The Clinton Years

Global warming and environmental issues in general became one of several major policy areas of focus during Bill Clinton's presidency. Vice President Al Gore and the first undersecretary of state for global affairs, Timothy Wirth, who as Senate colleagues had been two of the leading advocates of action on climate change, signified a wave of change within the government. The cold war was over, and environmentalists advocated using an expected "peace dividend" to halt climate change and ozone depletion. The threat of climate change was often juxtaposed with the nuclear threat, with considerable argument as to which posed the greater danger.

As recognition spread that national security needed to be redefined to encompass threats not strictly military, the focus shifted primarily to economic and demographic issues. Perhaps this was because it was more direct and obvious why and how these areas generated significant threats, and because it was more readily apparent how the nation could handle these challenges. This trend snowballed as not only climate change skeptics but also some who agreed that global warming was a challenge of high importance began to portray economic growth and environmental regulation as antithetical. Warnings of a recession and a perception that countering global warming entailed extreme expenses further stalled its moving to a place of high national priority.

In late 1993 Clinton unveiled a Climate Change Action Plan, a series of voluntary measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. The plan both disappointed many environmentalists for not creating a system of mandatory measures and was praised by others for taking the health of the economy into account. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary declared that inaction would be met with the enactment of mandatory measures, which encouraged many in the middle to consider the plan a good first step in slowing the pace of global warming.21 A few months later, Undersecretary Wirth addressed the link between climate change and national security at a United States Information Agency foreign press briefing: "We're working on—continue to work on—global climate change. The U.S. has put together its action plan." At the same time he signaled that the Clinton administration did not consider global warming as a single, paramount threat: "We have very broad support in the Congress for this [the administration's agenda] in the post-Cold War era as the United States redefines its examination of national security. As the president pointed out . . . this falls into three broad categories of nuclear non-proliferation, focuses on democracy, and sustainable development."22 Climate change was merely a subheading.

In a 1994 Atlantic Monthly article on demographic and environmental issues creating anarchic conditions in Africa that is still cited to this day as another major catalyst for attention to the topic, Robert Kaplan implored, "It is time to understand 'the environment' for what it is: the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century" (emphasis in original).23 But policymakers never elevated it to this level. Press focus also changed, as climate change waned as a political hot topic and morality, globalization, and technology took increasing command of the national conversation. The environment and security scholar Geoffrey Dabelko observed in 1999 that the "bubble burst" after 1994, and "the policy crowd moved on to other theories about the roots of conflict. Ethnicity and 'the clash of civilizations'... now claimed the spotlight."24

But although academics and policy wonks may have dropped the serious debate over whether the environment and climate change were national security concerns per se, climate change nevertheless stood in the foreign policy spotlight in Clinton's second term. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement that required the reduction of greenhouse gases to below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012 on the part of the developed nations that ratified it, became a source of tension throughout much of Clinton's second term.

Greenhouse gas emissions increased through the 1990s, as the global economy boomed with new players such as China on the international scene, and many viewed Kyoto as merely a first step that might reduce the rate of increase of emissions, but not knock them back to earlier levels. For the United States, Clinton proposed a system to cap emissions and a system of trading emissions credits, along with funding research and development through tax credits. Clinton's initial proposal guaranteed no serious action for nearly a decade, and reports trickled out that stronger policies advocated by his environmental advisers were systematically weakened on the advice of administration economists; this meant that the United States would be going into the Kyoto negotiations from this tempered position. The president warned that he was prepared to reject stricter standards demanded by European and other nations and threatened that he would not submit the treaty for Senate approval, with the stated reasoning that developing nations would not be required to comply.25

The United States did sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, but the how of an international system of reducing emissions was a point of great contention. The United States wished to count increased and protected forest and agricultural land as carbon sinks. Other developed nations took this as an easy way out, and this—along with discord over compliance monitoring, enforcement, and the question of which nations would bear what costs—led to the collapse of the Kyoto negotiations by late 2000, the year before ratification was to occur.26 Clinton never did send the Kyoto treaty to the Senate for approval, but the years of debate over multiple sticking points made it clear that to do so would have been fruitless anyway. The question of whether the United States would agree to international environmental standards was effectively answered by both Democrats and Republicans with a resounding "no."

10 Kurt M. Campbell and Christine Parthemore The New Millennium

Just two months into George W. Bush's presidency, his EPA administrator announced that the administration had no intention of implementing the Kyoto treaty. Bush's reservations echoed Clinton's—it might stall economic growth, and developing nations such as China and India were not required to comply—and cast doubt on the scientific evidence that human activity drove climate change.27 In March 2001 Bush also wrote in a letter to Republican senators, "We must be very careful not to take actions that could harm consumers. .. . This is especially true, given the incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change and the lack of commercially available technologies for removing and storing carbon dioxide."28 One hundred and seventy-five countries eventually accepted the treaty, and most developed nations ratified it, but not the United States.

Years of government inaction on climate change followed. Bush enjoyed years with a Republican Congress under his strict instruction. The September

11 terrorist attacks, Bush's ambiguous and ambitious Global War on Terror, and two wars distracted attention and funds from virtually all else. Perhaps because the concept of a threat was now painted in such stark terms—attack on the American mainland, and anything that might enable it—a debate over the environmental links to national security was sparked anew, if under the mainstream radar. And though the problem was once compared to the nuclear threat, its comparison with and linkage to terrorism now became prominent. In a 2005 article titled "Climate Change Poses Greater Security Threat than Terrorism," Janet Sawin of Worldwatch Institute asserted that transformations in the climate would disrupt global water supplies and agricultural activities, resulting in drought and famine, which would lead some people to turn to extralegal organizations and terrorist groups that would be able to provide for their basic needs better than existing economic and political institutions.29

The momentum to discuss the impact of climate change as a national security issue has finally been building steadily since 2006. Al Gore's climate change slide show, An Inconvenient Truth, became both a best-selling book and a documentary film that won multiple awards, including an Oscar. Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Television news programs and presidential candidates hosted "green weeks" to showcase information about climate change and ideas on how to address it. Some in the mainstream press admitted that they long lent narrow special interests too much credence, and thousands of scientists around the world too little. The prominent New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has publicly spoken out about what he sees as a failure of the elite media to cover the issue of climate change in all of its manifestations. Climate change rather than the perennial issues of globalization, nuclear proliferation, and the Iraq War dominated the January 2007 World Economic Forum meeting of the world's political and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland.30 In explaining why he chose to discuss climate change at Davos, the leader of Britain's Conservative Party, David Cameron, said, "There is a consensus . . . that says we need to take action to prevent it, rather than just mitigate its effects. But, at the same time, politicians have a duty to prepare for its consequences in terms of domestic and international security."31 Policy leaders and academics are now airing and debating concepts for postKyoto international cooperation.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment