Climate Change: The Failure of American Politics

As Howe points out in the concluding paragraphs of this chapter, the failure of the Kyoto Protocol was ultimately “an American one” (195). Howe largely attributes this failure to the “economic precautionary principle” of the Bush Sr. administration. While environmental/climate change advocates pushed for an environmental precautionary principle that assumes that “an action or policy that may be harmful to the environment ought to be considered harmful until it is proven otherwise,” the Bush Sr. administration’s economic precautionary principle assumed that “any action or policy to curb environmental degradation was assumed to represent an economic threat unless proven otherwise” (184). As these two principles contradict one another, the United States’ protection of the economy therefore negatively impacts environmental policy.

In simpler terms, American emphasis and overbearing concern with economic prosperity directly led to the failure of the Kyoto Protocol in the United States. Regarding this, Howe writes that this decision led to an accentuation on “a long-standing tradition of prioritizing economic interests above all else in American foreign policy decision making” (194). For many American administrations, the risk to the economy outweighs the benefit of cutting emissions.

From my understanding, the United States’ resistance to join and comply with international agreements on climate change has a lot to do with our status as a global power. Throughout the article, Howe discusses the problem of developing nations in climate change agreements. In the Byrd-Hagel agreement, the first qualifier reads that the Senate would not ratify a treaty that would “‘mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions’ without ‘new specific schedules to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties’” (190). With the UNFCCC in particular, member country separation into groups of Annex I/developed countries and Annex II/developing countries created a problem for the United States as the agreement stated that developed nations “bore a responsibility to help fund emissions reductions and sustainable development in the developing world” (182). This meant that the U.S. would be responsible for supporting foreign countries in their effort to cut emissions as well as cutting emissions themselves. As the United States moved towards more “domestic” concerns, having to help developing countries felt like an unnecessary economic burden.

Secondly, in addition to economic concerns, I feel that the “binding” nature of treaties and agreements is a big turn-off for American politicians. As Howe quotes in the chapter, conservative politician William Reilly referred to binding international commitments as an “economic straight-jacket.” Americans romanticize freedom and binding international agreements prove to be too much of an infringement on our right to move and work freely.

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