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Klima 3-2007

Climate change on the agenda in Washington D.C.

The climate debate in the United States significantly changed content in 2006–2007. But why was the climate issue placed on the decision making agenda just now? The policy processes that changed the American understanding of the climate issue and have given US climate policy renewed salience are discussed below.

When the Democrats overtook the Congressional majority in January 2007, climate change was given high priority. After ten years in limbo, a mandatory climate policy is now being seriously discussed in Washington D.C. In the Senate, a number of bills have been proposed – all of which see emissions trading as the best political instrument to achieve mandatory emissions cuts. The House of Representatives is also discussing emissions trading, as well as a hybrid including elements of a carbon tax.
Being in the majority, the Democrats had the political power to make room on the political agenda for climate change, but the question remains why they prioritized the issue right now. Climate change competes with the war in Iraq, energy security, public health insurance for children, and other important issues in American politics. So why has climate been given such a high priority?

A problem that cannot be ignored

Much of the reason can be found in the new way the problem has been framed in the United States over the last few years. A decade ago, climate change was not considered an important enough issue, and scientific uncertainty was given greater emphasis than the potential impacts of global warming and climate change. Moreover, the solutions and measures that were discussed were seen as far too great of an economic burden. Previous analyses have shown that politically it is not easy to promote an issue if the available policy solutions are unclear or unfeasible, and in American politics, climate change became synonymous with scientific uncertainty and expensive solutions – a difficult sell. This has changed, however. With the debate about scientific uncertainty largely outmoded, there is now room to present the problem as one that both cannot be ignored and requires political action.

Science and policy

The understanding of the problem is altered because key opinion-makers have laid the foundation for this change over a long period of time. Several factors have played an important role. First, the scientific uncertainty has been reduced: Both the US National Academy of Sciences and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have determined that human activity is an important factor in global warming. Furthermore, well-known politicians from both political parties are arguing strongly for the introduction of mandatory climate policy in the United States: Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders have all been unequivocal about the need for mandatory cuts. To some extent policymakers have also linked solutions for the climate problem to solutions for increasing energy security. Surging oil prices and a strong dependence on oil imports make the United States vulnerable, and by finding solutions that address climate and energy-security issues simultaneously, politicians have suggested how such policy change can have positive consequences. They are supported by increasing numbers of corporations that want climate policy enacted as soon as possible, so they can plan their investments for the years to come within predictable frameworks. Hence, in contrast to previous years, the business and industry lobby is now divided between those who want climate policy, and those who are still opposed – a situation that has exerted a new type of pressure for the politicians in Congress. This has been exacerbated by the fact that a growing number of states have already started to design and implement policy at the state level, and neither industry nor Congress want a patchwork of regulations that hinder optimal cost-effectiveness. Last, but not least, there are now more Americans than before who see global warming as a real problem, and fear the consequences.

Ongoing discussion

In sum, these factors have led to climate change being redefined in American politics to become a policy problem that is unavoidable and that requires political action. Because of this change in problem definition, the 2006 midterm election and the Democrats’ new Congressional majority became a window of opportunity that could be exploited to promote an issue that was ripe for a new kind of debate. However, as a result of the institutional requirements for agreement in both chambers of Congress before a bill can be made law, there is still a long way to go before we can expect implementation of emissions reductions in the United States. But more Congressional representatives and senators from both parties nevertheless say now that they support mandatory climate regulation at a federal level – a definitive change from only a few years ago.

Last updated: 08.02.2008

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