Changing US Views

The global perception of the United States is that it is a laggard on climate change. Given its size and large contribution to global emissions, many countries around the world believe the United States should—and could—be doing more. Data from the Pew 2007 Global Attitudes project show that in thirty-four of the thirty-seven countries surveyed, the United States is named by a majority or a clear plurality as the country that is "hurting the world's environment the most."16 That sentiment is shared by many Americans as well, with one-third of those surveyed rating their own country as the world's biggest polluter. For almost three decades, small groups of Americans have worked to promote climate policies, but to date the United States has shown very little leadership on this global challenge.

U.S. awareness of the potential problem of climate change first became widespread in the late 1980s. In 1986 and 1987, the climate expert James Hansen began expounding the view that global warming due to the greenhouse effect was to become a serious issue over the next 20 years.17 Hansen's congressional testimony on the topic in the summer of 1988—a summer featuring severe droughts and heat waves—catalyzed the attention of the media, environmental groups, and the scientific community.

Hansen's efforts, however, were countered in 1989 when corporations from big industry, notably petroleum and automobile companies, founded the Global Climate Coalition. The sole purpose of this coalition was to refute any suggestion that action against the greenhouse effect was needed. Those views on the subject found a largely receptive audience within the George H. W. Bush administration. Yet, just before leaving office, Bush did sign on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to counter his bad environmental reputation. Of course, the UNFCCC was not binding in any way, which made it easier for groups such as the Global Climate Coalition to accept.

Between the release of the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 1990 and the second report in 1995, international consensus on the severity of global warming gradually solidified and gained strength, particularly within the scientific community. Spearheaded by Vice President Al Gore, the Clinton administration pushed strongly for the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Ironically, the United States fought to have a cap-and-trade system, something the United States first developed as part of the 1990 Clean Air Act, inserted into the protocol. In the face of mounting congressional opposition, however, the Clinton administration ultimately refused to sign the protocol.

The conservative-led Congress, supported and encouraged by groups such as the Global Climate Coalition, argued that adherence to the Kyoto Protocol would raise U.S. energy and gas prices and give other countries, such as India and China, an unfair economic advantage. After the U.S. Senate passed a declaration, 95-0, that Congress would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol unless it applied also to developing countries, the Clinton administration did not bother to submit the treaty for ratification.

The administration of George W. Bush has been pointedly skeptical on climate change and has introduced no legislation to deal with it.18 In advance of the G-8 summit in June 2007, during some tense negotiations on whether or not the summit communiqués would include binding targets, Bush did invite the top fifteen emitters to attend a climate conference in Washington in late September 2007, following a UN meeting in New York on the same issue earlier that week.

The Washington meeting represented a significant breakthrough in the U.S. approach, as Bush acknowledged the importance of the issue, calling for the world's leading emissions producers to work together and set long-term emissions reduction goals in the context of a Kyoto Protocol successor treaty for 2012. Yet the presentations made by Bush and Secretary of State Con-doleezza Rice also served to underline the wide gap between the thinking of policymakers in the United States and in much of the rest of the international community, with the United States continuing to oppose binding international treaties that contain minimum requirements and penalties for noncompliance. Rather, without suggesting concrete numbers, the administration proposed that each country should determine its own goals, to be pursued voluntarily, and that developing countries bear as much responsibility as developed ones. From the perspective of European policymakers, this episode represented on the one hand an important initial shift in a positive direction for the United States, yet on the other it demonstrated that U.S. policy on climate change remains largely isolated from and out of step with the worldview of Europe.19

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