The United State’s Missed Opportunity for Global Climate Leadership


When the Kyoto Protocol reached United States Congress in 1997, the global focus was put onto the environment and the complex implications that industrialization had on the atmosphere. Scientists were beginning to understand the long-term effects of CO2 emissions and it was the responsibility of world leaders to treat these issues with the importance and urgency that they deserved. The United States was a main focus and its decision could have set a precedent for placing the environment and its many benefactors as a priority. However, politicians such as George Bush and those of the Senate cited economic issues and the non-participation of developing countries as the reasons why the US would not participate in the Kyoto Protocol. I have included in this paper why both of these methods of reasoningare not ethically based, and have contributed to creating global climate problems that will continue into the future.

The Kyoto Protocol would have required that the United States reduce its emissions by 7% throughout a 4 year period from 2008 to 2012. Many other countries had similar reduction goals such as the E.U. (8%) and Canada (6%). For the initial 4 year period, it was decided that developing countries would not be included in the reduction goals, and could instead be involved in later treaties. For the Protocol to be a success each country would have to agree to meet their end of a treaty that would collectively reduce global emissions by an average of 5% in the following 7 years. The agreement only required that 55% of the CO2 output be accounted for in this initial reduction goal, which allowed the two largest greenhouse gas emitters, the United States and China, to bypass their global responsibility to aid in the global effort (Kyoto Protocol, 2014). The United States participation was particularly important for this initial period because it was responsible for about a third of the total CO2 emissions.

The United States did not always have a hands-off stance on global climate change. In 1987, the United States participated in the Montreal Protocol which successfully banned Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC). This was done swiftly and successfully most likely because CFC’s did not make up a significant portion of the United States economy. Additionally, the effects of CFC’s were much more immediately and visibly harmful. CFC’s caused a hole in the Ozone layer which in turn caused skin cancer, destruction to crops, etc. (Victor, David G., 2012).

In 1995, a conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held to outline targets for reducing emissions. Vice President, Al Gore, led the way by advocating for the United States to join the other countries that were planning to participate in the Kyoto Protocol. In response the Senate passed a bill that would prevent the United States from signing any treaties that could harm the United States economy. The Byrd-Hagel resolution, as it was called, also required that all developing countries agree to participate in the treaty as well (Dessai 2001).

From the first talks of the Kyoto Protocol, the United States took over 10 years to make serious commitments to addressing global climate change which may have contributed to millions of deaths as well as trillions of dollars in damages in the not-so-distant future (Victor, David G., 2012). Figure 1 shows that during the period between 1997 and 2007 there were only two years where emission rates did not rise in the US. The United States’ refusal to agree to the Kyoto Protocol was seen by many to be a denial of the proven effects of climate change and initiated a lack of commitment by many others. This attitude was seen worldwide and made it harder for other countries to remain diligent in their respective goals (Kyoto Protocol, 2014).

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Figure 1 Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the US from 1991-2011

Furthermore, while the United States continued to increase emissions, other countries battled to decrease emissions creating an unequal economic field.  Allowing the US to opt out of the Kyoto Protocol made others’ efforts to reduce emissions inadequate. “Most experts agree that Kyoto’s overall emissions goals are unobtainable without leadership and participation by the US” (Kyoto Protocol, 2014). Huntington says in The Lonely Superpower, “The United States, of course, is the sole state with preeminence in every domain of power – economic, military, diplomatic, ideological, technological, and cultural – with the reach and capabilities to promote its interests in virtually every part of the world.” The United States is highly invested in international affairs, and the United States in foreign policy is referred to as “the indispensable nation” by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright because of “its ability to work with others in the interests of the international community as a whole” (Huntington, 1999).

Most believe that the Kyoto Protocol was unsuccessful with global emissions continuing to rise during this period. Today, many countries are now hesitant to agree to the newest treaty called the Durban Platform. At the Copenhagen Accord in October of 2009, Pasztor, the top climate change adviser for the UN, said “it’s unlikely of a new deal because the United States had yet to approve domestic legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Then in Bonn, Germany in 2011, countries such as Russia and Japan declared that “they would not agree to a subsequent accord limiting emissions unless China and United States (the two largest emitters) are also legally bound by the new agreement.” (Kyoto Protocol, 2014)

World leaders are now discussing whether the next step would be to change directions towards a more realistic goal: short-term pollutants. While this may “recharge global diplomacy” and “reverse reluctance to hear-out climate talks” it will not stop the rising global temperature. Carbon dioxide makes up 60% of total greenhouse gas emissions, with the other 40% of pollutants being short-lived but often more potent. The most potent of the short-term pollutants, Black Carbon, is immediately as destructive as 500 to 2000 times as much CO2, but it only affects the environment for about a week (Cape J.N., 2012). CO2 can take hundreds of years before it gets absorbed by plants back into the ecosystem. So, while eliminating all of the short-term pollutants could prevent an additional .5 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures, the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere will raise the global temperatures at least 2.5 degrees Celsius this century. An increase in global temperatures of this magnitude could have drastic effects including rising sea levels, extreme weather, and the possibility of a vicious warming cycle if the permafrost from the Arctic icecaps melts. Victor believes that poorer countries will be the most vulnerable because of a lack of resources and sensitive agriculture (2012).

For the United States, there is no way to address rising CO2 levels without changing production of the two largest CO2 emitting processes; coal-based electricity generation and petroleum-based transportation (Figure 2). Fortunately, the United States is a hub of education and research and could be one of the best places to be the center for alternative energy research. The United States was also ranked #2 in the Global Competitiveness Report for the Innovation Index in 2001, and has since ranked consistently in the top 10 countries; most often, the US places #1 or #2 (Porter, 2001). In the history of the United States, the best stimulant for innovation has always been the economic incentive for the inventor to fill an unmet need in the market.

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Figure 2 The US’s CO2 emissions by sector and fuel type

President Bush is known for saying that he “wants technology to play a role in cutting pollution” (Kyoto Protocol, 2014), but he had the opportunity to shift the United States’ focus towards research and development into energy technologies. It may be that Bush as well as many other politicians allowed the oil and coal industry to affect the decisions that are made in Congress rather than becoming leaders themselves. At one press conference President Bush responded saying, “We’re in an energy crisis now… I was responding to reality, and reality is the nation has got a real problem when it comes to energy”. According to many experts, this was an overstatement used to cover up the big benefactors of this policy reversal, i.e., the US oil and coal industry, which has a powerful lobby with the administration and conservative Republican congressmen (Dessai, 2001).

The influence of the coal and oil industry may even have shifted the nation’s perception of nuclear energy and the viability of shifting towards renewable energy sources. Many experts agree that the risks of nuclear energy are relatively small and are drastically overpublicized by the media (Okrent, D., 1977). The persistence of oil and coal companies to lobby for less CO2 restrictions hinders the progress of clean technology and an emerging energy industry that is poised to grow and prosper in the United States. In order for change to happen in the United States, policy makers must begin making ethical choices that are based on the long term preservation of the global climate.

The long-term consequences of every country’s environmental policy affect all, especially developing nations, but there are no short-term consequences for those who act in self-interest. In Orr’s Sustainability, he argues that we are experiencing a “Crisis as a Social Trap.” He says that a pattern of decision-making can begin in which the long term destructive effects of the decisions are continuously deferred for short-term goals. Orr argues that the way to avoid this mentality is to “change the timing of pay-off” so that long-term consequences are “paid off upfront” (1992). However, President Bush and the Senate had prioritized shorter term issues such as the economy’s recession ahead of potentially more devastating long term effects of climate change. Furthermore, one way to bring the US out of a recession could have been to invest in the research and development of clean technologies.

One argument that may be popular among supporters of Bush’s decision is that the President should prioritize the internal welfare over global affairs. One relevant consequentialist idea is that “your ability to think well and act effectively depends in many ways on having strong relationships with a few people near to you” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014). Applied, this idea may provoke the idea that the President would not be able to act effectively without a solid economy backing its decisions.

While this is a tempting argument, there are many reasons why the recession did not leave the United States helpless at confronting climate change. After all, it was World War II that caused the increase in the US workforce and eventually pulled the economy out of the Great Depression.  Economists have shown that one way to confront recessions is with a government enforced or incentivized “push” of the unemployed back into the workforce. The recession may have been the ideal opportunity for President Bush to convert a slowed market to one with more sustainable energy practices. Moreover, President Obama took office during a recession and within 6 years had decreased emissions by 17%, while combatting the recession (Department of State, 2014).

Rawls theory of justice stated that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” (Rawls, 2007). Based on this theory, everyone involved should have an equal right to the Earth’s resources or else they would be infringing on the liberty of other parties to use the Earth’s resources. Furthermore, if the resources at a particular location are destroyed or used up the resources cannot be used for future generations, which may also be exceeding the rights of that person. One of the most basic liberties is for one to live his or her life safely. This is a freedom that can be taken away by natural disaster, as well as the destruction that climate change causes. Therefore, Rawls would argue that using the Earth’s fossil fuels is not compatible with the liberty that everyone has to live a safe life with a tempered climate.

Rawls theory of justice also states that the inequalities should be arranged to “everyone’s advantage” and should be “open to all” (Rawls, 2007). The current state of the energy industry is one where a few powerful companies create barriers for others to enter. Additionally, the production of fossil fuels instead of alternative fuels is not in the best interests of everyone. The emission of greenhouse gases creates a negative externality that greatly outweighs the cost of fossil fuels. Rawls may argue for an ideal society in which the inequality in the energy industry would be based on the difference in ability to create clean energy. Renewable energies are relatively new and are constantly being innovated. If fossil fuels were to run out today, the renewable energy field would be open to many, with low barriers to entry. Research and development would create opportunities for many competitors to create cleaner energy and progress higher in this ideal society.

The choices that were made by US officials during the years leading up to the Kyoto Protocol set the tone for global conversations on climate change. Instead of allowing the US to become a leading participant in the effort to reduce CO2 emissions, politicians chose to prioritize the ties the US had with the oil and coal industries. These decisions are not aligned with Rawls Ethics, or those of Orr’s Sustainability and will therefore lead to worse overall outcomes. If the US wants to again become a global leader it will have to consequentialist method for making decisions and change the timing of payoffs for energy companies. Only by putting these policies into place will the US set a new attitude that exemplifies the importance and urgency of these issues, and lead the world to a sustainable future.

Works Cited

“Kyoto Protocol.” Global Issues in Context Online Collection. Detroit: Gale, 2014. Global Issues In Context. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

“Rawls, Justice as Fairness.” Justice, A Reader. Ed. Michael J. Sandel. 203. 2007.

Cape, J. N., M. Coyle, and P. Durmitrean. “The Atmospheric Lifetime of Black Carbon.” (November, 2012) Science Direct.

Dessai, Suraje. The Climate Regime from the Hague to Marrakech: Saving Or Sinking the Kyoto Protocol?. Vol. 12., 2001.

GI-39416 Final Report. School of Engineering and Applied Science, U.C.L.A.

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Lonely Superpower.” Foreign Affairs 78.2 (1999): 35-49.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Consequentialism.”.

LargeTechnological Systems and Its Application to Nuclear Power, NSF Project

Mistrick, Janine. “Kyoto Protocol: Good Intentions, Failed Legislation?.” February 21, 2013. <http://sites.psu.edu/mistrickblog/2013/02/21/kyoto-protocol-good-intentions-failed-legislation/>.

OKRENT, D.1977. A General Evaluation Approach to Risk-Benefit for

Orr, David W. “The Problem of Sustainability.” Hope is an Imperitive
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Porter, Michael E., Jeffrey D. Sachs, and John W. McArthur. Global Competitiveness Report. Harvard University, 2001.

Snell, Marilyn. “United Nations Environmental Program.” Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics. Ed. Carl Mitcham. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 2005-2007.

United States.,Department of State,,. “2014 CAR : United States climate action report 2014 : first biennial report of the United States of America : sixth national communication of the United States of America under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.” 2014. /z-wcorg/. http://worldcat.org.

Victor, David G., Charles F. Kennel, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan. “The Climate Threat we can Beat: Subtitle: What it is and how to Deal with it.” May; 2014/11 2012: 112.

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