Is Bill Clinton’s climate legacy a problem for Obama?
Who was president when U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose most sharply since 1990, the U.N. benchmark year for action to fight climate change?
— George W. Bush (2001-2007)
— Bill Clinton (1993-2000)
— George H.W. Bush (1990-1992)
(I’m giving presidents responsibility for the full calendar year of their inauguration in January; official U.S. data are only available until 2007)
Answer — Bill Clinton (by a long way).
Many people might have thought the worst scorecard was by George W. Bush, who gave up plans to implement the 1997 Kyoto Protocol for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, signed by the Clinton administration but never submitted to a hostile Senate for ratification.
But emissions rose by more than twice as much in the Clinton years, when climate campaigner Al Gore was vice president, as during the combined years when two Bush presidents, father and son, were in the White House since 1990.
At U.N. negotiations on a new climate treaty due to be agreed in Copenhagen in December, many nations welcome promises by Obama of far tougher action than Bush for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. But there are nagging memories of unkept promises — Clinton’s administration agreed to cut U.S. emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12 as part of the Kyoto Protocol. In 2000, Clinton’s last full year, U.S. emissions were 15 percent above 1990 levels.
Of course there are excuses — the economy grew strongly during the Clinton years, bringing pressure for higher emissions, and the Senate opposed action. In 1997, the Senate voted 95-0 against key principles later built into the Kyoto Protocol.
The Bush administrations failed to keep U.S. commitments too — in 1992, George H.W. Bush agreed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (the parent treaty of Kyoto which was ratified by the Senate) which set a non-binding goal of returning emissions to 1990 levels by 2000.
U.S. GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS (millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent)
PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH
* A rise of 700 million tonnes is about as much as the annual emissions of a country such as Britain, France or Canada. Under the combined Bush presidencies, emissions rose by 291 million tonnes.
(Source; official U.S. submissions to U.N. Climate Change Secretariat)
George W. Bush has suffered years of criticism by U.S. allies for failing to do more to combat global warming. But maybe Obama can’t just blame Bush?
(Photos: TOP: U.S. President George W. Bush, flanked by former Presidents Bill Clinton (L) and George H. Bush, speaks about relief efforts from hurricane Katrina in the Oval Office of the White House, September 1, 2005. RIGHT: A protester holds up a sign at a demonstration at the State Department in Washington September 27, 2007 during a meeting of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters — including the United States and China. Both pictures by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)