by the year 2030. In addition to that plan, the Bush Administration and the energy industry established a new energy project called FutureGen in 2003. The purpose of the project was to build an advanced facility for generating power through the gasification of coal and the sequestering of carbon emissions. The facility, which is currently under construction, is scheduled to open in 2012.

Although Bush began to acknowledge in 2003 that climate change stemmed from human actions, his initiatives did not extend much beyond those that were already in force. He was reelected in 2004, and by the following year the United States was still heavily reliant on coal-burning power plants for its energy. In 2005, coal-generated energy represented 32 percent of all the energy generated across the country. Around 23 percent of the nation's energy came from natural gas, 18 percent from natural gas and petroleum, and 10 percent from nuclear generation. According to figures compiled by the UN Statistics Division, the United States had the highest level of carbon dioxide emissions in the world in 2004. It emitted the equivalent of 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, by far the highest rate of any country in the world, and the same amount of greenhouse gases as 2.6 billion people living in 151 developing nations. China, the world's fastest-growing economy, was in second place, having emitted the equivalent of just over 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide. However, the difference in carbon emissions between the two countries was far greater when broken down to an average figure for each member of the popula tion. American emissions amounted to an average of 23.92 tons of emissions per person, whereas China's emissions only averaged out to 3.36 tons of emissions for every member of the population.

Many prominent American environmental groups continued to campaign vigorously for the United States to join the Kyoto Protocol but were hindered by a powerful industrial lobby. However, more than half of the states in the union had started their own initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In California in 2003, then-governor Gray Davis stipulated that car manufacturers had to reduce the emissions level of all vehicles sold in the state. The California Air Resources Board established new emissions standards for cars that came into effect at the end of 2005. Davis's successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, also took a firm stance on the environment.

Despite the Bush Administration's claims that the United States cannot adhere to the Kyoto Protocol, scientific evidence has proven that more restrictive policies on carbon emissions will not have a detrimental effect on American economic growth. During the energy crisis of 1973 to 1986, the country actually improved its energy efficiency: its economy grew by 35 percent, and its energy output remained at a consistent level. Robert Ayers, an ecological pioneer, estimates that 19 of every 20 units of energy in the United States are wasted and advocates capturing those wasted units to cut America's energy consumption.

In recent years, there have been clear indicators about how global warming has been affecting the United States. Eighteen of the warmest years on record occurred between 1980 and 2006; 2005 was officially the hottest year ever recorded. Ten of the 12 strongest hurricanes on record occurred in 2005. Many of those hurricanes had a direct effect on the United States, particularly Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of New Orleans and parts of Louisiana and killed hundreds of people. In Montana, the number of glaciers at Glacier National Park is rapidly falling. In 1910, the park had 150 glaciers, and that number is now less than 30.

Evidence about how climate change will affect the United States in the future has been growing. Peer-reviewed data show that the country could lose up to 14,000 sq. mi. (36,260 sq. km.) of territory as a result of global warming. The NAS predicts a 3-ft. (1 m.) rise in sea levels by 2100, and the Environmental Protection

Agency estimates that the acreage available for cultivation in Maryland and Pennsylvania could drop as much as 43 percent in the coming decades. Scientists estimate that Glacier National Park's glaciers will have disappeared by 2030. They are also predicting a major reduction in winter snowpack in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions, which would not only harm the economy of those regions by eradicating the conditions necessary for winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding but would also threaten the drinking water supplies, drawn from melting snow, of millions of people. Other possible consequences of global warming for America include higher levels of aridity in the Southwest and Great Plains, increased flooding along major river basins, more wildfires, and the spread of disease and illness. In the past few years, the effect of climate change has become a prominent issue in popular American culture. Both the fictional disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow and Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth graphically depict what will happen to the United States, and other parts of the world, if temperatures continue to rise unabated.

SEE ALSO: Bush (George H.W.) Administration; Bush (George W.) Administration; California; Carbon Emissions; Carbon Footprint; Carbon Sinks; Carter Administration; Climate Action Network (CAN); Clinton Administration; Department of Defense, U.S.; Department of Energy, U.S.; Department of State, U.S.; Emissions Trading; Framework Convention on Climate Change; Global Warming; Gore, Albert Jr.; Greenhouse Effect; Greenhouse Gases; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Kyoto Mechanisms; Kyoto Protocol; Louisiana; Montreal Protocol; Refugees, Environmental; Toronto Conference; United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); World Meteorological Organization.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. J.W. Anderson, How Climate Change Policy Developed: A Short History (Resources for the Future, 2006); Marc Allen Eisner, Governing the Environment: The Transformation of Environmental Regulation (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007); Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing The Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005); Fourth Climate Action Report to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (U.S. Department of State, 2006); Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It (Rodale Books,

1014 University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

2006); Raymond J. Kopp, Recent Trends in U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: An Introductory Guide to Data and Sources (Resources for the Future, 2006); Mark Lynas, High Tide: The Truth About Our Climate Crisis (Picador, 2004); A. Barrie Pittock, Climate Change: Turning Up the Heat (Csiro Publishing, 2005); James Gustave Speth, Red Sky At Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (Yale University Press, 2004); Mike Tidwell, The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities (Free Press, 2006); United Nations Statistics Division, "Climate Change: Greenhouse Gas Emissions," www.unstats.un.org/unsd/environment/air_ greenhouse_emissions.htm; Norman J. Vig and Michael G. Faure, Green Giants: Environmental Policies of the United States and the European Union (MIT Press, 2004).

Richard Fry Wayne State University

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