Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning,
Vol. 5, No. 4, December 2003, 315–331
The Bush Administration and Climate
Change: Prospects for an Effective
MAURIE J. COHEN & ANNE EGELSTON
ABSTRACT Soon after taking ofﬁce in 2001, President George W. Bush renounced the Kyoto
Protocol and withdrew the USA from participation. While this decision did not ultimately break
the treaty as many observers had anticipated, the lack of US engagement has profoundly impaired
its effectiveness to mitigate the risks of human-induced climate change. In justifying its position,
the Bush administration has regularly identiﬁed three ﬂaws in the current multilateral accord:
failure to include both developed and developing countries; insufﬁcient grounding in science and
technology; and inadequate protection against domestic economic harm. This study interrogates
each of these objections to ascertain whether it might be conceptually possible to formulate a
treaty that the Bush administration could endorse. The analysis ﬁnds that the most signiﬁcant
obstacle to US participation in an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions is
the increasingly oppositional relationship between the USA and China. President Bush is
reluctant to grant a unilateral concession to China as required under the current formulation of
the Kyoto Protocol and this problem is unlikely to diminish with the ascendancy of a new
America’s unwillingness to embrace a ﬂawed treaty should not be read by our
friends and allies as any abdication of responsibility. To the contrary, my
administration is committed to a leadership role on the issue of climate
change. We recognize our responsibility and will meet it—at home, in our
hemisphere, and in the world (George W. Bush, 11 June 2001).
During the spring of 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the Kyoto Protocol
was “fatally ﬂawed in fundamental ways” and withdrew the USA from participation.
This momentous decision reversed the Clinton administration’s prior commitment to the
agreement and startled many of the nations that had worked diligently to craft a binding
climate change accord. Over the course of a ﬁve-year period, negotiators from more than
100 countries hammered out the essential provisions of the controversial pact to limit
emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases and engaged in several ﬁnal rounds of
agonizing deliberations to ultimately complete the treaty.
Participant countries are now
Corresponding author: Maurie J. Cohen, Graduate Program in Environmental Policy Studies, New Jersey Institute of
Technology, University Heights, Newark, NJ 07102, USA. Email: email@example.com
1523-908X Print/1522-7200 Online/03/040315-17 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd
316 M. J. Cohen & A. Egelston
in the process of ratifying the agreement and will likely begin to move toward
implementation over the next several years.
The White House’s summary decision to renounce the Kyoto Protocol was unexpected
because, as a presidential candidate, Bush had voiced unambiguous support for manda-
tory restrictions on carbon dioxide (CO
) emissions. In a major speech delivered only ﬁve
weeks prior to the election, he proposed a multi-pollutant strategy for addressing air
pollution that would have included the regulation of this prevalent greenhouse gas.
fact, Christine Todd Whitman, the head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA), took this statement as a point of departure in developing her initial position on
climate change. During the weeks preceding the policy reversal, Whitman made a series
of widely publicized statements expressing the Bush administration’s unwavering re-
solve for an international climate change agreement. In an especially notable appearance
at a gathering of G-8 environment ministers in Italy, she reafﬁrmed this commitment to
as part of a comprehensive air pollution package (see Cohen (2004) for a more
comprehensive review of this period of US environmental policy making).
The decision to abandon the Kyoto Protocol created a ﬁre storm of opposition,
particularly from European countries that had been more purposeful than the USA in
formulating a co-ordinated climate change response. Several heads of state sought to
encourage the Bush administration to reconsider its position. German Chancellor
Gerhard Schro¨der, who was due to meet with President Bush in the days following the
announcement, chided his US counterpart for embarking on a path of unilateral
isolationism. Margot Wallstro¨m, the European Union’s (EU) commissioner for environ-
mental affairs, charged that the Bush administration did not have a sufﬁcient under-
standing of political realities (Meller, 2001). As part of an orchestrated initiative to
persuade the White House to reverse its decision and to conﬁrm international support
for the Kyoto Protocol, an EU delegation traveled to Washington under the leadership
of the Swedish environment minister (Jehl, 2001).
Withdrawal of the USA from the climate change accord altered the politics of the
negotiations surrounding the agreement and, for a time, shifted Japan and Russia into
a pivotal position. The Kyoto Protocol’s ratiﬁcation provisions call for the treaty to come
into force only after it has been ratiﬁed by 55 countries that in total account for 55 per
cent of the emissions from developed countries. With the USA on the sidelines, Japanese,
European and Russian participation is required to bring the accord into force. In the
absence of Japanese endorsement, it would have been necessary for the EU to cobble
together a fragile consortium of countries and this conﬁguration would have limited the
treaty’s eventual resilience.
The intensity of the fall-out from its decision to forsake US participation in the pact
caught the Bush administration unawares. To deﬂect the storm of criticism and to buy
itself some time to devise a response, the White House launched a series of tutorials to
educate top-level ofﬁcials on climate science and policy. Noted experts led these
seminars and participants included the heads of key government departments in charge
of energy, environment, commerce and international affairs. For instance, James Hansen,
the individual arguably most responsible for raising climate change to a level of political
importance in the USA, delivered one of the presentations, as did Daniel Albritton, a
leading author on several reports issued by the International Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) (Revkin, 2001b).
These deliberations took on even greater urgency after the US National Academy of
Sciences (NAS) released a report early in June 2001 on the status of climate science that
the Bush administration itself had requested.
This panel of atmospheric scientists, which
The Bush Administration and Climate Change 317
included a number of prominent ‘skeptics’ such as meteorologist Richard Lindzen,
reported that a warming trend was distinctly evident and that human activities were
largely responsible for this effect (National Academy of Sciences, 2001). The signiﬁcance
of this report resided in the fact that it effectively eliminated the White House’s ability
to continue to delay concrete action by invoking allegations of scientiﬁc inadequacy.
Underscoring the conclusions of the NAS report was the concurrent publication of a
letter in the journal Science signed by 16 national scientiﬁc panels encouraging swift and
unequivocal action to reduce the threat of climate change (Science, 2001).
The Bush administration assigned to Condoleeza Rice, the president’s national secur-
ity advisor, the task of publicly responding to the NAS report and the harsh criticism
emanating from Europe. This was a delicate task because the White House had
announced just three months earlier that it would promptly be putting forward alterna-
tive ideas to supplant the spurned Kyoto Protocol. In summarizing the Bush administra-
tion’s objections to the accord, Rice (quoted in Seelye & Revkin, 2001; see also Sobel,
One would want to be certain that developing countries were accounted for
in some way, that technology and science really ought to be important parts
of this answer, [and] that we cannot do something that damages the American
economy or other economies because growth is also important.
In the ﬁrst instance, the decision to delegate to Rice lead responsibility on climate change
marked an important shift in at least two respects. First, this move signaled that the
White House no longer viewed the accumulation of CO
and other greenhouse gases as
a strictly domestic issue—one for which its principal responsibility was shielding US
energy producers and allied industries. Second, Rice’s public posture implicitly acknowl-
edged that President Bush’s prior high-proﬁle disagreement with Christie Whitman had
so thoroughly undermined the EPA administrator’s standing that she could no longer
serve as a credible spokesperson on the issue (in May 2003, she announced her decision
to resign as EPA administrator).
More signiﬁcant for current purposes was how Rice’s statement succinctly framed the
Bush administration’s public thinking on climate change. In other words, any feasible
policy program for limiting greenhouse gas emissions would have to be (1) inclusive of
both developed and developing countries; (2) predicated upon science and technology;
and (3) economically benign. Despite the articulation of these seemingly clear precondi-
tions for an acceptable way forward, most fair-minded assessments have judged the
White House’s proposed climate change strategy to be wholly inadequate, given the
scale of the problem and the magnitude of the US’ contributory role.
approach is, curiously enough, at variance with the deep sense of urgency about the
problem that some branches the Bush administration convey in public statements on the
For instance, the EPA, as part of the US’ obligations as a party to the United
Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC), released a report in 2002 describing
in graphic detail the profoundly adverse impacts of global warming on sensitive
ecosystems across the country (United States Department of State, 2002).
While this apparent divergence between rhetoric and action surely deserves consider-
ation, a more consequential question concerns whether the Bush administration, by
deﬁning the universe of possible responses to climate change in terms of three prerequi-
site conditions, has effectively eliminated all possibility of a meaningful policy response.
Posed interrogatively and hypothetically, one can express this concern in the following
terms: is it possible for the White House to develop an effective climate change policy
318 M. J. Cohen & A. Egelston
based on the constraints it has imposed upon itself? Before addressing this query it is
instructive to review the greenhouse gas reduction program that the Bush administration
has thus far advanced.
Bush Administration’s Climate Change Policy
The Bush administration ﬁrst presented the initial outlines of its post-Kyoto climate
change policy in June 2001, just prior to the president’s maiden trip to Europe. This visit
had major political signiﬁcance as it would be the ﬁrst opportunity for European heads
of state to meet the new US leader and for the international community to gauge his
statesmanship. Accordingly, the event received extensive media attention and kindled
broad interest both in the USA and abroad. Furthermore, the simmering controversy
over greenhouse gas emissions was not the only discordant item on the agenda and
other differences between the USA and Europe were likely to pose difﬁcult diplomatic
On the subject of climate change, the White House’s pre-departure statement empha-
sized the need to devise an approach grounded in technology and science and sought
to promote “creative” ways of addressing the problem consistent with market-based
principles (Kahn, 2001). More speciﬁcally, President Bush called for additional spending
on technologies designed to curb the emission of greenhouse gases and for research to
enable the United States to improve its position as a leader in climate change research
(Revkin, 2001c). Key administration ofﬁcials also began to recast the highly controversial
national energy policy report prepared by a task force under Vice-President Dick
Cheney’s chairmanship (National Energy Policy Development Group, 2001). This docu-
ment, written several weeks earlier during a period of electricity shortages in California,
stridently stressed the importance of greatly expanding the country’s capacity for
producing energy. The revised interpretation sought to describe the report’s conclusions
as statements of current conditions designed to capture political attention rather than as
a projection of a desirable future. This new explanation was necessary to dampen down
the document’s avowedly supply-side orientation and to create some space for interven-
tions to mitigate climate change.
The Bush administration also tried during this same time-frame to redeﬁne important
elements of the international debate on climate change. First, the White House began
working to transfer attention from inaction by the USA to reduce its own greenhouse gas
emissions to the purportedly biased way that the Kyoto Protocol favored European
For instance, President Bush argued that the selection of 1990 as the baseline
for measuring national reductions was a clever ploy to undermine US economic
competitiveness. He alleged that this date, because it fails to acknowledge that eastern
European economies suffered precipitous declines after the collapse of the Soviet Union,
resulted in the assignment of less onerous reduction targets to several key participants.
Countries affected by this dynamic would, therefore, be able to register substantial faux
reductions because of the exceptional economic contractions they experienced during the
1990s. The White House expressed the view that this explanation is especially helpful in
discerning Germany’s enthusiasm for the Kyoto Protocol.
Second, the Bush administration sought to expose the difﬁculties that European
countries were having meeting their Kyoto obligations and to claim that their attacks on
the USA were veiled attempts to deﬂect attention from this failure. The contention that
European governments appeared at the time to be moving slowly toward ratiﬁcation
was, in the minds of White House ofﬁcials, genuine evidence of environmental
The Bush Administration and Climate Change 319
overzealousness (an argument that lost much of its thrust when the EU and Japan both
ratiﬁed the Kyoto Protocol in June 2002). More generally, Washington displayed a
tendency to interpret criticism from abroad as part of an orchestrated European strategy
to cast the USA in villainous terms and to blame Americans for the eventual collapse of
the Kyoto Protocol.
Finally, the Bush administration labored to reframe popular perceptions of the extent
to which the USA contributes to the climate change problem. The observation that the
country is responsible for 25 per cent of global CO
emissions is a common point of
reference in the debate and is frequently used to impose maximum culpability on the
USA. The White House instead aimed to place this ﬁgure in a somewhat different light,
one intended to emphasize that the US economy accounts for one-quarter of world
economic output. This reinterpretation was meant to signal to the rest of the world that
the imposition of costly emission-control initiatives—particularly those with the poten-
tial to restrain the productive capacity of the USA—would have ramifying adverse
impacts on international trade and the global economy.
Six months later, just prior to President Bush’s departure for a summit meeting in
Japan, the White House released further details concerning its climate change strategy.
During ﬁnal preparations for the event, a key Japanese objective had been to elicit from
the USA a signal that it was engaged on the issue. Prime Minister Koizumi had come
under heavy pressure to back down from his country’s Kyoto commitments in the face
of US refusal to participate. Though the Bush administration continued to insist that
scientiﬁc uncertainty precluded ambitious action, the USA would strive for a gradualist
approach to stabilize emissions by the early years of the next decade. More speciﬁcally,
the US strategy called for reductions in the rate of greenhouse gas production (the
so-called emissions intensity) relative to economic output by 18 per cent by 2012. This
objective would be achieved by creating a pool of approximately $US5 billion in tax
credits to spur companies to improve their environmental performance. The Bush
administration also proposed the expansion of a program to enable ﬁrms to report their
greenhouse gas emissions to a federal registry on a voluntary basis.
By virtually all accounts, this response was judged to be inadequate to encourage
sizeable reductions. In eschewing a more ambitious initiative, the White House seemed
to be attentive to the prospect that its plan would prove insufﬁcient and ofﬁcials held out
the possibility of moving to mandatory targets early in the next decade. This, however,
was a largely meaningless gesture because even if President Bush managed to secure
re-election, his second term (2004–2008) would expire before climate change again came
up for serious consideration.
Developing Countries and Climate Change
The participation of developing countries in a binding international agreement to limit
greenhouse gas emissions has long bedeviled climate change negotiations and, in its
current form, the Kyoto Protocol does not require any commitments from poorer
nations. The issue of how to treat the developing world (non-Annex 1 countries) has
been especially intractable in the USA where there has been, for the past decade, vocal
objection to a treaty that only embraces afﬂuent nations. In fact, in a now-famous
expression of bipartisan unity, the Senate unanimously passed the Byrd–Hagel resol-
ution in 1997 opposing any concerted US action on climate change that did not establish
compulsory targets for developing countries. Even in the face of this clear resistance, the
Clinton administration forged ahead in signing the Kyoto Protocol, though it never
320 M. J. Cohen & A. Egelston
submitted the agreement to the Senate for ratiﬁcation. President Clinton then left ofﬁce
at the start of 2001 without proposing a workable strategy for how the USA would
reconcile its obligations in the absence of Senate consent.
By renouncing the Kyoto Protocol, President Bush has again emphasized the need for
a comprehensive agreement that includes developing countries.
The White House
insists that as a matter of principle, and in the interests of “fairness”, the USA can only
endorse an accord that imposes a system of comprehensive obligations. The Bush
administration is, however, being disingenuous when it invokes this condition. As its
own ofﬁcials readily admit, there is little rationale for including economically and
politically marginal countries in the agreement at this stage. According to one aide,
“We’re not saying Burkina Faso has to sign up to this right now, but the major emitters,
if we want this to be credible scientiﬁcally and environmentally, have to sign on”
(quoted in Revkin, 2001d). This statement, while closer to the mark, is still ambiguous.
In fact, of the “major emitters”, it is China’s lack of substantive participation in the Kyoto
Protocol that most rankles the Bush administration.
The USA currently leads the world in overall greenhouse gas emissions and China is
in second position. While estimates differ on the exact date, most energy analysts project
that the Chinese will become the foremost producers of heat-trapping gases between
2010 and 2025.
At the same time, China, over the past decade, has become an
increasingly forceful political actor on the international stage and has started to chal-
lenge US interests on a broad range of issues. Accordingly, the Bush administration’s
rejection of the Kyoto Protocol stems from its reticence to grant China a unilateral
concession that could enhance the country’s already considerable comparative economic
advantage. To understand the White House’s decision to renounce the climate change
accord, it is, therefore, necessary to examine the growing geopolitical rivalry between
these two countries. For the past 30 years—a period spanning the terms of six US
presidents—the USA based its policy toward China on the notion of engagement.
Indeed, prevalent thinking among most policy makers has been that by systematically
providing the Chinese leadership with a series of inducements, the country could be
dissuaded from directly defying Western interests. Moreover, the USA has typically
sought to nurture a “strategic partnership” with China as a means of encouraging
democratic ideals, free trade and respect for human rights (for recent reviews of
Sino-American relations, see Bernstein & Munro, 1997; Byman et al., 1999; Gill, 1999;
During the course of a relatively short period, the Bush administration has dismantled
the underpinnings of this partnership and begun to reinterpret the relationship with
China as one of “strategic competition”. Foreign affairs experts in the White House view
China as a rising regional and international power and have sought to limit the country’s
ability to threaten US prerogatives. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the
chief proponents of this perspective, argued during the presidential campaign that
“China is an emerging major power, but it has not yet become one. Persuading an
emerging power that the status quo should be changed only peacefully has always been
a challenge historically” (quoted in Xiang, 2001). In other words, with the demise of the
Soviet Union as a signiﬁcant threat to US global hegemony, many conservative policy
analysts have come to see China as the US’ most consequential rival. Indeed, some
scholars have begun to characterize the current state of Sino-American relations as the
beginnings of a new Cold War (Gilboy & Heginbotham, 2001; numerous analyses
informed by world-system theory preﬁgure China’s international ascendancy, see, for
example, Brook & Blue, 1999).
The Bush Administration and Climate Change 321
The Bush administration on several occasions over the past three years has indicated
its desire to alter the United States’ relationship with China. First, in the months
immediately after taking ofﬁce, President Bush announced that he “would do whatever
it took to defend Taiwan”, a statement that was widely interpreted as a departure from
the long-prevailing notion of “strategic ambiguity” that, with Chinese acquiescence, had
guided US policy making for the past three decades. In the days following this
statement, President Bush and his aides clumsily sought to moderate its intent; however,
these attempts at clariﬁcation only created more confusion (see Gordon, 2001). Second,
the aggressive rhetoric accompanying the White House’s commitment to a missile
defense shield is interpreted as a move to pre-empt Chinese military capacity (Kagan,
2001). Third, many observers construed the Bush administration’s actions during the
crisis over the Chinese government’s capture of a US spy plane in April 2001 as
unnecessarily and unhelpfully inﬂammatory. Finally, a range of other decisions—from
the gracious embrace of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian during his ‘stop-over’ visit
to New York in May 2001 to calls to curtail all military contacts with China—give
credence to claims that Washington has opted for a more confrontational relationship
The growing antagonism that now characterizes Sino-American relations also needs to
be interpreted against the backdrop of the current administration’s more general foreign
and military policy initiatives. President Bush has not only repudiated the US’ partici-
pation in the Kyoto Protocol, but he has staked out solitary positions on a number of
other prominent issues, including the creation of an International Criminal Court, the
use of offensive nuclear weapons, the rejection of a treaty to ban landmines and the
steadfast pursuit of war with Iraq. Most provocatively, perhaps, is the emergence of a
so-called Bush Doctrine committed to deploying the US military for pre-emptive actions
(Falk, 2002). While the White House describes its strategy as “a`lacarte multilateralism”
(a term coined by Richard Haass, director of policy planning at the State Department
(see Shanker, 2001)), in the eyes of most of the rest of the world—and not least in
China—it is interpreted as perilous US unilateralism.
At least three considerations seem to be foremost on the minds of ofﬁcials in the Bush
administration responsible for the US’ new China policy. First, China has experienced
over the past decade a period of very rapid economic growth, and this vibrancy is seen
as creating the ﬁnancial capacity to increase the country’s pace of military moderniza-
tion. Second, key members of President Bush’s inner circle—most prominently Con-
doleeza Rice—are anticipating the demise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and
this judgment translates into a strategic vision that calls for intensifying pressure on the
country’s aging leadership to hasten the decline. Indeed, Rice predicted during the 2000
US presidential campaign that the CCP would collapse within the decade (see Xiang,
2001). Finally, the Chinese government is currently managing the transition to its ‘Fourth
Generation’ of leaders, and there is a sense in Washington that the USA can refortify its
dominant strategic position in Asia during this ﬂuid period. Examined against these
much larger foreign and military policy objectives, it was inevitable that the Bush
administration would abandon the Kyoto Protocol.
Science, Technology and Climate Change
The Bush administration has regularly declared that progress on climate change needs
to be predicated upon science and technology, a position presumably meant to signal
that a sanctioned policy program must privilege industrial innovation rather than, say,
322 M. J. Cohen & A. Egelston
regulatory oversight or alterations in lifestyles. To this end, the White House has
pledged some money to bolster the USA’s faltering status in the area of climate change
research and to spur energy-efﬁcient technological innovations. For instance, President
Bush proposed in July 2001, on the eve of his second ofﬁcial trip to Europe, to provide
the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) with $US120 million over
three years to upgrade its ability to carry out state-of-the-art climate change research.
This initiative also provided for the appropriation of $US14 million to the Treasury
Department to assist forest conservation projects in El Salvador. The Department of
Energy was assigned the additional responsibility of collaborating with the Nature
Conservancy to offer technical forestry assistance in Brazil and Belize (see Bruni, 2001b).
The White House also established a cooperative “climate change technology initiative”
involving the Department of Energy and the University of Maryland.
Congress has aired a controversial proposal to provide consumers with tax credits for
the purchase of fuel-efﬁcient automobiles. The White House, however, has thus far been
non-committal in offering its endorsement (Hakim, 2002).
From a different angle, the Bush administration has sought to improve the prospects
for nuclear power and these initiatives, if successful, could play a signiﬁcant role in
reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions (Redburn, 2001). The White House has
been sympathetic to pleas from ﬁrms such as General Electric and Westinghouse that
have been seeking for more than two decades to reverse the declining fortunes of the
nuclear industry. Since the 1979 disaster at Three Mile Island, there has not been a single
order for a new plant in the USA.
Moreover, the problem of how to store the high-level
radioactive wastes that are a by-product of the nuclear generation process has long
vexed utility companies and governmental ofﬁcials. Most plants around the country
have exceeded their local storage capacity and are now relying on riskier interim
alternatives. In an effort to resolve this problem, the Bush administration has pressed
forward aggressively to build a long-term entombment facility at Yucca Mountain in
Despite concerns about the vulnerability of transporting radioactive materials
over long distances and the environmental hazards posed by this particular internment
location, the White House and the Department of Energy remain committed to having
the facility operational by 2010.
Regardless of its occasional rhetoric and modest gestures, the Bush administration has,
to date, done little to catalyze the kind of scientiﬁc and technological revolution that it
acknowledges will be required to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by a signiﬁcant
margin. A sizable number of policy initiatives have actually had the paradoxical effect
of intensifying the dilemma. For example, the EPA modiﬁed environmental rules to
reduce the cost of coal extraction by enabling companies to dump mining wastes into
valleys and streams. In another instance, the White House gave the EPA a green light
to overhaul provisions governing older electric power plants and other industrial
facilities (so-called new source review) to enable managers to upgrade these facilities
without conforming to existing pollution control requirements. With respect to mobile
greenhouse gas sources, the Bush administration has been steadfast in opposing tighter
automotive efﬁciency standards. The White House even canceled a popular research
program launched during the 1990s to develop, in conjunction with the automobile
industry, a ﬂeet of super-efﬁcient prototypes in favor of a much more uncertain initiative
to study the prospects of hydrogen fuel cells.
The Bush administration’s stated commitment to a climate change strategy grounded
in science and technology must, therefore, be dismissed as a red herring. Appropriations
to encourage a robust process of scientiﬁc inquiry and to facilitate novel engineering
The Bush Administration and Climate Change 323
solutions have not been forthcoming and the unremarkable initiatives launched to date
are likely to whither on the vine without more vigorous resolve. Moreover, the
September 11 terrorist attacks, as well as the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,
profoundly altered the public policy agenda in the USA. Military and domestic security
issues now occupy the most privileged positions among ofﬁcials at the highest levels of
government. At the same time, the record suggests that even during less portentous
times, the global environment was not a priority issue for the Bush administration. In the
absence of a protracted crisis, it is unlikely that climate change will attract more than
Despite insipid action on the issue, the Bush administration has correctly realized that
the USA has lost the ability to drive the politics of climate science because of the
country’s relatively weak position as a knowledge producer (on the politics of climate
science more generally, see Demeritt, 2001; Gough & Shackley, 2001). A decade ago, US
atmospheric scientists were at the forefront of climate change modeling, but this is no
longer the case. Investments in climate research facilities in the USA, particularly in
supercomputing resources, have not kept pace with those in Europe and Japan. As a
result, the country has been forced to take a less assertive position within the IPCC and
other international scientiﬁc organizations. The side-lining of American experts has
meant that the USA has lost a good deal of its inﬂuence interpreting data used to
formulate inﬂuential climate change reports and to shape their recommendations and
conclusions (Climate Research Committee et al., 1998).
The White House has sought to counter this trend and to regain some leverage within
the institutional politics of the IPCC. For example, during April 2002 President Bush
refused to endorse the renomination of Robert Watson, the chief scientist at the World
Bank who served as the unsalaried chair of the IPCC. The removal of Watson, who, as
an atmospheric scientist, brought creditable expertise on climate change to the position,
had become a matter of special interest for the US oil and coal industries and they
aggressively lobbied the Bush administration. The White House instead chose to support
the candidacy of Rajendra Pachauri, an Indian engineer and economist who had
previously served as one of ﬁve IPCC vice-chairs. While some observers interpreted the
endorsement of a candidate from a developing country as a noble gesture, leading
climate scientists expressed concern that Pachauri’s lack of training in atmospheric
science would hamper his effectiveness (Revkin, 2002).
Such political maneuvering by
US ofﬁcials undermines claims that science and technology should be the drivers of
climate change policy.
Economic Impacts of Mitigating Climate Change
A palpable fear of adverse economic impact, especially during a recession, has con-
tributed to the Bush administration’s reticence to engage meaningfully on the issue of
climate change. Indeed, R. Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the President’s Council of
Economic Advisors has argued, “[A] ﬁxed emission limit harms the economy. Until we
invent and commercialize new technologies to generate electricity and provide trans-
portation—as the president’s science and technology initiatives encourage—a ﬁxed
emission limit eventually means lowering economic growth” (Hubbard, 2002). In other
words, the White House’s apparent policy is to maintain a permissive system of
environmental compliance to generate the wealth necessary to fuel a process of intensive
324 M. J. Cohen & A. Egelston
This rationale contravenes central tenets of the regulatory philosophy that has under-
pinned most European environmental policy making over the past decade. Forerunner
countries (most notably Sweden and the Netherlands) have argued that a strict regula-
tory framework is a sine qua non for industrial inventiveness and economic growth (see,
for example, Andersen & Liefferink, 1997; Lafferty & Meadowcroft, 2000). Through the
application of ﬁrm deadlines and the promulgation of rigorous performance guidelines,
these countries have discovered opportunities for harmonizing economic growth and
environmental improvement. This strategy recognizes that, in the absence of ambitious
targets, there is little incentive to invest in innovation and to experiment with alternative
approaches. Lenient standards, while, perhaps, being economically beneﬁcial in the short
term, encourage complacency and do not facilitate the kinds of creativity and ingenuity
that press outward the technological and scientiﬁc frontier (for further elaboration, see
Porter, 1990). At least within a European political context, one in which consumers
continue to demand more environmentally responsible products and services, this mode
of thinking has generated important competitive advantages.
Parallel developments have been taking hold among strategically orientated business
managers (a notable presentation of this view is Schmidheiny, 1992). In fact, popular
concepts such as eco-efﬁciency, environmental excellence and continuous environmental
improvement are essentially corollaries that derive from the same basic set of ideas that
have informed national policy making. Across a wide range of industries—chemicals,
wood products, transportation, building design—companies have come to realize that
stringent standards can enhance environmental performance in ways that are both
cost-effective and image-enhancing. Some adherents refer to this strategy as the “triple
bottom line”, an allusion to the fact that proﬁtability is dependent upon a three-pronged
quest to optimize shareholder value, environmental responsibility and social efﬁcacy
(see, for example, Elkington, 1998).
While this evidence suggests that policy makers and business managers are beginning
to embrace new modes of environmental governance, the Bush administration appears
unwavering in its resolve for an increasingly outmoded paradigm. In opposition to the
preponderant share of evidence, White House ofﬁcials regularly assert that economic
growth and regulatory rollbacks are prerequisites for innovation. Unfortunately, without
an impetus to drive the process of scientiﬁc and technological advancement in a speciﬁc
direction, managerial attention will be diverted by other competing demands (Nelson,
1993). Because of the close alignment between the White House and an array of declining
industries—oil and coal foremost among them—US policy makers are insulated from
challenging new perspectives.
Nonetheless, there are numerous cases, under-publi-
cized and inchoate though they may be, of successful environmental policy innovation
in the USA.
For instance, the federal government’s Superfund program for cleaning up toxic waste
sites is a concrete example of how rigorous regulatory standards contribute to inventive-
ness. When this legislation was implemented in 1980, expert knowledge on how to
remediate contaminated soil and groundwater was distressingly poor. Superfund’s strict
liability provisions and the creation of new market opportunities for restoring contami-
nated lands provided incentives for the development of novel approaches. In fact, toxic
remediation is one of the few areas of environmental management in which the USA
currently holds a competitive international position. US expertise and technologies for
addressing the myriad problems associated with toxic contamination are in high de-
mand around the world. However, in less remedial areas—from alternative energy
production to materials recovery—the USA has fallen further and further behind its
The Bush Administration and Climate Change 325
peers because its national performance standards have not been nearly as demanding
(see Moore & Miller, 1995).
To summarize this point, continued allegiance in the USA to an increasingly anachro-
nistic economic–environmental model is problematic. At a time when environmentally
attentive publics elsewhere in the world are encouraging their governments to embrace
progressive environmental strategies that enhance innovation, the Bush administration
remains unyielding in its view that economic and environmental objectives are irrecon-
cilable. This obsolete notion may have been credible during a prior industrial era before
consumers and investors began to inculcate a modern sense of environmental responsi-
bility. However, at present new dynamics are taking hold and ecological integrity is
increasingly coming to be seen as an important source of competitive advantage.
Despite initial support from the USA for the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush administration, in
one of its ﬁrst major international policy decisions upon taking ofﬁce, renounced US
participation in the treaty. The public rationale for this decision was based on con-
tentions that the accord relegates developing countries to the side-lines, forsakes a
scientiﬁc and technological approach to the problem and places the country in economic
jeopardy. During the aftermath of this announcement, the White House issued regular
assertions, such as the one in the epigraph of this article, that the USA would assume
the mantle of global leadership on climate change. However, with the exception of
occasional sloganeering campaigns, the Bush administration has done little to devise an
alternative multilateral response. In fact, the USA has become a pariah country on
climate change and its diplomats are restricted from participating in high-level counsels.
As the Kyoto Protocol’s signatory countries have begun to prepare for implementation
of the treaty, US ofﬁcials attending international events have been rebuked for their
intransigence. A particularly pointed expression of consternation was the heckling that
interrupted US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address at the World Summit on
Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (see Dao, 2002).
In terms of its domestic response to climate change, the Bush administration’s
initiatives to date are generally regarded as feeble and inadequate. Rather than augment
US scientiﬁc and technological capabilities in this area, the president’s budgets have
actually cut funds for several fundamental programs (Council of Economic Advisors,
2002). Responsibility for addressing the problem has fallen by default to individual ﬁrms
(with some co-ordination from trade associations) and a handful of state governments.
Despite these ad hoc efforts, annual greenhouse gas emissions in the USA continue to
In the face of this dilemma, environmental proponents have shifted their attention
from the executive branch of the federal government to its legislative counterparts. Some
hopeful Congressional ﬁgures have developed nascent plans for a legislative track that
could run roughly parallel to the Kyoto Protocol. For instance, Senator James Jeffords,
who at the time was the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee,
announced soon after the Bonn round of climate change negotiations in July 2002, “But
this Congress, this Senate, and especially this Committee will not let our international
partners down. We plan to take steps to reduce our nation’s contribution to this growing
problem by working with industry to reduce carbon emissions” (see Environment News
Service, 2001). Such a strategy, its advocates claim, would enable the Congress to assume
primary control of the issue.
This approach is unlikely to succeed because even if the
326 M. J. Cohen & A. Egelston
House and Senate managed to pass substantive legislation mandating binding targets, it
would still require presidential endorsement. Discussion of a veto override, requiring
two-third majorities in both the House and the Senate, is unrealistic given the current
political composition of these bodies. The present circumstances, however, do not
prevent Congress, if it were so inclined, from encouraging industrial ﬁrms to take
voluntarily action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. While such a gesture would
only reafﬁrm the original framework convention the elder President Bush signed in 1992
(and the more recent plan proposed by his son), it could give the appearance of
constructive action. In the mean time, advocates of a more proactive climate change
policy are focusing their efforts at the state level and on a series of plucky projects such
as launching international lawsuits against major greenhouse gas producers (Sims &
Strauss, 2002; see also Seelye, 2001).
There is also a widespread sensibility that the most pragmatic strategy entails waiting
out the current administration in the expectation that the 2004 presidential election will
alter the current situation.
To move the debate forward during this interval, and to
avoid expending effort on futile initiatives, proponents of a climate change agreement
need to formulate an informed understanding of the factors behind President Bush’s
abrupt rejection of the Kyoto Protocol. This discussion has taken as its point of departure
the White House’s ofﬁcial explanation for rejecting the accord, namely the failure (1) to
include both developed and developing countries, (2) to embrace scientiﬁc and techno-
logical solutions and (3) to ensure the continuation of economic growth. All three of
these points are underpinned by some very formidable politics. However, the in-
sufﬁciency of the Bush administration’s domestic climate change initiatives over the past
year contradicts the second rationale, and a growing volume of evidence from other
economically advanced countries calls into question the empirical accuracy of the third
contention. Indeed, extant US climate change policy is largely attributable to the
inﬂuence of a coalition of faltering economic sectors and it may simply be a matter of
time before more progressive industrial voices begin to make themselves heard. For
instance, the Alliance to Save Energy—an association of more than 70 corporations based
in the USA—is currently working to encourage energy-efﬁciency technologies and
proactive environmental policies.
The Bush administration’s decision to forsake meaningful participation in a climate
change agreement has, of course, forced the international community—and European
countries in particular—to devise an appropriate counter-response. For the EU, this has
meant assuming a leadership position to forge an emissions trading regime. Whether
Europeans have the required experience to achieve this objective remains unclear and
the indefatigable dedication of several EU members to a greenhouse gas reduction
program holds its own set of risks (Christiansen & Wettestad, 2003). One entirely
plausible scenario involves the completion of a treaty that is ultimately ineffectual
because national governments do not implement its precepts.
The US rejection of the Kyoto Protocol has contributed in no small way to current
tensions in the transatlantic relationship. The EU ﬁnds itself in the awkward spot of
needing to implement the treaty in a manner that simultaneously encourages both
Russian and US participation, while at the same time retaining its commitment to steeper
emission reductions in the future. The EU will not likely be able to sustain this
increasingly untenable position past the accord’s ﬁrst commitment period (2008–2012).
Russian ratiﬁcation (which will now trigger the Kyoto Protocol’s entry into force),
followed by immediate adoption of a US domestic program, would be the best-case
scenario for stabilizing Europe’s relationship with the USA on this issue. However, the
The Bush Administration and Climate Change 327
Bush administration’s propensity for unilateral action and steadfast opposition to the
climate change agreement to date, make this an improbable outcome. In the meantime,
the EU has few levers at its disposal aside from providing capacity-building assistance
to individual US states. Sanctions are a theoretical possibility, but the EU is currently
engaged in a number of trade disputes with the USA and is probably not inclined to
ignite another pitched controversy.
The tenuousness of the current situation is also compounded by Japan’s lack of
willingness to follow Europe’s lead. The Japanese government recently announced that
it was not going to implement the emissions trading provisions (Article 17) of the Kyoto
Protocol. Additionally, there is a widespread perception in Japan that the country’s
major industrial corporations underestimated the difﬁculty of meeting the ambitious
targets that the accord assigns to them. A second commitment period, presumably
extending from 2012 to 2017, would need to correct for this miscalculation and take into
account Japan’s already high levels of energy efﬁciency. Of additional concern is the fact
that Japan has decreased its ﬁnancial contributions to the UNFCC trust fund, which
provides developing countries with ﬁnancial support to attend the formal climate
change negotiating sessions. This decision to curtail contributions to the trust fund was
announced in Bonn during the third session of the Subsidiary Body for Scientiﬁc and
Technical Information, 5 June 2003.
In the face of all of this activity—both domestically and internationally—this paper
argues that the geopolitical relationship between China and the USA is one of the most
arduous, and ultimately consequential, obstacles preventing US endorsement of a
multilateral climate change accord. Though the Clinton administration assumed an
internationalist foreign policy posture, it encountered profound difﬁculties convincing
Congress of the merit of a proactive strategy to limit greenhouse gas emissions. From
this standpoint, the principle source of this friction was—and continues to be—the
deferential way the Kyoto Protocol treats China.
President Bush’s unambiguous efforts
to recast US foreign policy have had, in the span of only three years, a profound impact
on relations between the two countries. Indeed, even if President Bush fails to secure a
second term, his successor will be severely constrained by the current course of action.
In other words, it is doubtful that Washington will be able to resume its previous
relationship of constructive engagement with Beijing. For the foreseeable future, Sino-
American relations are likely to be shaped by a policy of strategic competition and this
situation will limit the ability of the USA to embrace a climate change agreement that
excludes its large Asian rival from meaningful participation.
1. The Kyoto Protocol was designed to supersede the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change (UNFCC) that called for voluntary initiatives to limit emissions of CO
and other greenhouse
gases. The elder President Bush signed the prior agreement amidst the spectacle of the 1992 Earth Summit
in Rio de Janeiro and the US Senate unanimously ratiﬁed it later that year.
2. In the absence of US support for the Kyoto Protocol, Russia will now decide the fate of the agreement and
President Vladimir Putin has signaled his intention to move for ratiﬁcation (see Egelston, 2003).
3. Bush campaign ofﬁcials also submitted a policy paper to the New York Academy of Sciences prior to the
election, which endorsed a “comprehensive, fair and effective agreement”. As a presidential candidate,
Bush’s recommendations on climate change actually went well beyond those of his opponent Vice-
President Al Gore, who was only prepared to support a voluntary emission reduction program (see New
York Times, 2001).
4. During the immediate aftermath of the White House’s announcement to renounce the Kyoto Protocol, the
Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, was elusive on how he would proceed. He ﬁrst indicated
328 M. J. Cohen & A. Egelston
during a summit meeting with President Bush that Japan would not ratify the accord without the USA,
only to reverse himself in the following days when speaking beside Prime Minister Tony Blair on a visit
to London. Throughout most of 2001, the general impression was that Japan, despite its strong sense of
responsibility toward the treaty, would ultimately walk away (see Revkin, 2001a).
5. The NAS report was released immediately prior to President Bush’s ﬁrst ofﬁcial visit to Europe. White
House ofﬁcials expected to encounter on this trip strong disapproval from European ofﬁcials on several
contentious issues, including missile defense, arms control and trade (see, for example, Borger & Black,
6. The Bush administration initially justiﬁed its position favoring a cautious climate change policy on the
grounds of unresolved scientiﬁc uncertainty. Though his own scientiﬁc advisors have issued increasingly
precise assessments of the likely impacts of global warming, President Bush has not revised his position
to account for this new knowledge. Instead, he has issued sarcastic comments intended to disparage
individuals and organizations responsible for bringing this new information to light. For instance, an EPA
report issued in June 2002 conceded that climate change would have serious adverse affects on the USA.
President Bush’s public response to this document was that he had “read the report put out by the
bureaucracy” (see Seelye, 2002).
7. In many respects, President Bush is turning the clock back to 1992 and the original climate change accord
that his father signed at the Earth Summit. This precursor to the Kyoto Protocol was also based on
voluntary compliance and non-binding targets. However, US industry does not speak with one voice on
the matter of climate change and, even among the most stalwart opponents of aggressive environmental
policies, there is support for portions of the accord (see Cortese, 2002).
8. President Bush’s public expressions of concern about climate change create the impression of substantive
progress when, in fact, his actual strategy is to postpone concrete action. According to Andrew Revkin, the
lead correspondent on climate change for The New York Times,
Mr. Bush and members of his administration have repeatedly said that they consider climate change
a serious issue, that greenhouse gases eventually need to be stabilized, and that they are reviewing
options. But some ofﬁcials involved in the policy review, and business executives and experts who
have briefed the cabinet, say there appears to be little, if any, pressure from the top to come up with
something soon (see Revkin, 2001e).
9. This fractious episode between the USA and Europe occurred more than a year prior to the build up of
tensions surrounding the eventual US-led invasion of Iraq. In many respects, the climate change conﬂict
foreshadowed a rising tide of antagonism in Euro-American relations that reached its zenith during the
early months of 2003.
10. The report of the National Energy Task Force proposes various strategies for increasing the country’s
capacity for producing energy without considering how the CO
emissions from this additional generation
would be absorbed. In fact, the nearly 200-page document devotes only passing attention to the issue of
climate change. This report incited a protracted clamor about how the task force carried out its work and
the tactics it used to solicit input from large energy producers while limiting participation by environmen-
talist organizations (see Van Natta & Banerjee, 2002).
11. Germany, due to the reuniﬁcation of the country following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, is the only EU
country that has recorded faux reductions during this period. The expansion of the EU to include several
former Warsaw Pact countries precludes combining targets under the Kyoto Protocol for the ﬁrst
commitment period as such a move would violate provisions contained in Article 4 of the agreement.
12. While the Bush administration has assumed an adversarial posture on climate change, it has simul-
taneously emphasized the importance of working collaboratively with European countries and others. For
instance, President Bush announced in a meeting with EU representatives in June 2001 that the USA “is
willing to lead on this issue” (see Bruni, 2001a).
13. Loren Lutzenheiser has described the Clinton administration’s climate change measures—comprised of ad
hoc proposals to encourage emissions trading, deregulation of the electric utility industry and supplemen-
tal research funding—as “non-policy” (Lutzenheiser, 2001; see also McCright & Dunlap, 2003).
14. A handful of non-Annex 1 countries have sought to take a more progressive stance on climate change. For
instance, Argentina adopted a voluntary commitment to mitigate its greenhouse gas releases using a
formula that linked emissions volume to gross domestic product. Kazakhstan tabled a request in 1999 to
become an Annex 1 country by announcing that it would adopt a binding commitment. This request was
met with immediate resistance from China, Saudi Arabia and India (see Australian Department of Foreign
Affairs and Trade, 1999).
15. Despite White House allegations arguing otherwise, CO
emissions in China have actually been declining
The Bush Administration and Climate Change 329
in recent years due to initiatives to retroﬁt coal-ﬁred power plants with pollution control equipment, to
increase energy efﬁciency, to diversify its portfolio of energy inputs and to substitute less-polluting fossil
fuels for coal.
16. The Joint Global Change Research Initiative is a collaborative project of the University of Maryland and
the Paciﬁc Northwest National Laboratory (see Sanger, 2001).
17. Ordered originally in 1970, the Watts Bar nuclear power plant owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority
came on-line in 1996 and is the last plant in the USA to become operational. Since this time, the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission has, however, renewed the licenses of several facilities that were already in
18. While the USA is seeking to revive nuclear power, several European countries are moving in the opposite
direction. Both Germany and Sweden have announced their intentions to phase out their existing nuclear
generation facilities. As currently drafted, the Kyoto Protocol does not allow countries to acquire emission
reduction credits by substituting nuclear power for energy currently generated from fossil fuels.
19. The Bush administration’s support for Pachauri is an example of growing co-ordination between India and
the USA on climate change policy. In fact, the White House now recognizes that its strategy of
downplaying global warming in favor of economic growth is broadly consistent with the stance of the
Group of 77 developing countries.
20. US automobile manufacturers are also facing a very difﬁcult period and inﬂuential observers have
expressed grave doubt about the ability of Ford and General Motors to survive (see The Economist, 2003).
21. This leading role on the part of select US states is not especially surprising. Virtually all signiﬁcant
environmental policy initiatives in the USA during the past 30 years were ﬁrst implemented at the state
level (see Rabe, 2002).
22. Many observers interpret the Byrd–Hagel resolution opposing any international climate change agreement
that did not impose mandatory reductions on developing countries as a clear indication that the Kyoto
Protocol, as currently conﬁgured, would never pass muster. In signing the treaty, it was the implicit
strategy of the Clinton administration to work toward achieving US targets without seeking formal Senate
ratiﬁcation. Nevertheless, there are legislative voices that claim if the Senate resolution was put forward
today, it would not receive the same endorsement.
23. Some political observers have been anticipating that the Bush administration’s confrontational approach
on environmental policy would incite a backlash similar to the one that occurred during the mid-1980s in
response to President Reagan’s regressive initiatives. Though there is insufﬁcient space here for a
comprehensive discussion of this issue, it merits remarking that such an outcome is highly unlikely this
time. There has been no backlash to date—and there is unlikely to be one—for two reasons. First,
conservative constituencies in the USA have achieved overwhelming political control and, second, public
concerns about national security have completely marginalized alternative perspectives. For a more
complete review, see McCright & Dunlap, 2000, 2003).
24. The USA’s abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol has left China in an unusual position. From one
perspective, the US decision should have increased pressure on the Chinese to agree to a symbolic
commitment. However, China has been unmoved by the US withdrawal and shows no signs of modifying
its customary position opposing binding greenhouse gas reductions for developing countries. As a non-
Annex 1 country, China stands to beneﬁt from the Kyoto mechanisms because of its status as a net-seller
of emissions credits, as a recipient of funds from the Global Environmental Facility and as a beneﬁciary
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