Understanding public policy in the USA: climate change

The climate change policies implemented by the United States of America are of particular importance due to the nation’s status as the global hegemonic power. Although in current times this power is waning, the United States retains much of its symbolic influence as the ‘leader of the free world’. In addition to this, given the large per-capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by the United States, the country has a global responsibility to enact strong and decisive climate change policies. However, at this stage, the US has failed to implement a federal ‘cap and trade’ system and is lagging behind other developed nations in its attempts to curb global warming. 

Historically, there was a large degree of partisan support and public interest regarding environmental issues in the United States. During the early 1970s, significant environmental legislation was passed, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. At this time, environmental issues gained societal recognition and became part of the federal agenda principally because there was strong public, and thus political, will to implement a coordinated legislative response. This was in the context of a wave of social and environmental movements that occurred during the 1960s and 70s, as well as a wider international recognition of these issues in the political sphere.

With the election of the ‘pro-environment’ President Clinton in 1993, he and Vice President Al Gore publicly acknowledged America’s disproportionate greenhouse gas emissions (GHG’s) and accepted the need for fair and responsible burden sharing to tackle climate change. In a shift away from Regan-era environmental politics, Clinton proposed a target to stabilize the United States greenhouse gas emissions to 1990s levels by 2012, yet this target never became legally binding. Relating to international climate negotiations, Clinton announced during the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 that the United States would reduce its GHG emissions by seven percent.

With the election of the Democratic President Barack Obama in 2008, climate politics appeared to take a swift change in gears. During his first term in office, Obama sought to reframe climate change as part of the larger problem related to energy and national security, thus attempting to bring the issue to the attention of his constituents. Over the past decade, there has been a growing tendency to consider climate change as a ‘security issue’, which moves it away from the realm of ordinary politics to the domain of ‘security politics’. 

With the peak of environmentalism in the United States occurring in the 1970’s, there has been a considerable period of apathy and inaction regarding issues such as global warming over the last 30 years. However, given the severe and impending threat that climate change poses not just to the United States but to the whole world, strong political action needs to be taken immediately to mitigate the effects of climate change and prevent the earth from passing dangerous tipping points.

The Obama administration is taking action to combat climate change. In June 2013, President Obama outlined the Climate Action Plan — the steps his Administration would take to cut carbon pollution, help prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change, and continue to lead international efforts to address global climate change. 

The United States is leading global efforts to address the threat of climate change. Since 2005, the United States has reduced its total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth. Wind power has tripled, and energy from the sun has increased tenfold. President Obama has taken a series of common-sense steps to curb carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases through initiatives that drive energy efficiency, promote clean energy, and put in place the first-ever carbon pollution standards for power plants.

Resources for this article: https://www.whitehouse.gov/energy/climate-change