Climate Talk – How We Got Here and a Few Things to Do

Lindsay Abrams at Salon talks to Dale Jamieson, at NYU, environmental studies and philosophy, about his recent paper  “Reason In a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed and What it Means for Our Future,”

What allowed climate change and climate science to become politicized, or did the reality of climate change become up for debate just like anything else? 

This goes back to the first Ronald Reagan administration — particularly, its first two years. Up until that point, Republicans had been as progressive on environmental issues as Democrats. Sometimes it was for different reasons, but basically the environment had been a bipartisan project. When Reagan came into power, partially because he had strong support from the Western states, he brought with him a particular band of characters that some people may remember and some people won’t, like James Watt and Anne Gorsuch. And these people were very right-wing, libertarian-oriented, local politicians mainly who were very much against government regulation in every area. So it was really the Reagan administration that began to politicize the environment and frame regulation as a restriction on economic growth and a restriction on freedom.

Then what happened is during the Bush years, there was a struggle between some elements, really led by White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, who really didn’t believe in climate change, and others like EPA director William Reilly, who did, and who actually wanted there to be action. So things were relatively inconclusive. The U.S. signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, but resisted the idea that there should be mandatory emissions reductions, and instead argued for voluntary emissions reductions.

When the Clinton administration came into power, the environment was seen as a real strong suit for them. Gore had published “Earth in the Balance” and was seen as an environmental hero. But then during the Clinton-Gore years it seemed like the environment was just another interest group — and they had that interest group in their pocket. If you just look at emission trajectories and government action, not much was done in those years. We came up to the time of Kyoto and because the Clinton-Gore administration had done very little on climate change, they had to make sure that in the international process went forward and the U.S. was part of it. But meanwhile, by that time the Republicans were really mobilized to see Kyoto as The Gore Issue. Gore was now part of this international, U.N. conspiracy, if you want to call it that, to control the way we live in America.

So it was really in Kyoto in 1997 that the full politicization of the climate change issue became apparent, and it’s played out since then in an ever-more-alarming way —

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