Presidential Leadership on Global Climate Change: Opportunities and Constraints

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Presidential Leadership on Global Climate Change: Opportunities and Constraints

Jeffry Burnam

Visiting Assistant Professor of Government

Department of Government

Georgetown University
Presidential leadership on the environment matters (Vig 103), including on the international environment (Daynes and Sussman). But when do presidents lead on international environmental issues, what roles do they play when they do and how effective are they in achieving their objectives?

Executive branch agencies with differing missions and constituencies are likely to disagree on the terms or even on the need for a new international treaty. As Richard Neustadt says: “Executive officials need decisions, and political protection and a referee for fights” (p. 6).

So, first, a president may choose to referee executive branch disputes over international environmental issues as they arise. Second, a president may work to persuade key legislators whose support he may need that it would be in their interest to support his proposed treaty (Neustadt, p 41).1 Third, a president may choose to bypass an unfriendly Congress and use executive orders or other administrative means to secure his objectives (Howell). To support his interventions in any of these three roles, a president may build support by going public (Kernell) or by going local (Cohen 2009), a technique that has become increasingly attractive given the limits that media fragmentation imposes on appeals to the general public.

So presidents must be strategic. To be successful they must “facilitate change by recognizing opportunities in their environments and fashioning strategies and tactics needed to exploit them” (Edwards 188). Edwards suggests this is the “essential” leadership skill (p. 6). Equally important are the constraints on the president’s ability to lead. They often derive from the same factors that provide opportunities for leadership.

In the case of international environmental treaties, the constraints and opportunities a president confronts include: the state of the science, economic impact, public perceptions of the need for action, congressional and interest group support or opposition, and the presence of absence of so-called “action forcing” events. His success in recognizing these constraints and exploiting these opportunities will largely determine the effectiveness of his interventions.

In this paper, I draw upon insights derived from these presidential leadership theories and from original interviews with high-level officials who worked closely with presidents from Reagan to Obama on ozone layer and climate change protection, given the constraints and opportunities these presidents confronted. But these have evolved, so a new kind of presidential leadership is both possible and needed. That is strategic advocacy in which the President through his words and deeds stresses the moral urgency of addressing global climate change and employs the techniques most likely to yield success in a given instance.

The Montreal Protocol on Ozone Layer Protection


The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987) is “perhaps the most successful international agreement to date” (Kofi Annan) and one in which the United States and U.S. Presidents have played a critical role.

The ozone layer is in process of recovering. The ecology and the global environment have been protected. New industries have been created, and consumers have generally benefitted from more efficient means of refrigeration (UNEP 2012). In the United States alone, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) projects that 22 million cataract cases and 6.3 million skin cancer deaths will be avoided at an estimated savings in health care costs of $4.2 trillion over the period 1990-2165.

(US EPA 2010).

Ozone in the stratosphere forms a thin layer that protects humans, animals, fish and crops from the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. In 1974, scientists Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland demonstrated theoretically that certain industrial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had the potential to migrate into the stratosphere and be broken down by UV rays, creating significant amounts of free chlorine radicals. These chlorine radicals would generate a complex chemical reaction that would gradually deplete the stratospheric ozone layer (Anderson and Sarma, 9-10).

Stratospheric ozone protection entered the policy arena long before the White House became involved, which is also typical of many presidential legislative initiatives (Rudalevige, 81). In 1978, the EPA banned the use of aerosols in deodorant and other spray cans, a popular move that industry also supported because substitutes for aerosol sprays were readily available.2 But the European Commission (EC) did not follow suit, adopting instead a loose cap only on CFC production. Public interest subsided and attempts to further regulate CFCs came to a temporary halt with the demise of the Carter Administration.

An Action Forcing Event: The Ozone Hole

In 1986, surprising news of a large winter depletion in the Antarctic ozone layer (the Antarctic Ozone Hole) led industry officials on both sides of the Atlantic to begin thinking about the prospects for international controls. At the time, U.S. industry favored a global ban on CFC usage in aerosols, whereas European industry was prepared to discuss only a production cap. Japanese industry also had a keen interest in the issue, since CFCs were used as a solvent to clean electronics; so did the USSR, both as a significant producer and a significant consumer of CFCs. As time went on, Japan and Russia came to favor strong controls, but the European Community held out almost until the bitter end, largely due to the intransigence of the British chemical industry (Rowlands, 101-123).

The unexpected discovery of the Antarctic Ozone Hole confounded scientists and policy makers alike because it raised the possibility that relatively small increases in CFCs could lead to much larger (non-linear) reductions in the ozone layer once a certain threshold was reached.

In September 1986, the U.S. industry-led Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy switched its opposition to controls and advocated a “reasonable global limit” on increases in CFCs. Then, in October 1986, U.S. industry leader DuPont called for an actual global reduction in CFC production. These switches can be attributed to a number of factors, most notably to DuPont’s capacity to develop marketable potential substitutes for CFCs as well as to its fear that the United States Government might decide to act unilaterally, placing it at a competitive disadvantage (Casin and Dray, 308).

David Doniger

David Doniger joined the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1978, taking a lead for NRDC and for the environmental community on the Montreal Protocol starting in 1986 and continuing to the present day. Doniger remembers how bitterly industry in the 70s had “decried” the science of ozone depletion and how strongly industry had opposed the Carter Administration’s proposal to regulate CFCs in 1980. He recalls that at an informally designed United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) workshop hosted by the United States in Leesburg, Virginia, DuPont presented an economic analysis that found the alternatives to CFCs to be too costly. But when Doniger asked them if their analysis would change if CFCs were further restricted, by law, “their answer was somewhere between ‘we hadn’t thought of that’ to ‘yes’!”

EPA Administrator Lee Thomas

In the fall of 1986, as the Department of State was seeking an interagency determination of the U.S. negotiating position, EPA Administrator Lee Thomas intervened at a critical moment. Thomas had attended the Leesburg Workshop and had testified at a Senate Environment Committee hearing in June 1986. He knew the issue in detail. In an October 1986 meeting with EPA professionals, Thomas surprised them by recommending a phase out of CFCs and not just a production freeze. Here is how Thomas puts it:

It came through in the discussion that from a regulatory point of view we needed a more clear-cut goal to work with. From a scientific point of view a phase out was the correct goal because these were offending chemicals. All this discussion they were having about a freeze seemed to blur the fact that this was the ultimate goal…. I felt that a phase out was something we could defend better than what they were coming up with (Casin and Dray, 310-311).

Scientific Uncertainty: The Negotiator’s View

Ambassador Richard E. Benedick was the lead U.S. negotiator on the Montreal Protocol from 1985 to 1987. In Ozone Diplomacy, he notes that the science of ozone depletion was far from certain at the time that the Montreal Protocol was negotiated:

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the treaty was its imposition of substantial short-term economic costs to protect human health and the environment against unproven future dangers—dangers that rested on scientific theories rather than on firm data (Benedick, 2).
However, according to Benedick, scientific uncertainty actually helped the State Department to propose the middle ground of a phased reduction in ozone layer depleting substances. The phased reduction allowed industry time to make available acceptable substitutes for CFCs, thus maintaining industry support. At the same time, environmentalists were pleased that the ultimate goal of the U.S proposal was the virtual elimination of global emissions of ozone layer depleting chemicals. Major U.S. producers of CFCs (DuPont in particular) supported a 50% reduction for the interesting reason that a lesser reduction of, say, only 20% or a mere freeze would not provide them with a sufficient incentive to produce the chemical alternatives to CFCs they knew they could develop for the

market if given time and an incentive to do so (Benedick, 51-58).

The Assistant Secretary of State: John Negroponte

Ambassador Benedick was not only the lead U.S. negotiator of the Montreal Protocol; he was at the same time the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment (E-DAS) in the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science (OES), a position that I once held so I am aware of its responsibilities. The E-DAS needs support as required from the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and from the Assistant Secretary for Oceans, Environment and Science, who at the time was Ambassador John Negroponte. Negroponte recalls that while Benedick “drove” the negotiations, it was up to him and to EPA Administrator Lee Thomas “to shepherd the Montreal Protocol through the crucial higher levels of the international and the domestic political processes.” He and Thomas “pushed this thing through against considerable odds” with support from Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead and Secretary George Shultz. Two tasks were important. One was to persuade key countries of the merits of the science, especially Europe, Russia and Japan. So Thomas and Negroponte worked with their counterparts in foreign governments and deployed U.S. scientific and technical experts to meet with their scientific and technical counterparts. Nor did Secretary Shultz hesitate to inform foreign leaders of his support for our negotiators. The other task was internal. According to Negroponte, the President’s Science Advisor William Graham “didn’t believe in the science” and Interior Secretary Donald Hodel took issue with State’s position. Negroponte and Thomas “worked to overcome those” views when the matter was elevated to the Domestic Policy Council (Negroponte).

A Friendly Congress

In the spring of 1987, the Office of Management and Budget had set up an interagency working group to reexamine the State Department’s negotiating position. The OMB review was soon elevated to the cabinet- level Domestic Policy Council (DPC). The DPC’s options paper included Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel’s “personal protection option” that proposed (among other things) that the public be urged to wear sunscreen, sunglasses and broad brimmed hats. A calculated leak of Hodel’s views by his own staff generated an uproar (Doniger). The Washington Post’s Herblock penned a famous cartoon that showed fish wearing sunglasses! (The actual damage to fish from UV radiation results from its potential negative effect on plankton, the source of all ocean life.)

Secretary of State George Shultz

Secretary of State George Shultz did not believe that the Domestic Policy Council was an appropriate forum to determine the Administration’s position in an international treaty negotiation. But that did not matter so much because Shultz had “raised and carefully talked over the ozone layer issue on several occasions” in private meetings with the President that Nancy Reagan had arranged for him on pending matters. Shultz told the President that “although there was still some controversy over the science, it was quite likely that CFCs were damaging the ozone layer and if that was true, the result would be catastrophic and irreversible.” So “it made sense to take out an insurance policy.” According to Shultz, President Reagan was a “good man for grasping the essence of an issue” and he did so in this instance. So Shultz knew that if the issue were elevated to the President, Reagan would support an international treaty (Shultz).

President Ronald Reagan: The Referee

On June 18 1987 President Reagan chaired a Domestic Policy Council Meeting at which a majority of departments and agencies lined up against the State Department’s negotiating position. Neither Benedick nor Secretary of State George Shultz was present at the meeting with the President. Shultz was on travel at the time, together with Negroponte. Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead represented the Secretary and followed up the meeting by sending a letter to Chief of Staff Howard Baker to correct the distortions of the State Department options in the DPC Staff Memo. The President decided to support “virtually all of the State-EPA position” (Benedick 65-67). Benedick was in Berlin, giving a speech at the fortieth anniversary of the Marshall Plan. He vividly recalls that a young man from the U.S. Embassy delivered a sealed envelope to him with a copy of the signed presidential decision memo that had a security classification so high that it had to be burned after reading! Benedick was amazed:

Usually, it’s some compromise, but in the case of Montreal, it was 99% for our list of options, which absolutely dazzled Negroponte and me. Neither of us had ever experienced such an uncompromising resolution of (strong!) interagency disagreement (Benedick 2011b).
Reagan made one exception and selected an option that would have required the U.S. to propose at Montreal that 90% of all countries would have to ratify the treaty before it went into force:

However, the President’s instructions were that if, after every other article had been decided at Montreal, we were still unable to attain this provision I (specifically I) was to fly back to Washington and explain this at an interagency meeting and then return the same day to Montreal and accept the consensus for the easier entry-into-force provision that State had favored from the beginning. This in fact occurred (Benedick 2011b).

President Reagan had intervened to referee an executive branch dispute in support of the State Department’s position despite significant opposition from his Cabinet and his conservative advisors; it was this strategic choice that allowed the United States to maintain its leading role in negotiating the Montreal Protocol and to forge a reputation as a world leader on the ozone depletion issue. And the President made this key decision only after having been briefed twice by the Secretary of State and after hearing both sides being presented at the Domestic Policy Council, a procedure similar that he had often employed with his “super cabinet” when he had been Governor of California (Svahn).

The President’s decision was not publicized, perhaps not to offend his “base.” There had been a rumor that Benedick was about to be fired and some European officials were surprised to learn just prior to Montreal that Benedick was still our lead negotiator (Benedick, 2001b).

Despite President Reagan’s “hidden hand” leadership3, the outcome of the September 1987 negotiations in Montreal was far from certain (Benedick 74-76). As EPA Administrator Lee Thomas puts it:

The negotiations were quite contentious right up to Montreal. Actually they were quite difficult in Montreal with all night sessions by a smaller group of principals where we negotiated key elements of the agreement in the final hours (Thomas).

The European Community was allowed a “bubble” over its emissions to make it easier for its member nations to comply. Russia was granted some deadline adjustments to conform to its five-year economic plan. And the U.S.-backed provision to require that 90% of the Protocol signatories must ratify the treaty before it went into effect was diluted to 67% (Shabecoff, 1987a; 1987b; 1987c).

Ironically, in late September 1987, just after the Montreal Protocol was signed, new data were released that showed that the Antarctic Ozone Hole was larger than ever. And a March 1988 study by the Ozone Trends Panel showed not only that man-made chlorine emissions were causing stratospheric ozone layer depletion, but also that the probable rate of loss of ozone was far greater than the models had previously predicted (Shabecoff, 1987d; 1987e; 1988a; 1988b; and Benedick, 110-111).

Science and the Montreal Protocol
What was the influence of the science of ozone depletion on policy makers? In Ozone Discourses, Karen T. Litfin contends that the discovery of the Antarctic Ozone Hole changed the terms of the debate, both for scientists and policy makers. In 1986 and 1987, as the treaty was being negotiated, scientists could still avail themselves of a variety of alternative interpretations of the Antarctic Ozone Hole or even view it as an anomaly that could not be explained by existing knowledge. Even the actual depletion of the ozone layer was not an established fact.4

The discovery of the Antarctic Ozone Hole was a dramatic event that not only had a major impact on public and legislative opinion; it led to what Liftkin calls a “discursive shift” in favor of action. For the unanticipated emergence of a hole much larger and much sooner than any scientific model had predicted alarmed scientists and undermined their faith in their own models, which had suggested a more gradual depletion of the ozone layer over time. Policy makers sensed a crisis in the scientific community, which could not at first explain these findings.5 They realized that more immediate preventive action might need to be taken than they had thought necessary (Litfin, 96-107).

Economics and the Montreal Protocol

The economic impact of the Montreal Protocol was mitigated because the treaty’s targets and timetables could be adjusted to meet new scientific assessment and changing expectations of when industry could produce adequate and affordable substitutes. And unlike climate change, the impact was not economy wide. But ways did have to be found to mitigate its substantial impacts on consumers and small businesses, including allowing “critical use exemptions” for methyl bromide as a key agricultural fumigant or through recycling of CFC-based refrigerants, such as Freon.6

Limited fears about the economic impact of the Montreal Protocol may have accounted for the fact that both public and political elites generally accepted the science on ozone depletion, even in the period when the science was somewhat uncertain. Once elites are persuaded that there are economically and politically acceptable solutions to problems such as acid rain and ozone depletion, they are less inclined to question the scientific information (Burnam, 2011). By contrast, powerful interest groups have sown doubt in the public mind concerning the need for action on climate change. As Steven Seidel notes:

One critical difference between the Montreal Protocol and climate change has been the existence of a well-funded opposition that jumps on any scientific uncertainties and stokes fears about the economic impacts of climate change (Seidel).

Doniger thinks that the key lesson from the Montreal Protocol process is the importance of the environmental community and industry working together. But he notes that some lobbyists have learned quite different lessons that they use to fight action on climate change:

Paint the issues black and white, don’t rely on a process of scientific fact finding and consensus building to get things started and don’t admit that there are options for addressing the problem (Doniger)!

Congress and the Montreal Protocol

In response to the public outcry over the Herblock cartoon and aware of the struggle within the Reagan Administration, the Senate on June 5, 1987, debated a Baucus-Chafee Sense of the Senate Resolution endorsing the State Department’s negotiating position, while adding language to instruct the negotiators to consider the economic and competitiveness impact of the proposed treaty. In a remarkable demonstration of congressional support for the State Department’s position, the Senate voted for the resolution 80-2.7 The House passed a similar resolution some weeks later, but only after powerful Energy and Commerce Chair John Dingell (D. Mich.), sensed industrial interest and scientific support and thus came to favor international negotiations.

Previous Congressional hearings and support for negotiating an international treaty had made it easier for the State Department and EPA to prevail over those in the Reagan Administration who favored either a limited response or no response to the ozone layer depletion problem (Shimberg).

President Reagan was persuaded to support the Montreal Protocol by his Secretary of State. He never attempted to persuade Congress to support the Montreal Protocol. But Senate Republicans and Democrats and Liberal Republicans in the House had engaged through the hearing process in 1986 and 1987 in publicizing the threat to the ozone layer and to encourage the Reagan Administration to take action. However, the Antarctic Ozone Hole was its own persuader. Every school child in America knew about it (Schmitt)—it was something the public could be easily comprehended in the absence of any detailed knowledge of the science of ozone depletion.
Climate Protection

President Clinton and Vice President Gore

President Clinton started out his Administration in a manner pleasing to environmentalists by assigning a lead role on the environment to Vice President Gore, appointing two Gore aides to key environmental positions--Kathleen McGinty to coordinate environmental policy throughout the government--and Carol Browner to be EPA Administrator. And on Earth Day, the President announced “our nation’s commitment to reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases to their 1990 levels by the year 2000,” promising that the United States would “take the lead in addressing the challenge of global warming. ” And overruling his own Treasury Secretary, the President accepted the Vice President’s proposal for a tax on the heat content of fossil fuels as part of his deficit reduction plan. The bill with the fossil fuel tax included narrowly passed the House in May, but was rejected in June by the Senate Finance Committee and was not included in the final law.8

However, climate change was not a high priority for the White House during the remainder of the Administration’s first two years, either domestically or internationally. In October 1993, the President and the Vice President jointly announced a Climate Change Action Plan. Ironically, like the “no regrets” plan of the departing Bush Administration, it relied only upon administrative measures that could be implemented under existing legislative authority (Parker and Blodgett).

Two important international meetings on climate change occurred in 1995 and 1996. In March 1995, in Berlin, at the First Conference of the Parties (COP 1) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which President Bush had signed at Rio, the U.S. acceded to the demands of the developing countries to draft a treaty that would contain emission limits for developed, but not for developing countries (The Berlin Mandate). The Clinton Administration thought it had to concede to this demand “in order to keep the international process moving along” (Pomerance). That proved to be a fateful decision.

In July 1996, at Geneva, Under Secretary of State Timothy Wirth announced the principles that would guide United States negotiators in preparing for a climate change treaty. First, the United States would commit to “realistic and achievable” reduction targets provided that other developed nations also did so. Second, the U.S. would insist that “maximum flexibility” be allowed for countries to meet those targets, including the deployment of “market based” mechanisms. Third, the U.S. would support funding to assist developing countries in meeting the challenge of climate change.
The Kyoto Protocol: Successes and Failures

In 1997, the White House assumed control of international climate change policy and established a White House Climate Change Task Force headed by Todd Stern, who realized that outreach with key constituencies was badly needed to communicate the Administration’s climate change strategy (Royden 18). And a working group was established to draft options for the President and Vice President. It was co-chaired by Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council (NEC), Kathleen McGinty, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and James Steinberg, Deputy Director of the National Security Council (NSC) and also included David Sandalow (NSC and CEQ), Dan Perrolli (NEC), Larry Summers (Treasury), and Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Stuart Eisenstadt, who became the US chief Kyoto negotiator when Tim Wirth left in the summer of 2007 in order to head up the United Nations Foundation. The working group met in Sperling’s office in the West Wing. Sandalow recalls that it had a tough assignment: “We realized that climate change was an issue in which economic, environmental and diplomatic concerns intersected in somewhat incompatible ways” and that there was “no way to come up with a U.S. position that would make everyone happy.” He notes that the President and Vice President were fully engaged throughout much of 1997: “We recognized that this was a big decision that would require a big commitment on the part of the United States.” The President’s distinctive take on the issue was “to frame the issue in terms of opportunity.” Both the President and the Vice President were “technology optimists who believed that Americans could solve the climate change problem if only they put their minds to it” (Sandalow). Kathleen McGinty, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, recalls that the President and the Vice President worked together on climate change:
The President and the Vice President functioned as a team, or perhaps I should say a partnership, that recognized a high degree of expertise on the climate change issue by the Vice President. But the President was fully engaged, especially in how to frame the issue in terms of economic opportunity and jobs, how to achieve a broader base of support and how and when to expend political capital (McGinty).
There were significant disagreements that needed to be refereed between the President’s advisors, with Kathleen McGinty and his environmental advisors “pushing for tough and specific cuts in greenhouse gas emissions” while economic advisors such as Deputy Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and White House Economic Advisor Gene Sperling were more concerned with the potentially high costs of implementation (Warrick). In a speech to the National Geographic Society on October 22, President Clinton publicly announced that the U.S. negotiating instructions for Kyoto would include a “binding and realistic target of returning emissions to 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012” with further (unspecified) measures in the years thereafter (Clinton 1997).

The Kyoto Protocol required the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 7% below 1990 levels averaged over the period 2008-2012. However, in return, the United States was able to include some important general provisions (such as emissions trading and carbon sinks) to make it easier for it (and others) to comply. Developed nations took on binding reduction commitments, but no developing nation took on any such commitments, even though it was known at the time that developing nations’ share of global greenhouse gas emissions would eventually surpass both Europe’s and that of the United States, which they have since done. Attempts by Assistant Secretary of State Eileen Claussen to negotiate bilateral agreements with China, India and South Korea prior to Kyoto were frustrated by the Asian financial crisis.9

The Administration did succeed in permitting and influencing the negotiation of an international climate change treaty at Kyoto. First, at Berlin and Geneva, the U.S. prepared the way for the structure of the Kyoto Protocol by fatefully acceding to the international consensus that developing countries need not take on emissions limitations. Second, at Kyoto, the U.S. was able to include in the Protocol such key objectives as an averaging of emissions limits over five years not to begin until 2008. And against considerable odds, the U.S. won international support for its emissions trading proposal.10 Third, Vice President Gore flew to Kyoto during the last week of the conference, when the negotiations were on the verge of collapse, and announced “flexibility” in the U.S. position. According to Ron Klain, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff:

Gore himself decided to go to Kyoto. Clinton was comfortable with our fate being in the hands of the negotiating team, a mix of State Department folks and Stu Eisenstadt, who was then Undersecretary for Global Affairs and our chief negotiator at Kyoto. But the team had very limited negotiating instructions, and felt like they lacked the stature or authority to “get to yes.”  They asked Gore to come, with a broad delegation of authority to reach an agreement.  A lively debate at the WH ensued about the pros/cons of such a trip, and Clinton left the final decision in Gore's own hands. Gore elected to go (Klain).
The Vice President’s trip “injected energy” into the negotiations and was essential to a successful international outcome (Sandalow). And, showing flexibility, the U.S. agreed to reduce its emissions to 7% rather than 0% below 1990 levels; however this made it even harder for the Administration to contend back home that it had negotiated a treaty with the “realistic and achievable” goals it had promised. 11

It was clear that the Senate would not accept the Protocol’s provisions with respect to developing countries. While legislative opinion strongly favored the Montreal Protocol, it strongly opposed the Kyoto Protocol. Months before the Montreal Protocol was signed, the U.S. Senate had passed a resolution 82-2 that endorsed the U.S negotiating position. Months before the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution 95-0 declaring that it could not support a treaty that did not involve commitments from developing nations in the same time frame as developed nations or that would cause economic harm to the United States (Cushman, 1997a).

Nor was it clear that the Kyoto Protocol would not have significant adverse effects on the economy. Remarkably, the Administration’s economic analysis was not released until six months after Kyoto; it underestimated the cost of the Protocol by a considerable margin.12 The Administration pretended that the treaty might not have significant short-term costs in addition to its long-term benefits (Claussen).

The Administration did not have the advantage of an action-forcing event such as the Antarctic Ozone Hole to arouse public concern (Claussen). Instead it tried to negotiating details at future conferences such as The Hague to mitigate its economic impact through forestry credits. 13 Although the science was there, despite lingering uncertainties, the public did not feel the need for action.

President Clinton played the role of referee on climate change, deciding in favor of his Vice President to accept the BTU tax and allowing Gore to decide to go to Kyoto. He also refereed executive branch disputes over the Administration’s negotiating position for Kyoto. But he failed to persuade either Congress or the public that the Kyoto Treaty could be implemented at reasonable cost or that it was fair in excluding China and other developing countries from emission reduction obligations. His National Geographic Speech, a wonkiest event that he and Vice President Gore held with leading scientists at Georgetown University14 and his 1998 State of the Union were his major efforts to go public on Kyoto. Kyoto had the support of major environmental but not of major industrial organizations. But his Administration had successfully negotiated a treaty that included many of its key objectives and that it hoped would be improved by further amendments.

President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney

Lessons: The Vice President as Referee

Candidate Bush opposed the Kyoto Protocol during his 2000 presidential campaign, but he delivered a speech designed to blunt Candidate Gore’s appeal committing his Administration to legislation clarifying that CO2 could be regulated under the Clean Air Act.15

Once in office, Vice President Cheney and his staff strategized on how to walk the newly elected president back from this campaign commitment. On March 13 2001, the Vice President took a letter directly to the President for his signature, bypassing even the internal White House clearance process. The letter told key Republican senators that the Administration did not support regulating CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act (Bush 2001a). The Vice President left the White House to personally deliver the letter to the Senate just as EPA Administrator Christine Whitman was arriving for a previously scheduled meeting to discuss the issue with the President; the President told Whitman that he had already made up his mind (Gellman, 81-90). Neither Secretary of State Colin Powell nor National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice had been consulted. She would have inserted language promising to work with our allies to address the problem of climate change. The letter confirmed the worst fears of European diplomats about American unilateralism (Rice, 41).

A Cabinet Level Review Committee, chaired by Condoleezza Rice, was established in the spring of 2001 to study global warming. It was co-led by John Bridgeland (Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy) and Gary Edson (Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economic Affairs). Cesar Conda represented the Vice President. Bridgeland recalls:

Edson and I led Cabinet-level discussions with the Cabinet Level Secretaries themselves and came forward with significant policies to advance the science and technologies on climate change. We briefed the President regularly and he issued the policy in June 2001.
As good government types, we requested the latest science and facts from the National Academy of Sciences.  We summoned top experts—scientists, climatologists, former EPA Administrators, Pew Center, non-profits both advocates and skeptics, etc.
Kyoto was a non-starter. The key question was whether we’d follow through on our commitment to include CO2 in the regulatory regime (Bridgeland).
On June 11, the President went public and addressed the issue of climate change on the White House lawn. While noting the finding of the National Academy of Sciences that the “increase [in greenhouse gas levels] is due in large part to human activity,” the President nevertheless contended that “[w] e do not know how fast change will occur, or even how some of our actions could impact it.” HHH He called for a National Climate Change Technology Initiative, but he did not propose any limits on energy production from fossil fuels or any regulation of CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The Vice President’s position had prevailed.

In February 2002, in addressing a targeted audience at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) President Bush announced a Climate Change Action Plan that included a pledge to reduce the carbon intensity of U.S. energy consumption by 18% by 2012. The plan notably placed an emphasis on greenhouse gases that were not generated by the burning of fossil fuels (Bush 2002).16 As CEQ Chair James Connaughton recalls:

The President's Climate Change Action Plan included a component that required us to focus on non-CO2 gases. We initially publicly identified methane and black soot as key opportunities, and began to look more closely at the viability of accelerated phase-out of gases subject to the Montreal Protocol.  The President was briefed and approved this element of the Climate Change Action Plan, recognizing the power of the approach with respect to large and quantifiable co-benefits (Connaughton, 2012).  

Lessons: A New Lead
As his second term approached, the President took Connaughton aside and told him he wished to take a new lead on climate change. He sent him around the world as his “Personal Representative” to lay the foundation for Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate Change, engaging China and India. In 2005, the President issued a statement that “finally conceded the human influence on climate change”; also in 2005 and in again in 2007, the Bush Administration worked with Congress to enact new energy laws, including changes in daylight savings time, an increase in vehicle fuel efficiency standards, an aggressive biofuels mandate and a phase out of the incandescent light bulb! In 2007, the President personally convened a meeting of the 18 major economies (including major developing countries) to discuss national plans for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. And the White House authorized Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky to sign on to the Bali Plan of Action, thus facilitating preparations for the 2010 UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Copenhagen (Connaughton 2011).

The Bush Administration recognized that initiatives that can be under the Montreal Protocol regime to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With White House support, the State Department negotiated an accelerated phase out of Hydroflourocarbons (HCFCs), which were the original alternative to CFCs under the Montreal Protocol (Connaughton 2012). Unfortunately, although HCFCs are now being phased out as a result of these actions, many countries are now using HFCs as an alternative to HCFCs. HFCs are not ozone depleters, but they are very powerful greenhouse gases. So in the bipartisan fashion that it is typical of the Montreal Protocol, the Obama Administration has followed through to limit the production of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. At the U.S. China Summit in June 2013, President Xi and President Obama agreed to support an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase down projected increases in HFCs by 50% by 2050, a measure that if adopted by all countries could avoid a temperature increase of 0.5 degrees centigrade (Eilperin 2013; Y.Xu
First Term: President Obama Goes to Copenhagen

In his first term, President Obama initially made climate change a priority, but chose to place it behind health care reform, which in turn he placed behind the need to stimulate the economy. In his 2009 State of the Union, the President called for a cap and trade bill and spoke out eloquently on climate change in an Earth Day Speech and to targeted audiences on the promise of Green Jobs under the newly enacted American Recovery Act (Going Local). But he did not send a bill to Congress; instead he asked the House to send him a bill. Energy and Commerce Chair Henry Waxman and Speaker Pelosi skillfully struck bargains with major utility, coal and agricultural interests and the House passed a climate change bill in June by a partisan majority of 217-212 (Neustadt). However, the Administration lost control of the narrative, perhaps due to low-key presidential involvement. Its opponents successfully labeled the House bill a “Rube Goldberg contraption” filled with concessions to special interests and a “Job Killer” (Pooley, 325-326, 359-403).

In the Senate, Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham launched a concerted effort to draft a climate change bill that could be more broadly supported. But the Administration was not fully engaged with them and actually undermined their efforts when it gave away key items relating to offshore oil drilling and nuclear power that the three senators had intended to use as bargaining chips (Lizza). However, due to the economy and strong opposition from the Tea Party and industry, their bill probably had no chance in any event. As Judith A. Layzer notes:

(T) he Administration’s sporadic efforts to train the spotlight on energy and climate change, combined with its determination to characterize cap-and-trade as an economic boon, were not enough to overcome the inertia that has long plagued Congress on this issue. The poor economy, coupled with the efforts by Tea Party activists and other opponents to cast a carbon cap as a job killer created enough confusion among the public that, for fence sitting senators, simply doing nothing appeared to be the most prudent course (Layzer).
Theda Skocpol blames the Obama Administration for following an “inside” (bargaining) strategy uncoupled from a robust grass roots strategy to mobilize public opinion for action on climate change (Skocpol 2013). But she does not highlight the President’s decision not to prioritize speaking in support of the bill nor on industry’s aggressive campaign against it (Pooley 2013). And public support for climate change action was weak as the nation was still in the midst of the Great Recession.

The President did act administratively (Howell), ordering the EPA and the DOT to issue dramatically enhanced fuel efficiency standards for light trucks and automobiles and advancing the time line for those standards, as authorized by the Bush era Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. And he bargained with the major automobile makers for even more. The Administration then used these standards plus the emission reduction goals of the House passed bill as the basis for its position in international negotiations, at Copenhagen and Doha, when it promised to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases 17% by 2020 from 2005 levels.

In December 2009, President Obama personally travelled to Copenhagen and met with the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa. The Copenhagen Accord set a goal of limiting the increase in average global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius and requested that both developing and less developed nations submit national plans and take steps to monitor and report their greenhouse gas emissions, provisions that were spelled out in more detail in the Cancun Agreement of 2010 (Broder). And in South Africa in December 2011, the United States, in concert with the European Union, China, India and other key international players, signed on to the Durban Platform, launching the negotiation by 2016 of a new climate change treaty with “legal force” that will require for the first time that the major developing nations pledge to reduce their projected emissions (Eilperin 2011). The significance of the Durban Platform is that it envisions a structure in which all key countries (developed and less developed) will pledge to make “meaningful emission reductions on an appropriate timetable at acceptable cost,” superseding the dichotomous Berlin Mandate between them upon which the Kyoto Protocol was based (Aldy and Stavins).

Second Term: New Opportunities for Presidential Leadership
A new strategic plan is needed for climate change. The experience of previous Administrations and the contrasting economics and politics of ozone layer and climate change protection suggest that a larger presidential role will be needed on climate change than on ozone depletion--not just the role of referee of executive branch disputes, the role that presidents have played so far both on ozone depletion and climate change. After all, a climate change treaty would likely affect almost every sector of the economy and many more constituencies. At the same time, its benefits would be widely shared. To effectively lead, the president would have to assume the role of strategic advocate—speaking out urgently on the need to act and choosing the techniques (bargaining, going public, going local administrative remedies) most likely to yield success in a given instance. The new strategic plan must be the President’s plan in fact as well as name and he must give its implementation the priority and sustained attention that studies of presidential communication suggest are needed to successfully frame a debate (Cohen).
Fortunately, the constraints upon presidential leadership on climate change are in the process of being lifted. Galen Weber has shown that public concern about environmental issues rises as the employment rate falls, and it has now dropped below 8% (Weber). The economics of climate change are more favorable than ever due to the dramatic impact of new supplies and low prices for natural gas in reducing the use of coal for generating electricity.

As patterns of extreme weather events continue to accumulate, the public will increasingly feel the need for action on climate change. For example, a December 2012 survey found that 80% of Americans believe that global warming is a serious problem, including an amazing 61% of the public who call themselves “climate skeptics.” According to Stanford University poll consultant Jon Krosnick, these skeptics “don’t believe what the scientists say, they believe what the thermometers say…. Events are helping these people see what scientists thought they had been seeing all along” (Borenstein).17

So a discursive shift is underway in which the public perceives that the effects of climate change are already upon them in the form of powerful hurricanes, droughts, floods and melting ice (Carey 2011). It no longer needs to trust scientific elites to conclude that global warming is a clear and present danger.18

So President Obama now has an opportunity to become a strategic advocate on climate change -- by making it a presidential priority, by engaging national and international leaders and by pointing out that action on climate change is urgently needed but can be achieved at reasonable cost only if we act now (Ropgelj).

In a memorable speech proposing a ban on nuclear weapons testing, President Kennedy declared: “In the final analysis …our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air and we are all mortal” (Clymer).

On June 22, 2013, at Georgetown University, President Obama delivered a moral message to the young: “As a president, as a father and as an American, I am here to say ‘It is time to act’…I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” At the same time, he announced specific steps that his Administration would take, including a directive to the EPA to regulate carbon emissions from both new and from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act, an authority that the Supreme Court had generally upheld in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007). Unfortunately, his moral message was temporarily overshadowed by that announcement, which was roundly denounced by Republican congressional leaders as tantamount to an “energy tax” that would destroy jobs and raise electrical rates (Landler and Broder).

At present, the President is predominantly pursuing an administrative strategy on regulating carbon emissions; he does not have significant legislative options open to him right now. Howell suggests that “Congress can rarely mount an effective and timely response” to unilateral action by the President (p. 178). But sometimes it can. On September 20, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy proposed strict new carbon standards for new coal fired power plants, to be followed in a year by what are bound to be more controversial standards for existing plants.

Industry reaction to EPA’s proposed standards has been bitter and McCarthy has been accused of relying upon the new technologies that are not ready for prime time and may be subject to court challenge in that regard (Wald and Shear). Senator Mitch McConnell and other Senators from coal states have vowed to stop these rules. So she will need to engage with industry and state leaders in order forestall congressional attempts to delay or overturn these proposed rules. And the President will need to continue to deliver the message that climate change action is a moral obligation, perhaps in a major address to the nation such as the State of the Union. But speeches are only a part of strategic advocacy. The President’s actions and the pattern of his choices on issues affecting climate change--such as the Keystone Pipeline--will be as important as his words in indicating his priorities and in sending a message to the nation and to the foreign leaders whose support he will need in forging a new international climate treaty (Neustadt 84; Lizza 2013).

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