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Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional

Print version ISSN 0034-7329

Rev. bras. polít. int. vol.55 no.spe Brasília  2012


An overview of domestic aspects in US climate change policy



Climate legislation has been one of the most controversial political topics in the U.S. since mid-nineties. Although discussions about global warming go back in time a couple of decades, it was during the 90's that the subject was remarkably affected by a growing polarization in Capitol Hill. From a domestic point of view, such an inflexible scenario has set environmental policies on a sort of inertia that jeopardized a would-be energy transformation in the early 2000's. Internationally speaking, the radicalization in domestic politics distanced the country from multilateral agreements for climate combat.

This article, published in Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, aims to explain to what extension domestic aspects have influenced U.S. position in international negotiations. Its authors argue that executive action has been constrained by regular legislative blockade on most climate policies. These constraints are due to economical and ideological reasons, and are more frequently associated to members of the Republican Party, commonly known as GOP. Democrats eventually side with its opponents, making it almost impossible for any Administration to advance on such policies no matter which party occupies the White House or which majority controls either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

The paper begins by showing that the dispute between those Executive and Legislative branches eventually requires the interference of a third one: the Judiciary. Only few months before 2012 elections, a U.S. Federal Court authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to rule on greenhouse gases due to its impact on global warming and, consequently, on public health. The decision was celebrated by environmentalists, officials in the Obama Administration and progressive politicians. It also opened a path for future steps towards a broader regulation.

In its second part the text is dedicated to introduce the topic on climate change and global warming as a borderless problem. As such it will not be solved without a wide commitment from most nations, mainly the ones responsible for highest emissions level. That is particularly the case of the United States, which only recently has been surpassed by China as the largest world polluter.

In the third section, the article shows some differences and similarities between Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations. Although Bill Clinton has taken some shy actions for implementing climate rules, any of his efforts were blocked in Congress by conservative politicians, most of them Republicans. Before leaving the White House, Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998. However, the treaty was never ratified by U.S. Senate and was later rejected by Bush.

An overview on climate debate during Obama's first mandate is explored in the fourth part of the paper. Regaining the presidential power for the Democratic Party, Barack Obama promised to advance progressive policies including climate legislation. Therefore, U.S. House of Representatives approved an ambitious law in 2009. American Clean Energy and Security Act proposed (1) cap-and-trade system, (2) reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 17% by 2020 over the 2005 level, (3) green jobs, (4) energy independence, (5) pollution reduction, (6) and new energy paradigm, among others. The approval was only possible due to democratic majority in the House. Despite also controlling the Senate, Democrats failed to get support from Senators. As it happened during Clinton's and Bush's governments, domestic debate on climate questions during Obama Administration was reflected in U.S. position in international negotiations.

Opposition to climate regulation in Congress reflects a strong lobby by interest groups. Miners and oil companies are among the most active ones, but a variety of other business sectors fear that any limitation, taxes or commitments will incur in profit losses. Basically this is an ideological discussion that involves government role and free market, as well scientific findings and climate denial. Above all it exposes the resistance among conservative politicians to global governance initiatives that are not led by the United States. Understanding those internal dynamics might help international negotiators to plan future discussions on global climate governance.



Solange Reis Ferreira
University of Caminas (Unicamp)
National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-Ineu)
Observatório Político dos Estados Unidos.


Kelly Ferreira
Programa de Pós-Graduação em Relações Internacionais San Tiago Dantas

Tullo Vigevani
São Paulo State University (UNESP)
Centro de Estudo de Cultura Contemporânea (CEDEC)

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