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Bush and the Paris Agreement

Tags: Climate Change , United States , Foreign Policy , Global Warming , Innovation

Saunders, Paul J.

September 27, 2016

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A view of icebergs in Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland, where the melting of ice sheets is accelerating. © United Nations Photo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A view of icebergs in Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland, where the melting of ice sheets is accelerating. © United Nations Photo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

While President George W. Bush is criticized for his failure to support the Kyoto Protocol, it was his administration’s climate change strategy, notes foreign policy expert Paul Saunders, that helped shape the Paris Agreement into a politically workable framework for governments worldwide.

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The seventy-first session of the UN General Assembly, now underway in New York, has brought renewed attention to the issue of climate change, as some 31 additional countries have formally ratified the Paris Agreement reached almost one year ago. With 60 countries—responsible for 47.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions—now committed, and India alone responsible for 4.5% of those emissions, the deal may soon meet the 55% emissions threshold required for its entry into legal force. With the agreement nearing a reality, it is important to recognize the surprising extent to which the agreement—negotiated by the Obama administration—in fact reflects President George W. Bush’s climate policy.

Former President Bush was a target of harsh criticism for his refusal to support the Kyoto Protocol and his 2001 statement that Kyoto was “fundamentally flawed.” He and his then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice have since acknowledged the administration could have handled the move more effectively—Rice referred to the controversy as a “self-inflicted wound”—through advance consultation with America’s European allies. Nevertheless, the Paris Agreement represents global recognition that Kyoto’s failure to require action from rapidly growing developing nations while imposing binding greenhouse gas emissions reductions on developed countries could not work either politically or practically.

Indeed, the Paris Agreement and the Obama administration’s foreign policy that helped to achieve it draw heavily upon four central components of the Bush administration’s international climate change strategy, including “bottom-up” pledges rather than top-down limits; participation by all countries, not only developed nations; clear and verifiable standards; and cooperation to promote advanced technologies. That approach was pragmatic and solution-oriented, focusing on fostering innovation that would allow individual governments to reduce emissions without requiring economically painful and therefore politically doomed restrictions.

A Practical Approach

Each of these elements follows from the Bush administration’s efforts to correct Kyoto’s flaws. Most obviously, while some activists have complained that the Paris Agreement is voluntary (bottom-up) rather than binding (top-down), the Bush administration long understood that this was the only way to secure broad international agreement that included developing countries and therefore satisfied some key domestic concerns. Though few recall it today, during the 1997 Kyoto negotiations the US Senate voted 95-0 to approve the so-called Byrd-Hagel resolution, stating that the United States should not be a party to any agreement that did not include commitments by developing nations. The yes votes included 41 Democrats, among them Senators Joseph Biden (now vice president), John Kerry (now secretary of state), and Harry Reid (now Senate minority leader).

The Bush administration contributed concretely to the structure of the Paris Agreement in the negotiations that eventually produced the Bali Action Plan at the annual Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2007. The Bali agreement required “nationally appropriate mitigation” by developing countries, essentially overturning the 1994 Berlin Mandate, which had laid the foundation for Kyoto by exempting developing countries from binding obligations to reduce emissions. Bali also established the principle that emissions reductions should be measurable, reportable and verifiable, and facilitated technology transfer, another core element of the Paris Agreement.

In parallel with its efforts in the UNFCCC, an unwieldy process with nearly 200 parties, the Bush administration focused simultaneously on practical technology-focused cooperation with the largest greenhouse gas emitters. This eventually produced the Major Economies Meeting in 2007, something the Obama administration has also continued (and renamed). Though it may be surprising to some, the Bush administration initially proposed to call this group the “Major Emitters Meeting” but met resistance from other governments unwilling to identify themselves in this manner. The commendable Mission Innovation initiative announced in Paris—which commits 20 countries that conduct 80% of global clean energy research and development to doubling their investments over five years—includes many initial members of the Major Economies Meeting and builds on its technology-centric approach.

The Bush administration concentrated on innovation because the president and other senior officials saw that sustaining political support to stop and reverse climate change over the coming decades would require making clean energy less expensive rather than making existing—and essential—sources of energy more expensive. This was an important motivation behind increased spending on domestic energy research as well as several technology-focused multilateral initiatives that still exist today. They include the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions), the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy (slightly renamed by the Obama administration), the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (now the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation), and the Methane to Markets Partnership (to recover and use methane released in agriculture, coal mining, landfills, and other ways), to name only a few. The Bush administration hoped that these partnerships would accelerate both the development and sharing of technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Today, few who did not serve in the Bush administration remember the origins of many if not most of these initiatives or the underlying approach that brought them into being. If and when the Paris Agreement does become a reality, its supporters would do well to thank the former president who so profoundly shaped international climate policy.

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