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A Brief History of U.S. Presidential Climate Change Policy

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President-elect Donald Trump has famously called global warming a “hoax.” Even more alarming to those concerned about climate change, Trump has signaled his administration would walk away from the 2015 Paris climate agreement under which 190 nations have agreed to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. Trump wouldn’t be the first president to challenge global warming policy. Some have questioned the science. Others have prioritized different policy issues. Others, still, have championed the cause of preventing man-made climate change. Indeed, the role of climate change as part of a national-level policy conversation in the United States has followed an interesting path. Let’s take a brief look.

The world first formally acknowledged man’s role in climate change in 1979 at the World Climate Conference in Geneva. Climate experts concluded, “The long-term survival of mankind depends on achieving a harmony between society and nature.” But the United States began focusing on environmental policy a decade earlier. While Richard Nixon is most often associated with the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation, he was also regarded as a staunch advocate of environmentalism — arguably having done more to protect the environment than any other president. The Nixon administration created an impressive list of agencies, policies and laws including The National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (1970), and The Clean Air Act (1970).

Of these new initiatives, the EPA was perhaps the most significant. With one agency driving federal research, standard-setting, monitoring and enforcement, the U.S. declared its position as a world leader in driving environmental policy. The agency not only signaled the alarm for environmental and climate threats like carbon emissions, but also helped shape policy to address specific environmental concerns. The EPA directly influenced fuel economy standards set by the automotive industry, helped phase out lead in gasoline, and prevented companies from dumping waste in oceans — all of which have directly impacted the global fight against climate change.

Other presidents have also impacted climate change policy, for better or worse. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement designed to help heal the hole in the ozone layer. In 2001, President George W. Bush withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, which commits nations to specific emissions reduction targets. Bush claimed the policy unduly burdened developed nations. Though Vice President Al Gore was passionate about addressing climate change, Bill Clinton did not aggressively pursue the issue. Clinton felt Republicans in Congress would have prevented any efforts, and he preferred to spend political capital on other priorities. President Barack Obama worked with the public and private sector to reduce carbon pollution and proactively grow the clean energy economy.

Of course, Congress does not need to wait for the president to step in before taking action. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has jurisdiction to introduce climate change policy, as do separate committees that oversee agriculture or energy. For starters, bills addressing energy independence, electric grid upgrading, or carbon credits can all impact climate change. The current session of Congress has introduced dozens of bills on both sides of the climate change fight.

Still, little action of significance can take place without presidential support. Trump will soon lay out a detailed agenda for his first 100 days and beyond. And we will soon learn where he might rank among his predecessors in addressing climate change.

To better understand the implications of policy on climate change, learn more about the differences between climate adaptation and climate mitigation in this explainer video from Dr. Sabrina McCormick, professor for George Washington University’s master of public health program.

Photo Credit: Matt Wade via Flickr

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