Is Bill Clinton’s climate legacy a problem for Obama?

July 21, 2009

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.

So is that legacy a problem for President Barack Obama, a Democrat like Clinton?

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)
1992: 6,140
1990: 6,084
rise 56
2000: 6,975
1993: 6,275
rise 700
2007: 7,107
2001: 6,872
rise 235

* 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)


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Blaming (or giving credit to) presidents for climate change, the economy and some foreign affairs issues is silly. If an issue becomes a crisis (or a hot button topic), they act, but only because the public demands it, Congress is oddly willing to do something, and federal agencies are mandated to act and given the teeth to bite.

If the economy tanks, most around the world agree that climate change will take a back seat to financial matters. Or look at Japan’s increase in emissions since it had to use more conventional means to generate electricity when a nuke plant was damaged in an earthquake. You couldn’t say that was the fault of the current PM…unless he created the earthquake.

Posted by Brian Foulkrod | Report as abusive

It must have been Bill’s cigars that caused emissions to rise so sharply!

Posted by Nikkei 225 | Report as abusive

I design and create emissions professionally. My professions in building engineering and electrical energy provision are the sciences behind any policy.

The problem with the politicians getting involved in climate change is that while I lecture this in academia, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and others are popular as well as connected so their opinion gets precedence over mine.

All of them are missing critical data on climate change and the cause of and none of them are returning my call. I completed several years and seasons of advanced temperature work to see how the same UV that burns our skin was interacting with buildings. Buildings are designed to reflect solar radiation or they will be radiated and generate heat they aren’t insulated for.

I have produced several infrared time-lapsed videos showing that buildings are being radiated and generating extreme heat. We are reacting to the symptoms with massive emissions while the buildings are still super heating the atmosphere changing climate. California is knocked off the electrical grid during heat waves treating symptoms when all of it could be saved energy. Air conditioning is in fact refrigeration which depletes the ozone while using 1000s of watts of electricity per home. Go to the link above and see the infrared videos from outside and inside buildings.

Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Obama, I have critical information for you and it will create hundreds of thousands of real jobs.

Posted by Curtis Bennett | Report as abusive

curtis you made a goood point when you spoke about politicians, media, or other non-science backed individuals giving their “opinion” on science based problems. its rediculous to think that a politician would know more about say, glacial melting then the scientist who has been camping there since the 1970’s.

Posted by louis ferme | Report as abusive

“Amazing” analysis and statistics …But the significance, the relevance and the conclusions are amazingly nonsense.

What a waste of talent(Kevin’s), of time (mine at reading & commenting) and of space (web)

Posted by Ed Almassalkhi | Report as abusive

Absolute 100% in agreement with comments by Bennett. Politicians sway to public opinion like the grass in a wind. Beyond inventing new uses for a cigar, or increasing their pay, politicians will only support whats popular. So we have biofuel made from foodstocks, wind turbines which are idle half the time, and hybrid cars running on Lithium batteries that are an environmental disaster to produce. To have a look at Bennets study, no matter how break-through, just isnt the cause-of-the-day.

Posted by JJ Bunting | Report as abusive

Is there a reason that you only counted 2 of the 4 Bush I years and 7 of the 8 Bush II years but counted the full 8 years of Clinton? Or were you just trying to see how much intellectual dishonesty you could get away with?

Posted by Statistics Always Lie | Report as abusive

Please keep in mind that in 2000, SUVs became more popular.

I am hoping that the Copenhagen agreement will be successful. We are running out of time to turn around our climate problems.

Please read my book Bee Quiet, due out in August, for solutions to our environmental crisis.

Posted by Simply EL | Report as abusive

Always Lie, did you even read the first paragraph?

The UN benchmark year is 1990 so that’s when he started and data is only available through 2007.

More like intellectual stupidity on your part rather than intellectual dishonesty on the author’s part…

Posted by Indolent | Report as abusive

Actually, some one like Al Gore may actually know more about global warming than “the scientist sitting on the glacier.” NOT more about the glacier – but very possibly more about AGW overall.

Let’s remember that (aside from being a veteran of VietNam war) Mr Gore has studied global warming extensively for more than a decade. So when he speaks, he is NOT – just another politician.

Posted by jmmx | Report as abusive

galbal warming because too many wars damage the emvilo ment.

Posted by yyo me | Report as abusive

There is nothing wrong with Al Gore and his passion about global warming, unfortunately his science is missing really important science that just couldn’t be seen before. I respect Al Gore for bringing forward the importance of climate change and have defended him in a forum that said to prove man was warming the atmosphere to save Al Gore. No one could have brought the issue to the forefront like he did, now he needs to see the up to date science and administer it as the professional he is.

Academia is literally blind to temperature and we use calculators in science. This morning, I did sequences of infrared images 5 minutes apart to see to see if solar radiation was impacting buildings very much. I start before sunrise so there is minimal solar considerations. When I finished it was 66 degrees F outside at 8:07 A.M. and building exteriors were as hot as 142 degrees F. That is super heating the atmosphere without C02 or GHG emission production. The building is only designed and insulated for 92 F. All the laws are in place, we couldn’t see it. Go to the link for time-lapsed infrared videos.

My job professionally is to provide sight of temperature to support professionals and administrators, etc. None of this is about me.

We bring the science and don’t advise beyond our capacity. Politics is dangerous because these new administrations have a 4 year term to solve the problems of the world and build an economy. I have 30 years of temperature information the world is looking for and my biggest challenge is to get it through bureaucracy.

These issues with climate change are species threatening for real as I am asked to work on salmon spawning, groundwater, etc because they are temperature sensitive. Today there are 3 forest fires in my area and it is horrible to watch them fight these fires blind while I image the fires through the smoke for education.

Radiated buildings are cooking the atmosphere and we are in more trouble than we know, I am calling 911 and no one is answering the phone. This weekend I will lecture in medical academia on a temperature issue called inflammation and cancer can be seen very easily. Medical professionals get education credits they need for licensing in the US. I have information that will save the US billions and billions in health costs, who do I call? I don’t want anything, our children will pay the health price for what we are doing.

Clinton’s climate legacy won’t exist if we continue on with science missing critical data that just couldn’t be seen before. Now it can and this problem can be addressed with North America leading the world.

Posted by Curtis Bennett | Report as abusive

Call it nonsense if you like but a problem in U.N. negotiations on a new climate treaty is that many governments around the world are wringing their hands about climate change and saying: ‘we can’t do much about this — look at the situation we inherited from the previous government’.
George W. Bush is the person most often singled out for such criticism because the United States is the only industrialised nation outside the U.N.’s Kyoto Protocol for restricting emissions.
Even so, I was surprised to see that official U.S. data show that emissions rose far less under his watch than under Clinton’s (…whatever the cause, Nikkei).
And yes, as noted in the blog, the numbers only go from 1990 to 2007 so there’s a year missing from George W. Bush’s record. It would need one giant leap to reach Clinton’s total, especially with the financial crisis slowing the economy in 2008.

Posted by Alister Doyle | Report as abusive

I truly believe they are putting it aside and not bothering with it, if the economy is doing good people will travel business’s will burn more energy, as home, and people will not be as careful, its not there fault, we are wasteful, they can only do so much to help prevent then its on us. my 2 cents.

Posted by Brandon Haynes | Report as abusive

Politicians will only “care” about global warming when enough voters use it as there major deciding factor in voting.

I’m in New Zealand. Al Gore came here once. He flew to the country in (I assume) first or business therby using twice the space of most passengers. He used a limo from the airport to a hall he was speaking at. He gave one speech to a paying crown. Refused to talk to the media or any other parties. Was driven back to the airport in a Limo and then flew out.
All that pollution for one paid engagement. What a fake!
Clinton came here during his final years as president and met with many people. He even did a walkabout.
I suggest that Bush2 caused most of his terms pollution in the middle east.

Posted by Martin | Report as abusive

It’s not only a problem for Barack Obama but to all mankind.
Governments should invest more money on biofuels instead of protecting oil industries worldwide.

Posted by Marcus Vinicius Pinto Schtruk | Report as abusive