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The U.S. and Climate Change: Washington’s See-Saw on Global Leadership

President Bush flanked by other principals at the opening of the 15th G7 Summit in Paris, France on July 14, 1989.  Bush’s advisors viewed the summit as a key opportunity to position him as a leader on global environmental issues. (Photo Credit: P04978-29 , George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.)

Published: Sep 24, 2018
Briefing Book #639

Edited by Robert A. Wampler

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Presidents from Reagan to Obama ultimately recognized the importance of science and high-level international cooperation in addressing climate change

Declassified documents show pendulum swings in U.S. policy – from climate commitment, to rejection, and back to engagement under Bush 43

The U.S. and Climate Change: Washington’s See-Saw on Global Leadership

Washington, D.C., September 24, 2018 – President George H.W. Bush initially sought a leadership role for the United States on the environment, according to declassified documents obtained and posted today by the National Security Archive at The George Washington University.

Contrary to the popular impression that Republican presidents have always downplayed such concerns, the record shows that some of Bush’s advisers – as under Ronald Reagan – early on recommended severing the “link between economic development and deterioration of the environment,” and demonstrating that “wise, active stewardship over the resources of our planet” was a “responsibility we have to ourselves and as our legacy to future generations.”

The new documentation presented here provides a nuanced picture of some of the continuities that characterized U.S. environmental policy from Reagan to Obama, but there is clear evidence that Reagan and both Bush presidents believed that greenhouse emissions and other problems were real and that even senior aides to George W. Bush sought actions “grounded in science” and designed to encourage renewed cooperation with other countries on restricting emissions.

Though these views could not stem the early push for withdrawal from leadership on climate change driven by Vice President Dick Cheney, similar voices pressing for a multilateral, diplomatic solution to existing problems later in Bush 43’s term presaged a pendulum swing back toward engagement, and set the stage for the Obama administration to reclaim a strong leadership role.


The GOP and Climate Change

By Robert A. Wampler, Ph.D.

Recently declassified documents show how supporters of a climate change treaty in the Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43 administrations sought to ground U.S. climate change policy in empirical scientific research even as these administrations gave higher priority to economic growth and energy security. Those supporting efforts to reach an international accord to reduce the greenhouse emissions driving global warming also faced growing criticism that the proposed agreements did not secure participation by developing economies, as well as growing doubts, eventually morphing into outright denial, of the scientific evidence for climate change.

The most extreme manifestation of this opposition and denial is now seen in the Trump administration, which announced in June 2017 that it would withdraw from the 2016 Paris climate change treaty, and has rejected the idea of working with traditional allies in key global institutions such as the G7 economic summits that in the past were seen as essential forums for contributing to climate change negotiations.[1]

The Clinton and Obama stories on climate change, including Vice President Gore's role, the Kyoto agreement, and negotiation of the Paris accord, are well known, but now the expanding declassified record is revealing interesting support for addressing climate change in the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations, as well as a pendulum swing in the Bush 43 administration away from an initial Dick Cheney-dominated oil-and-gas-industry tilt, to more international engagement on climate, which the Trump administration has now ended.

The need to understand this prior history is underscored by the recent New York Times Magazine article entitled “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” by Nathaniel Rich.[2] This article provides something of a heroic narrative history relating how scientists, government officials, NGOs and industry initially shared a concern about the long-term impact of climate change, but squandered a supposedly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build upon the Montreal protocol model to reach agreement on the steps necessary to combat global warming as the political and corporate (i.e., oil and gas industry) opposition to an agreement began taking took root by the end of the Bush 41 administration.

This account is subject to criticism, ranging from overstating the possibility of a comprehensive climate change treaty in the 1980s, to downplaying the critical role played by corporate opposition (which the article does discuss) and ending the story with the Bush 41 White House, which discounts the subsequent complex history of U.S. climate change diplomacy under Clinton, George W. Bush and Barak Obama.[3]

The story of the Republican retreat from its early leadership on climate change must be seen in the context of this long history, which is marked by a pronounced pendulum swing in U.S. policy between leadership and disengagement on the issue since the 1980s. The Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations marked the high water mark of Republican support for efforts to draft international agreements to address climate change, primarily through support for the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer and establishment of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its scientific advisory body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).[4]

As discussed below, the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations’ approach to the proposed climate change negotiations sought to integrate and balance scientific research with assessments of the potential economic impacts of both climate change and steps to reduce greenhouse emissions, but was also marked by early signs of doubts about aspects of the scientific consensus on the topic. Under Clinton, the pendulum swung towards strong leadership, spurred by Vice President Al Gore’s personal advocacy, which resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

This success was curtailed by the mounting opposition in Congress, based primarily on non-participation by China and India and the perceived resulting disproportionate economic and financial burden on the U.S. of meeting the target, concerns that were shared by Clinton’s Treasury department. [5] As discussed below, the George W. Bush administration saw the pendulum swing back to disengagement and broad criticism of the Kyoto Protocol, as Bush pulled the U.S, out of the agreement and gave overriding priority to economic interests, primarily energy, a position driven by Vice President Richard Cheney. By the end of the Bush 43 administration, the U.S. began moving back towards working with its allies on climate change.

This shift became a guiding policy under Obama, as the pendulum swung back yet again to renewed leadership in the talks leading to the Paris climate change treaty in 2016, but an even more radical swing back to opposition and climate change denial arrived with Trump’s election to the presidency.

A further discussion of the historical context for the documents posted today is helpful. As noted above, the Reagan administration played a key leadership role in fighting domestic opposition to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and in securing international agreement to the protocol. The documents posted here show the continued efforts by the administration to secure early and wide implementation of the protocol and its role in establishing the UN-based work on a climate change framework convention. The U.S. emphasized the key findings of scientific research as underscoring the urgent need for action to protect the ozone layer (see Documents 1, 2 and 4). Noting a concern that would only grow when work began on a climate change treaty, the administration warned that developing economies such as China and India must participate in the protocol, and not become “pollution havens.” (see Documents 1 and 3) The administration also saw the Montreal agreement as a model for efforts under the aegis of the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) to draft a UN framework convention on climate change that would guide negotiations on a treaty.

A key State Department official under Reagan and Bush 41 in these talks was William A. Nitze (son of Paul Nitze), the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment, Health and Natural Resources. Nitze presented the U.S. position at the initial UNEP special session in March 1988 that began developing plans to coordinate U.N. agencies, governments, NGOs and publics within medium-term plans through 1995 on a wide range of issues including climate change (Document 5). Here Nitze said the U.S. would continue to take a leadership role, but before considering a global convention on climate change, more must be learned about the global and regional impacts of climate change and the full range of possible responses.

To this end, the U.S. strongly supported creation of an intergovernmental panel (what would become the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, created later in 1988) to conduct and assess scientific research into the extent and effects of global climate change, and to begin development of a range of possible response strategies. However, U.S. support came with an important proviso that would only grow more prominent in Republican administrations: “Whatever response strategies are finally adopted will have to take into account other social and economic goals.”

President George H.W. Bush early on in his presidency sought to position himself as a leader on global environmental issues. This is seen in the memorandum laying out the proposed U.S. position at the Paris economic summit in July 1988, when he was still vice president (Document 6). Noting that while British, French and Canadian leaders had staked out strong environmental positions, the U.S. had so far “remained silent.” To remedy this, an interagency group recommended that President Bush present a program at the summit designed to break “the link between economic development and deterioration of the environment,” and informed by the theme of “wise, active stewardship over the resources of our planet. This is a responsibility we have to ourselves and as our legacy to future generations.”

The memorandum outlines a set of initiatives to tackle global warming, as well as to combat environmental pollution. To address global warming, the interagency group recommended three proposals: steps to address deforestation and reforestation; increasing fossil fuel efficiency and expanding renewable energy; and support for nuclear energy (an idea likely to elicit strong opposition from environmentalists) both for energy security and to contribute to solving the greenhouse emissions problem.

The Bush 41 administration also continued to push for its approach in the U.N. discussions surrounding what would become the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was agreed to at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. William Nitze remained closely involved with this diplomacy. A memorandum he prepared in Summer 1989 laid out the general principles that should guide a climate agreement (Document 7). These included securing the widest possible participation, with a focus on the countries that made up a significant majority of the world’s population and those that produced the highest percentage of greenhouse gases; increasing understanding of the scientific aspects of global climate change, and protecting social, environmental and economic well-being from damaging impacts likely to result from climate change.

While the U.S. continued to emphasize the importance of scientific research and analysis, its positions in the UN discussions continued to reflect the need to balance environmental protection and economic growth. This is seen in a memorandum setting out the policy guidelines for U.S. participants in a UN Response Strategies Working Group in Fall 1989 (Document 8). This memo describes what would become repeated components of U.S. policy preferences, including emphasizing the use of market mechanisms in combination with regulations to reduce greenhouse emissions, and giving countries the widest possible flexibility in meeting any agreed emission cuts.

There were also signs of concern over the conclusions being reached by the IPCC in its initial reports. As an Energy Department memorandum (Document 9) points out, the initial full Working Group I report on the science of climate change was acceptable, but it was felt the summary reports made “too strong a case for global warming and [did] not adequately represent the scientific uncertainties.” Again, this focus on “scientific uncertainties” would come to mark the right-wing criticisms of any attempts to address climate change.

With the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, U.S. climate change diplomacy moved into a new stage. The culmination of this diplomacy was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Though championed by Clinton and especially by Vice President, Al Gore, in the end the administration did not submit the agreement to Congress for ratification, recognizing this would not be forthcoming in the face of political criticism of the accord, most prominently for not imposing greenhouse emission reduction targets on developing economies such as China and India.

The next stage in U.S. climate change diplomacy would take place under the leadership of the George W. Bush White House, which brought a much more skeptical approach to efforts to tackle global climate change, driven both by the developing nations issue and by the overriding emphasis on U.S. energy security pressed by Vice President Richard Cheney’s Energy Task Force.

Several of the documents posted today date from the early months of the Bush 43 presidency, when some high-level advisors, notably Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, believed that President Bush was open to a review of U.S. climate change policy that would seek to improve upon the Kyoto agreement. They had been encouraged in this by Bush’s campaign statements that he would impose controls on CO2 emissions.[6]

Documents 10-14 shed light on early discussions within the Bush administration about how it would address climate change and the U.S. adherence to the Kyoto Protocol. There is a clear concern displayed in these documents over how to address the question of economic costs associated with any imposition of greenhouse emission reductions, specifically CO2, and considerable thought is given to how market mechanisms could provide incentives for such reductions without serious harm to economic growth.

How to secure participation by developing countries was also a major concern, linked to potential costs and the domestic political criticisms that the Kyoto Protocol did not include reduction targets for these nations. Secretary O’Neill’s recommendations to President Bush (Document 12) stress the need to carry out a rigorous empirical assessment of climate change policy options guided by scientific expertise, which would then serve as the basis for engaging other governments “in a re-consideration and replacement of the treaty with a plan that is grounded in science and aimed at reducing concentrations rather than emissions.”

All of these efforts would prove fruitless in the face of Vice President Cheney’s forceful push to give energy security overriding priority over what were portrayed as possible global climate changes based on so-called “bad science.” With its announcement in late March 2001 that the U.S. intended to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush administration completed a retreat from global leadership on climate change. As Document 15 notes, the U.S. focused on pushing its views on climate change at meetings of the UNFCC Conference of Parties, while withholding funds for any Kyoto Protocol-related costs.

There were signs of reengagement in the last two years of the Bush 43 presidency, as the administration launched a new initiative called the Major Economies Process that worked to bring together the major greenhouse emitters and energy consumers to work in tandem with the UNFCCC on drafting a new post-2012 framework agreement on climate change (see Document 16).

The incoming Obama administration would launch a similar initiative in 2009, called the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change, to foster dialogue between developed and developing countries on working within the UN UNFCC on a new climate change treaty, and on promoting adoption of clean energy technologies and other steps to reduce greenhouse emissions. Forum meetings took place through 2015 and arguably played a role in the successful negotiation of the December 2016 Paris Climate Change Treaty.[7]

The period of renewed U.S. leadership on climate change under Obama came to a sudden halt with the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016 and his subsequent announcement on June 1, 2017, that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate change treaty. The reasons advanced were among the most extreme positions regarding the science of climate change and the potential economic impact of imposing reductions on greenhouse emissions since opposition emerged to the Kyoto Protocol two decades earlier.

In a curious mirroring of the debate within the early Bush 43 White House, it was reported that among Trump’s advisers, there was a division of opinion on the merits of staying in or abandoning the treaty. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, among others, reportedly wanted the U.S. to remain committed to the agreement, while White House adviser Steve Bannon and then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt pushed to abandon it. Under the terms of the treaty the U.S. cannot fully withdraw until 2020, but the impact on U.S. global leadership was immediate, as European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly voiced their disapproval of Trump’s actions. The step also held near-term impacts as the administration further announced it would not implement the carbon reduction targets set by President Obama.[8]


Read the Documents


[1] In addition to announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris treaty, other evidence of this extreme position is seen in Trump’s early departure from the recent G7 summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada (which meant he skipped the discussion on climate change), his refusal to sign the summit communiqué and scathing personal attacks on the Canadian prime minister. His administration’s disdain for scientific expertise was seen in the selection of Scott Pruitt, the former EPA administrator (who left office under a cloud of scandal), who rejected the scientific consensus that human-generated greenhouse emissions are driving global warming, to lead an agency that Pruitt had spent considerable time suing.

[2] Jonathan Rich, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” The New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2018.

[3] See for example Robinson Meyer, “The Problem with The New York Times’ Big Story on climate Change,The Atlantic, August 1, 2018; Kate Arnoff, “What the ‘New York Times’ Climate Blockbuster Missed,The Nation, August 2, 2018; and Matto Mildenberger and Leah Stokes, “No, we didn’t almost solve the climate crisis in the 1980s,Vox, August 6, 2018.

[4]U.S. Climate Change Policy in the 1980s, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book no. 536, posted December 2, 2015.

[5] For documentation on the Clinton White House and climate change negotiations, see the following two EBB’s: Kyoto Redux? Obama's Challenges at Copenhagen Echo Clinton's at Kyoto, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 303, Posted December 18, 2009; and The Clinton White House and Climate Change: The Struggle to Restore U.S. Leadership, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book no. 537, posted December 11, 2015

[6] Whitman has told her side of the story in It’s My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America (Penguin Press, New York. 2005), pp.168-181. O’Neill’s and Whitman’s efforts are discussed in Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2004), pp.98-106, 109-110, 113-114, 118-122. These accounts provide essential context for Documents 10-14.

[7] For information on the Forum, see “Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change.

[8] See United States withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

[9] The U.S. Global Change Research Program was established by Presidential Initiative in 1989 and mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act (GCRA) of 1990. Its purpose was to develop and coordinate “a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change;” see Legal Mandate.

[10] Suskind, The Price of Loyalty, pp. 103-104.

[11]Suskind, The Price of Loyalty; updated paperback edition, (Simon & Schuster, 2004) Suskind discusses this memorandum on pages 104-106.

[12] Official documentation on the Milan meeting.

[13]A New International Climate Change Framework, May 31, 2007. Additional information about the process, and the first two meetings held under its aegis can be found on the Bush White House archived website.

[14] This act, usually referred to as EISA, was designed ““to move the United States toward greater energy independence and security, to increase the production of clean renewable fuels, to protect consumers, to increase the efficiency of products, buildings, and vehicles, to promote research on and deploy greenhouse gas capture and storage options, and to improve the energy performance of the Federal Government, and for other purposes.” Specific titles of the act established goals for improving automobile fuel economic standards; work on biofuels; new efficiency standards for domestic appliance and light energy efficiency; and steps to increase overall domestic, commercial, Federal and industry energy efficiency. For further details see Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.