The Initial US Rule Models Uncertainty Economics and Universality

The rule model shaping U.S. negotiating positions and behavior remained remarkably stable in the years that climate change emerged as a political issue.67 There were two components to the U.S. rules. First, and underlying all else, the United States was committed to universal participation in negotiations and efforts to address climate change. Universal participation was positively reinforced during the latter ozone depletion negotiations and this understanding matched the social context. Positive reinforcement combined with a low social complexity context led the United States to lock in around universal participation for climate change.

Second, the United States maintained that binding emission targets were not warranted to address climate change. In this project, I merely report the recalcitrant U.S. emissions reduction position, with only cursory thoughts on its origin. Rather than systematically explaining why the United States was averse to emission reduction measures (a much explored topic), I instead demonstrate that its commitment to universal participation influenced how the United States strategized to reach its substantive goal of no binding measures.

The United States began the political phase of the climate change issue having already defined climate change as a global environmental problem requiring universal participation.68 The United States never considered other potential definitions for climate change other than as a global issue requiring universal participation.69 The global nature of climate change was never questioned.70 Crucially, at the same time that the U.S. government was awakening to the climate change problem (19871989), it was in the midst of transforming its participation rule model in the ozone depletion issue. This transformation and internalization of the universal participation norm clearly affected the early U.S. definition of climate change. Eileen Claussen recalls that in defining climate change "people learned from ozone—definitely a global issue."71

In late 1987, the State Department recognized that "not only the developed countries but also the key developing countries be represented in [an intergovernmental] mechanism" for addressing climate change.72 This understanding was refined and expanded to all Southern states in 1989 when William Nitze (U.S. State Department) testified:

[I]f we are to have effective international agreements to address the climate change issue, and specifically to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the future, we must get the cooperation of the developing countries.73

The EPA also recognized the importance of the South. An EPA report from 1989 argued for universal participation, claiming that "[i]f developing nations do not adopt climate stabilizing policies, then the equilibrium warming commitment in 2050 could increase by about 40 percent compared to scenarios in which there is global cooperation."741 want to stress again that these commitments in late 1987 through 1989, did not arise from science or strategy. The EPA study referenced above highlights the importance of future Southern emissions for the climate change problem, but, crucially, shows the importance of China individually—nothing in the report warrants universal political action on its face.75 The EPA and the State Department, the most environmentally aggressive agencies in the United States, advocated universal participation.76

Defining the problem as requiring universal participation, however, did not lead the United States to undertake proactive policy responses in the late 1980s. Throughout the 1980s, the United States was heavily involved in climate science research. NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, and the EPA (among many others) were world leaders on the science of climate change. U.S. scientists were among the first to bring attention to the potential problems associated with global warming or the greenhouse effect. Already in June 1986, Robert Watson of NASA was calling global warming inevitable and noted that "it's only a matter of magnitude and time."77 However, even given the work of government scientists, officials in both the Reagan and Bush administrations forged and maintained a skeptical position. The United States used a skepticism founded upon scientific uncertainty and economic cost to justify its resolved hostility toward emission reduction measures. 78

Scientific consensus grew in the 1988-1990 period as did talk of international negotiations and conventions. At the same time, U.S. government scientists and agencies contributed to the accumulation of scientific knowledge as well as the sense of urgency. Stephen Schneider (National Center for Atmospheric Research) testified to Congress that "the only global warming issues left for resolution are how much warmer it will get and when."79 In addition, the EPA claimed:

There is a growing consensus in the scientific community that significant global warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse emissions is probable over the next century, and rapid climatic change is possible.80

Yet, even given this scientific work, U.S. officials continued to adhere to a discourse of uncertainty to justify opposition to binding international action.81 Uncertainty became the U.S. mantra.82

The Bush administration, and especially John Sununu (chief of staff) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), exploited the inherent uncertainty in climate science to shift the focus to economic costs.83 The economic costs involved in addressing climate change were not calculated to be small, especially given the fossil-fuel dependence of U.S. industry and society in general. One estimate from the Council of Economic Advisors put the cost of a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions (the target being discussed at the time) between $800 billion and $3.6 trillion.84

Some in Congress pressed for U.S. action anyway, and in 1988, Senators Stafford (R-VT) and Wirth (D-CO) sponsored bills to begin addressing global warming domestically. However, given the context of skepticism and the powerful industrial lobby, it was observed that "the bills trample on so many interest groups that neither of the chief co-sponsors . . . expect to achieve anything more than committee hearings in the remaining months of the current Congress."85

Yet even given this skepticism, universal participation defined climate change for the United States As Fredrick Bernthal recalled, in the late 1980s climate change was considered global in every respect. He noted that administration officials accepted that "if this was an issue at all, it's a global issue."86 Substantively, the United States displayed a reluctance to commit to binding emission targets. Scientific uncertainty allowed economic cost to dominate the substantive thinking in the Reagan and Bush administrations, while universal participation remained the fundamental definition of the problem.87 Universal participation critically shaped U.S. strategic actions designed to meet its substantive goals in the negotiations to come.

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