The administration of President George H.W. Bush has received mixed reviews from historians and environmentalists for its handling of the global warming issue. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, came into office in 1988, having promised during the campaign that he would be the "environmental president." Over the next four years, Bush won praise from the environmental community for pushing needed revisions of the Clean Air Act through Congress. However, Bush was also criticized for his handling of several environmental issues, in particular, wetlands conservation, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and global warming. Faced with mounting scientific evidence for human-caused global warming and calls from European allies to take strong steps to reduce carbon emissions, Bush warned against the likely economic impact of mandatory reduction programs, and called for further study of the nature and extent of global climate change.
Bush’s cautious positionon global warming surprised many, because his campaign rhetoric had appeared to signal an intention to take a more aggressive stance. In one of his most famous campaign speeches, Bush stood in front of Boston Harbor and contrasted his environmental credentials with those of his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. On the subject of climate change, Bush declared: those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect. As president, I intend to do something about it. Specifically, Bush pledged to host an international conference on global warming within a year of taking office. Bush’s apparent resolve was remarkable, in particular because his predecessor in the White House, Ronald Reagan, had been reluctant, until his tenure as president was nearly over, even to acknowledge global warming as a potential problem.
As president, however, Bush charted a significantly less-ambitious path on climate change than environmentalists had hoped. The United States did not host a global warming conference in 1988, despite proposals put forth by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William. As calls mounted for Bush to keep his campaign promises on global warming, White House officials went on the offensive against critics of the president. Spokesman Marlon Fitzwater repeatedly warned of potentially drastic consequences for the U.S. economy posed by proposed solutions to global warming, such as a carbon tax or restrictions on coal-fired power plants. Fitzwater’s comments reflected a growing tendency within the Bush administration to see the economic costs of an aggressive stance on global warming as too high for comfort.
Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, a noted mechanical engineer, also questioned the veracity of global warming science, in particular the ability of computer models to predict long-term changes in climate. In a scandal that outraged many in Congress, including Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, a junior official at the White House Office of Management and Budget secretly edited the congressional testimony of National Air and Space Administration (NASA) Institute of Space Studies Director James Hansen, to weaken Hansen’s conclusion that global warming was accelerating. Most significantly, the White House initially eschewed international efforts to develop a comprehensive strategy to fight climate change under the auspices of the United Nations. This last development, though less sensational than the editing of Hansen’s testimony (an incident from which the Bush Administration immediately distanced itself), portended that little action on global warming would be taken while Bush was in office.
A steady stream of criticism ultimately moved the Bush Administration to take a more active role in international efforts to study and address global warming, but the president still fell short of satisfying the demands of most environmentalists in the United States and abroad. The White House hosted a conference on global warming in Virginia in 1990, and agreed to take part in international negotiations on a climate change treaty, starting with talks in Geneva in 1989. These negotiations ultimately produced the Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed by 154 nations at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, at Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
The Framework Convention was a step forward in efforts to combat global warming, but many blamed Bush for the treaty’s relative toothlessness. The Bush Administration engaged in Cold War-style brinkmanship with the rest of the international community over the Framework Convention, a strategy that epitomized all that environmentalists found most frustrating about the Bush presidency. Though the Earth Summit was to be attended by over 150 heads of state, including those from each of the world’s major industrialized nations, Bush claimed that the United States would not attend unless its demands were met. Well aware that the conference would be all but meaningless without the participation of the United States, treaty negotiators acquiesced to many of Bush’s demands. At the insistence of the Bush Administration, the Framework Convention did not require specific reductions in carbon emissions from any nation, but, rather, directed each nation to reduce its emissions in such a manner, and by such an amount, as suited its own circumstances.
This lack of mandatory cuts in carbon emissions was a severe disappointment to many of the parties involved in producing the treaty. However, the convention also mandated annual Conferences of the Parties, in order to continually update efforts to address global warming. The Kyoto Protocol, which established legally-binding emissions reduction targets for the first time, was the result of the 1997 Conference of the Parties in Kyoto, Japan.
Though more engaged with the issue of global warming than his predecessor in the White House, George H.W. Bush proved a disappointment to many environmentalists. However, Bush’s actions against global warming nonetheless paid important dividends. Bush’s leadership on revisions to the Clean Air Act indirectly aided in the fight against global warming, by making it harder to build coal-fired power plants. Most importantly, the Framework Convention, though weaker than many had hoped, created a framework for future negotiations through which nations could work together to address global warming. The Kyoto Protocol would not have happened without the foundation of the Framework Convention, and future international efforts may also rely on channels laid down through this treaty, which Bush helped to bring to fruition.