Human Dimensions of Global Warming

U.S. Climate Policy


Outwardly, the US climate policy under the Obama Administration has not formally changed from the policy of the Bush Administration. In reality, the implementation of that policy is starkly different.

Bush climate policy –– which is also Obama climate policy –– had three basic goals:

  1. to slow the growth of GHG emissions;
  2. to strengthen science, technology, and institutions concerned with climate change; and
  3. to enhance international cooperation on climate change.

Although these policy goals sound laudable, during the Bush years they masked an attempt to allow increased emissions, to discredit climate change science and institutions, and to foil the Framework Convention process.

The Bush Administration favored the idea of reducing the intensity of GHG emissions rather than reducing the absolute quantity of emissions. GHG intensity refers to the quantity of GHGs emitted per unit of economic output, such as gross domestic product (GDP). Making the economy more efficient in terms of GHG production is an excellent idea if it reduces total emissions. The problem is that emissions intensity can go down but overall emissions can still go up if the economy grows. Even modest growth means an increase in emissions, which counters the warnings of scientists that emissions must fall sharply to avoid some of the more egregious impacts of climate change.

One of the first actions of the Bush White House was to dismantle the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) by splitting it into two branches, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the US Climate Change Technology Program. At the same time, the Administration removed all presence of the US National Assessment –– a multimillion-dollar project funded by the Clinton Administration to study potential climate change impacts in the U.S. –– from the web, calling it politically motivated research based on faulty science. They replaced it with the tightly controlled Climate Change Science Program. (Much to the chagrin of the Bush White House, the science not only supported the original findings of the National Assessment, but also found those results too conservative. The Bush Administration did not understand that science is objective and does not change with the political winds.) The Climate Change Technology Program did not achieve much because the Bush Administration did not put any money into it.

More important than Federal programs and institutions, the touchstone of Bush domestic climate change policy involved encouraging voluntary reductions from large corporations, industrial and commercial buildings, industrial sectors, and consumers. Some of these efforts languished, but a surprising number proved to be successful and flourish today. The voluntary reductions resulted from the realization that GHG reductions result from energy efficiency, and energy efficiency saves money, thus making both good financial and environmental sense.

Bush Era international policy was a disaster for the US. The Administration’s defiance of the Clinton Era Framework Convention process and attempts to denigrate and despoil the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reduced US moral influence around the world. Attempts to undermine the Framework Convention through side agreements, such as the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate involving some of the world’s biggest and fastest growing emitters of GHGs (i.e., U.S., Canada, Australia, India, China, Korea, and Japan), might have made good business and environmental sense but further damaged international opinion of the U.S.

Cartoon: tourists on boat looking at sign that says George W Bush global warming inaction monument est 2017 formerly known as The Arctic
Credit: Copyright © 20xx Ventura County Star. Used with Permission.

The Obama Administration’s climate policy has the same three goals as those of the Bush Administration, but has very different ways of achieving those goals. The Administration reinstituted the USGCRP and started the National Climate Assessment, which is a streamlined version of the original National Assessment. The aim is to make the NCA process continuous, above politics, and untouched by changes in administrations. The successful voluntary programs have stayed in place and been supplemented by additional GHG reduction initiatives. Most important domestically, the EPA has received a green light to regulate GHG emissions, moving it from the realm of policy to regulation. Although this move infuriates the Tea Party and their Republican adherents in Congress, other political battles are preventing these foes from mounting an attack on EPA. A battle looms over this issue. Finally, there is no hope of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol given the makeup of today’s Congress. The Obama Administration hopes that the U.S. can reduce its emissions sufficiently through voluntary means and through regional and local climate policy to achieve the reductions called for by the Kyoto Protocol without going through an embarrassing defeat in Congress.

The Trump Administration marks a stark change in federal climate policy from the previous Obama Administration and focuses instead on an America First Energy Plan which emphasizes domestic clean coal and natural gas reserves.