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King Coal’s Climate Policy

COPENHAGEN – The United Nations Climate Change Treaty, signed in 1992, committed the world to “avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system.” Yet, since that time, greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar.

The United States has proved to be the biggest laggard in the world, refusing to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol or to adopt any effective domestic emissions controls. As we head into the global summit in Copenhagen in December to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the US is once again the focus of concern. Even now, American politics remains strongly divided over climate change – though President Barack Obama has new opportunities to break the logjam.

A year after the 1992 treaty, President Bill Clinton tried to pass an energy tax that would have helped the US to begin reducing its dependence on fossil fuels. The proposal not only failed, but also triggered a political backlash. When the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, Clinton did not even send it to the US Senate for ratification, knowing that it would be rejected. President George W. Bush repudiated the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 and did essentially nothing on climate change during his presidency.

There are several reasons for US inaction – including ideology and scientific ignorance – but a lot comes down to one word: coal. No fewer than 25 states produce coal, which not only generates income, jobs, and tax revenue, but also provides a disproportionately large share of their energy.