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The US view of climate change has shifted since 1997 - more is needed

By Eileen Claussen - posted Monday, 15 September 2003

The past six years have seen real progress in how we think about climate change and what we are doing to address it. In 1997 the debate on this issue was whether to do anything. There were many, in the scientific, environmental and government communities, saying we had a very serious problem, and others, in industry, in the States, and in the Congress who either didn't believe it was a problem or there was any rush to deal with it.

Now the debate is about what to do and when to do it. Even President Bush had to re-think after he assigned the National Academy of Sciences to look into the matter and they reported: "GHGs are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise."

The changes observed are most likely due to human activities. While natural variability may have contributed as well the main point remains; the earth is warming and humans have some responsibility for that warming.


Back in 1997, the nations of the world gathered in Kyoto to establish binding limits on worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases. The Kyoto Protocol was derided by some in the United States as a fantasy, impractical to implement and unfair in that it did not enlist developing countries in this "global" effort.

While some criticisms of the Protocol were and remain well founded, 111 countries have ratified this watershed agreement, and its entry into force only awaits action by Russia. What's more, now the focus has shifted from negotiation to implementation, we are seeing the beginnings of serious discussion about what comes after the first budget period in Kyoto and how to engage developing countries, as well as the United States, in the global effort to reduce emissions.

We also are seeing the countries that are part of Kyoto starting to get serious about achieving its goals. The European Union has adopted a carbon dioxide emission-trading program and Great Britain has committed to a 60 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In 1997 the perception was that business adamantly opposed doing anything about climate change. Then things started to change. Lord John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum (BP), announced that his company accepted the science that global warming is caused in large part by the burning of fossil fuels. Browne went on to pledge that BP would voluntarily reduce its global greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent below 1990 levels before 2010. It has met that target already, eight years ahead of schedule.

In the six years since making its pledge, BP and 37 other companies have joined in the Pew Center's Business Environmental Leadership Council, which is committed to achieving real progress on this issue. Twenty-three of these companies, BP included, now have specific targets for reducing emissions and several more will announce targets in the coming months.

These companies have moved from acknowledging the science about climate change to showing what can be done to create a climate-friendly future while maintaining our economic competitiveness to becoming advocates for strong government requirements to address this issue.


In 1997, global climate change was not a priority at the state level. Today, a majority of states have programs that, while not necessarily directed at climate change, are achieving real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

On Capitol Hill in 1997 the only congressional action on this issue came as requirements that the United States do nothing. The Byrd-Hagel resolution, passed unanimously in the Senate, laid out strong reservations about the Kyoto Protocol without offering any alternative. There were other amendments and so-called "riders" to appropriation bills that sought to prohibit the State Department, the EPA and other agencies from doing anything whatsoever.

In 2003, instead of Byrd-Hagel, we now have Byrd-Stevens - a measure establishing a White House office dedicated to formulating a national strategy to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations.

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Article edited by Ian Spooner.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited version of a speech given to the Environmental Council of the States in Salt Lake City on 11 August 2003. Click here for the full text.

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About the Author

Eileen Claussen is President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

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