Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A brief legislative history of climate change in the United States Congress, 102nd through 110th Congresses

A brief foray into the State of the Union addresses given by the last four incumbents of the White House – all delivered in person to the complete set of members of both Chambers of Congress (and via the media to the watching public in the US and around the world) - offers a glimpse into the evolving relationship between the President, the legislature, and the issue of climate change. While President George H.W. Bush was perhaps not the ‘environmental president’ that he campaigned to be leading up to his election in 1989 (Andrews 2006), that he signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (which was subsequently ratified by the Senate) added some substance to his assertions that the United States government “owe the generations of the future... the certainty that here at home, and especially in our dealings with other nations, environmental issues have the status they deserve”[1]. President Clinton’s rhetoric continued in a same vain. Months before he eventually signed the Kyoto Protocol, he pleaded with Congress in his sixth State of the Union address in January 1998 that “our overriding environmental challenge tonight is the worldwide problem of climate change, global warming, the gathering crisis that requires worldwide action... We have it in our power to act right here, right now”[2]. With the inauguration of President George W. Bush Jnr., though, the pleading stopped. He was ‘unequivoval’ in his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, and left the Senate in no doubt that a ratification vote would not be necessary[3]. In his only explicit references to climate change in his State of the Union addresses - in 2007 and 2008 – he made reference to ‘technological breakthroughs’ at the expense of international cooperation, comprehensive legislation, or stringent regulation. In his inaugural State of the Union address, President Obama promised to act to “save our planet from the ravages of climate change”[4]. But he was faced by an institution which had never passed minor – let alone comprehensive – legislation in the name of mitigating for climate change. It is as if whatever was said, and whichever President delivered it, the noise would rise to the top of the Capitol dome to linger and diffuse; Congress, unmoved. The following is a brief legislative history of that (in)action.

The 102nd Congress: The dawn of international cooperation on climate change, and Congress supports it

In June 1992, 172 governments, with 108 Heads of State present, gathered to in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for a UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also dubbed the ‘Earth Summit’. President George H.W. Bush arrived in Rio as a “global environmental spoilsport” (Wines 1992)[5] and left without shaking that reputation. Throughout the negotiations, the United States promoted their vision of a world order led by Washington, in which the UN process was expected to bow to President Bush’s demands. Ultimately, however, while concessions were made, the United States did leave with a number of new commitments. They signed the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, agreed to Agenda 21 (which outlines a comprehensive plan for dealing with human impacts on the environment), and signed a new climate change treaty; the UNFCCC.

In preparation for the summit, two resolutions were passed by Congress, expressing their preferences for the outcomes in Rio. While a large range of environmental issues were up for debate in Rio – from sustainable development, to forestry regulations, to alternative energy research agendas – both these resolutions contained explicit references to climate change. H. Con. Res. 292: Expressing the sense of the Congress with respect to United States participation in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which passed in the House on March 17th 1992, stated that the President and his negotiating team had an explicit mandate to “negotiate international agreements that effectively reduce the threat of climate change and biological diversity loss”. A couple of weeks later, an equivalent resolution was passed by Unanimous Consent in the Senate. In S. Con. Res. 89: A concurrent resolution to express the sense of the Congress concerning the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the sentiment of the House resolution was echoed, endorsing the President to “support an international convention to reduce the threat of global climatic change”. However, S. Con. Res 89 placed some important caveats on this. In particular, in Section (b), it declares that, “the President should not support any action or undertake any commitment pursuant to section (a) which he believes would have an adverse effect on the competitiveness of American industry or that would result in a net long-term loss of American jobs”. After the various wrangling by the US’ Chief Negotiator, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator William K. Reilly, concessions from the ‘rest of the world’, and complaints from the White House, the UNFCCC was ratified by the Senate on the 2nd April 1992 without amendment, debate, or any complaint at all.

The 103rd and 104th Congresses: Research, not regulation

After this flurry of climate change related activity in the 102nd Congress, the 103rd and 104th Congresses were very quiet by comparison. In the House, H.R. 970: Emergency Climate Stabilization and Earth Regeneration Act of 1992, was held up in numerous committees in the 103rd, while two bills relating to environmental research were reported by Committee but never voted on. In the Senate, a bill was introduced to improve the workings of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (S. 2432), but never made it out of committee.

The 105th Congress: The Senate stamps its authority on climate change

In 1997, the roles of villain and hero were somewhat reversed from those that the President and Congress played in 1992. President Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore led an environmental executive in stark contrast to the administration of President George H.W. Bush. During his time in the US Senate, the Vice President had worked to increase awareness and understanding of climate change and global warming, and the 3rd Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP3) in Kyoto represented an opportunity for him to continue this work beyond the walls of the Capitol. Nonetheless, the US delegation knew that returning with any treaty that did not include equivalent legally binding commitments on developing nations and economic competitors, such as China, would make ratification nigh-on impossible.

The negotiators knew this because Congress had made its position clear in another set of resolutions. While some were supportive in tone - H. Con. Res. 106 mandated the US delegation to pursue legally binding emissions limits and H. Con.  Res. 157 called for the US to show leadership of a positive nature (in contrast to that shown in Rio) – the only resolution to be adopted, S. Res. 98: A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate regarding the conditions for the United States becoming a signatory to any international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (also known as the Byrd-Hagel resolution), outlined two clear principles that must be part of any treaty for the Senate to consider ratification. The resolutions states that:

(1) the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol to, or other agreement regarding, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992, at negotiations in Kyoto in December 1997, or thereafter, which would—
(A) mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the Annex I Parties, unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period, or
(B) would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States

The resolution was introduced on the 12th of June 1997, and passed in the Senate on a 95-0 vote on the 25th July that year. As such, a full four months before negotiations were due to start at COP3 in Kyoto, the United States delegation knew what it needed to attain were any treaty to be ratified.

The 106th, 107th, 108th, and 109th Congresses: No will, no bills

President Clinton entered his final year of office convinced that his administration could still put the US on the path “to reverse the course of climate change and leave a safer, cleaner planet”[6]. However, the 106th Congress failed to deliver the building blocks for this goal. In 1999, climate change bills had been introduced in both chambers: S. 882: Energy and Climate Policy Act of 1999 in the Senate, and H.R. 3384: Energy and Climate Policy Act of 1999 in the House. Both were sent to committee but were never discussed or reported on. As President George W. Bush took office in January 2001 and quickly retracted support for the Kyoto Protocol or any form of legally-binding mandatory emissions targets (preferring the environmentally inferior measure of emissions intensities), the Members of the 107th Congress took their seats again left two climate change bills to die, this time both in the Senate: S. 1294: Climate Change Risk Management Act of 2001 which was again sponsored by Senator Murkowski, and S. 1716: Global Climate Change Act of 2001 sponsored by the man who was to be President George W. Bush’s next electoral opponent, Senator John Kerry. The 108th Congress saw the first round of Climate Stewardship Acts fail (S. 139 in the Senate and H.R. 4067 in the House). These acts would become a fixture on the Congressional Calendar for the following three Congresses.

Tensions between Congressional Democrats and what was perceived to be an obstructive and climate sceptic White House were also evident in this period. Two resolutions were introduced in the 109th Congress which sought to shine a spotlight on President George W. Bush’s neglect (at best) and denial (at worst) of the issue: S. Res. 312 was introduced into the Senate on November 15th 2005, and reported by the Senate Committee on International Relations on May 23rd 2006, which called for an increase in the US’ engagement in international negotiations on climate change, while H. Res. 515 called on the President to hand over documents relating to the anticipated effects of climate change on the coastal regions of the US to the House of Representatives. While S. Res. 312 emphasised the need for US participation on the issue of climate change at the international level, it also made clear that the Senate would only accept a treaty fulfilling the same criteria (if not more stringent criteria) as were outlined in S. Res. 98 almost a decade earlier. Neither resolution was adopted in either Chamber, as S. Res. 312 timed-out and H. Res. 515 was never reported by committee.

The 110th Congress: A Democratic Senate comes close

The 110th Congress started off with climate change infiltrating the Congressional consciousness through various tributes to Al Gore, congratulating him on his share of a Nobel Prize for raising awareness on the issue (H. Res. 197, H. Res. 735, H. Res. 739 in the House, and S. Res. 349 in the Senate). The Senate Resolution, which was the only one adopted, thanked Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for their “longstanding efforts to promote understanding of the threats posed by global warming”. In the meantime, Senators were busy trying to persuade each other that these threats required legislative action.
The second session of the 110th Congress saw the Senate come as close as it ever had (or has since) to passing a climate change bill. The S. 2191: Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2007 was introduced into the Senate on the October 18th 2007. It was a cap-and-trade bill which aimed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by between 60% and 65% below present levels by 2050. The bill had some support from business as it planned to allocate, rather than auction, the initial permits. The bill was reported favourably by the Environment and Public Works Committee on December the 5th with amendments in the form of a substitute bill. That substitute bill, S. 3036: Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008, was introduced on 20th May 2008 and reported out of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works the very next day. From June 2nd to June 6th the bill was debated as Democrats sought to repel the threat of a Republican filibuster. Ultimately, they could not garner the votes to avoid this, and on June 7th, the bill was returned to the schedule, killing it for at least that Congressional session.

This was to be the final climate change related action of a Democratic Senate legislating against the will of a now lame-duck President George W. Bush. The following year President Obama entered the White House promises a phase-shift into the US’ approach to climate change. However, numerous battles abounded in the his first term, particularly once the House of Representatives swung back to the control of the Republicans and the Democrats majority in the Senate was severely cut after the November mid-terms of 2009. Implementing a sweeping legislative agenda – which included both significant healthcare reform and comprehensive climate change legislation – became an insurmountable task. And while the spectre of the COP15 in Copenhagen was instrumental in getting a House bill (H.R. 2454) passed in the 111th Congress. H.R. 2454: American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 contained the same emissions reductions aims as S.3036 that had failed in the Senate in the previous Congress. But the Senate’s form continued as its equivalent bill, S. 1733: Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, once again faltered in spite of the Democrats forcible legislative efforts.  

NOTE: This is meant as an introduction to some of the key legislative events related to climate change that occurred from 1992 to 2008. If there's anything you think i've missed, please say so in a comment below and i'll look into adding it. 

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