The politics behind U.S. environmental foreign policy on climate change

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Decision Makers
2.1 President
2.2 Congress

3 Influencers
3.1 Constituency
3.2 Special Interest Groups
3.3 Scientific Research/Economic Advisors
3.4 Public Opinion

4 Conclusion I – Reflection
4.1 Kyoto Protocol
4.2 From Clinton to Bush

5 Conclusion II – The Influence of Domestic Politics in International Environmental Politics

Annex References

1 Introduction

Climate change is the extraordinary warming of the Earth from increased concentration of greenhouse gasses (GHG)[1] and the climate consequences of that warming, which can be in many ways harmful to humans and the environment.[2]

In the 1980s climate change appeared on the agenda in international politics[3] but only since the end of the Cold War the climate change debate has shifted into the focus of concern in foreign policy circles[4] until it was swept away by an omnipresent War on Terror after September 11.

The United States, as the world’s largest polluter[5] to climate change – US emissions of CO² exceed those of all other countries[6] plus on a per capita basis US CO²-emissions are the highest off all countries[7] – plays a major, if not the decisive, role in international environmental politics and the dialogue for a global strategy to address climate change. While the United States was one of the leading countries in terms of progressive domestic legislation and one of the driving forces behind international environmental agreements (e.g. dealing with the problem of ozone depletion culminating in the Montreal Protocol)[8], the US is now not only blocking the Kyoto Protocol, but also actively pressuring other undecided countries not to sign and ratify the Protocol. Paradoxically, American scientists have played a leading role in identifying the anthropogenic affect on global warming and its dangerous consequences, yet political commitment and leadership to address the climate change problem is very weak.

American foreign policy especially with regards to climate change can only be explained by a myriad of factors, ranging from concerns for national interests and the influence of domestic politics, to the ability of exercising leadership.[9] In the course of this paper I want to shed some light on the politics behind the U.S. climate change policy. The main questions will be: Who are the key players in the decision-making process and which groups influence the policy-shaping of these key players. In the end I will reflect my findings upon the U.S. politics around the Kyoto Protocol and compare the approach to climate change policy of former President Clinton with that of current President Bush.

My primary non-academic source is a telephone interview with Daniel Chao – legislative director for Congresswomen Grace Napolitano (D-CA) in the US House of Representatives and key Democratic[10] House staffer for environmental issues – conducted December 28, 2003.

2 Decision Makers

Typically the President is the dominant figure in American foreign policy. In the past 50 years Congress has played a generally less assertive role in most foreign policy decisions led by the President. The presidential dominance in foreign policy can be traced back to several factors such as the administration’s superiority in capacity on the one side and the domestic inward focus of Congress on the other side. Yet, the issue we deal with is not a traditional foreign policy issue since a climate change policy that effectively addresses global warming encloses grave domestic consequences. Therefore, in regards to climate change, Congress plays a more dominant role than in any other foreign policy issue.[11] In this part of the paper I will look at the key players in the decision-making process, the President and Congress. In a second step I will consider other internal influences on decision-makers.

The U.S. President[12] and the U.S. Congress[13] are the executive and legislative branch of the government. The American system of checks and balances neatly involves the two branches in a construct of interdependence that can easily lead to a situation in which not necessarily the two parties, but the two branches of government oppose each other – a political and legislative stalemate situation that is unusual for European parliamentary systems but often the case in the United States.

2.1 The President

The Administration has the advantage of disposing large institutional capacity for any issue. Primarily, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deals with climate change related issues, though the EPA is enjoying only shifting political attention depending on the President’s priorities. Furthermore, climate change is on the agenda of the State Department, Dep. of Energy, Dep. of Commerce, and Dep. of Defense. Moreover, presidents can initiate different fact-finding groups, councils, initiatives and other executive programs, such as the current Climate Change Research Initiative (CCRI) or the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP).

The presidential office sets its agenda outside any party objectives. Though the President needs the party to introduce his legislation in Congress, there is no party policy that dictates the agenda of the President. Thus the priority-level of climate change and global warming is set by the President and his advisors. A look at the White House webpage shows an optimistic outlook in the Official Global Climate Change Policy Book.[14] Here the administration proposes to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity[15] of the U.S. economy by 18 percent in the next ten years.[16] Furthermore, the President has increased funding for “America’s commitment to climate change”[17] by $700 million to a total of $4.5 for Fiscal Year 2003 and presents this ‘Federal Climate Change Initiative’ as a program that channels the largest sum in the world towards climate change research and policy.[18] Don Evans, Secretary of Commerce, also announced a $ 103 million for two years for global observation technologies.[19] However, these numbers must only be considered very cautiously and may not be taken for granted.[20] The high sum for programs usually consists of grants that go to big business for their technology research. The same accounts for tax breaks. “The White House has a reputation for tricky accounting”[21] and we need to keep in mind that the figure is just proposed. In the end Congress will have to appropriate funding. According to Chao, the administration does not closely scrutinize how effectively big business actually implements an environmental friendly policy.

Another interesting indicator is the activities of the EPA, which, by looking at their cabinet assignment, should play the leading role in developing and progressing a climate change policy. Depending on the Presidents politics, the EPA is an agency with an administrator in the Cabinet or below; hence their policy and activity depend on the President’s priorities. A look at the EPA webpage reveals that climate change only receives medium attention.[22] In Washington politics, the EPA is hardly present in connection to climate change issues. In fact, two other departments are more active in the climate change field than the EPA: the State Department and the Department of Commerce. At Kyoto, the EPA was clearly outnumbered by colleagues from other departments.

A different perspective on the President’s involvement in climate change politics is the environmental orientation of the Vice-President. President Clinton and President Bush made a clear point by choosing Gore and Cheney as Vice-President. Senator Gore personally brought the climate change debate to Congress in 1987/88.[23] His book “Earth in Balance” is well-known in the field of environmental policy. Although Vice-President Cheney likes to point at his roots in the green state of Wyoming[24], he actually has lived and worked most his life in corporate Texas,[25] where he was, and still is, closely involved with one of the largest oil companies in the country . Cheney himself is on the payroll of a big oil company that is involved together with other fossil fuel lobby groups in the development of a policy that is supposed to address the global greenhouse emission problem linked to climate change.[26] Since both Vice-presidents have been unusually active and very influential in their respective administrations, it is not too simplistic to think that the environmental orientation of these key decision-makers has decisively influenced U.S. climate change policy.[27]

In the end, the President’s commitment to address climate change can be easily measured with the number of legislation he, not only proposes, but also introduces and manages passage through Congress. Although Congress is the legislative branch of government, most of bills originate in the administration, introduced via Members of Congress (MC) that are close to the President. Of course, the plain number of introduced legislation can be misleading. During most of Clinton’s time in office, he was leading a divided government[28]. Such circumstances can create political constellations in which the President sends a bill to Congress to please public opinion but is fully aware that the bill will be defeated or; Congress is under such strict control of the other party that the President may send a bill but it is not able to lead it through the committee system. Hence, the plain number of bills can be misleading towards how much the President is really committed to a climate change policy. If we look at the President Bush’s political commitment, instead of at proposed numbers and research initiatives, we clearly recognize that the administration’s efforts to actively ‘lobby on the Hill’ (secure passage in Congress) for climate change legislation is very low and the President’s initiative turns out to be only “lip service” to the environmental community.[29]


[1] Mainly carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur hexafluoride and nitrous oxide, as well as carbon compounds like chlorofluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons.

[2] Of course I only refer to that proportion of climate change that is anthropogenic, leaving out the natural climate change cycle that inevitably occurs.

[3] The first World Climate Conference took place in 1979 and in 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Program.

[4] For example the Earth Summit in Rio 1992 or the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) in 1994.

[5] 5,156 Million Metric Tons annually (reference year 1995) (Claussen, Eileen/ McNeilly, Lisa: Equity and Global Climate Change. Pew Center on Global Climate Change. 1998. p. 28).

[6] See Harris, Paul G: Climate Change and American Foreign Policy. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 2000: p.3.

[7] 19.4 Tons per Capita annually (reference 1995) (Ibid.).

[8] The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was adopted on 16 September 1987 in Montreal. The Protocol came into force on 1st January 1989. (

[9] See Harris, Paul G.: p.3.

[10] I chose a Democratic staffer because a) Democratic offices spend more resources and attention on environmental issues than Republicans and b) Democrats are currently the opposition party and therefore more likely to look behind the administrations official policy.

[11] The exception is issues related to war.

[12] By referring to the President I also referred to as ‘administration’ which includes the President’s cabinet. When I refer to a specific president I add the name, e.g. President Bush.

[13] Congress consists of the U.S. Senate, exercising the treaty power, and the U.S. House of Representatives, holding the power of the purse (exercised by means of appropriation bills).

[14] See (downloaded 15-12-2003).

[15] Intensity = ratio of economic output to greenhouse gas emissions.

[16] The White House announces a reduction from 183 metric tons emissions per million dollars GDP to 151 metric tons by 2012, which is comparable to the average progress that Kyoto nations are required to achieve (Official Global Climate Change Policy Book).

[17] See Official Global Climate Change Policy Book.

[18] See (downloaded 15-12-2003).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Daniel Chao.

[21] Ibid.


[23] Along with Senator Wirth and Republican Senator John Chafee.

[24] Cheney was House Representative for Wyoming from 1978 to 1988.

[25] Daniel Chao.

[26] See Miranda A. Schreuers in German Foreign Policy in Dialogue: A view from the United States – COP-7 and the Kyoto Protocol. (Newsletter – Issue 06): Climate Change after Marrakech – The Role of Europe in the Global Arena. Detlef Sprinz (editor). 2001.

[27] Daniel Chao.

[28] A divided government occurs when the President and the Congress Majority are not from the same party.

[29] Daniel Chao.

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The politics behind U.S. environmental foreign policy on climate change
University of Potsdam
International Environmental Policy
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International, Environmental, Policy
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Karl Lemberg (Author), 2004, The politics behind U.S. environmental foreign policy on climate change, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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