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US Congress a wrench in the works:

Why the Kyoto agreement failed

US President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore knew that the Kyoto Protocol would not be approved on their home turf, so they played to the gallery at the UN climate change conference in 1997. This is the conclusion of a group of Norwegian researchers who investigated the politics behind the negotiations.

Photo: Shutterstock (Photo: Shutterstock) Many have asked why the US has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And why does the US continue to oppose drawing up binding agreements to reduce emissions?

Researchers at the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO) have studied how the Kyoto negotiations unfolded 13 years ago, viewed in the context of the US political system. According to the researchers, the key to understanding why the US puts up roadblocks to a climate agreement is the way the US Congress is organised and functions.

Without the US

Under the Kyoto Protocol industrialised countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2 per cent by 2012 based on 1990 levels. The agreement entered into force in 2005 after being ratified by 127 countries. The US has not ratified the agreement.

“Just a few months before the UN climate change conference in Kyoto, senators in the US Congress unanimously adopted a resolution stating that the US should not be a signatory to any agreement that would mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions only in industrialised countries or that would result in serious harm to the US economy. The Kyoto Protocol did not conform to either of these requirements. When someone asks why the US did not sign the Kyoto Protocol, the Byrd-Hagel Resolution is the obvious answer,” explains Professor Jon Hovi.

An understanding of the US political system is crucial to understanding US climate policy.Photo: Shutterstock An understanding of the US political system is crucial to understanding US climate policy. (Photo: Shutterstock)

“But this apparently simple explanation begs another question: All of the parties around the table in Kyoto knew it was critically important to get the US to sign on. So how could they support an agreement that was unacceptable to the US Congress?” asks Dr Hovi.

Game theory is crucial

Dr Hovi has headed up the research project entitled “Bargaining for Non-Participation? Two-level Games and US Behaviour in the Climate Negotiations”. Guri Bang, Senior Research Fellow at CICERO, has also played a key role in the project, which was funded under the Research Council’s Programme on Climate Change and Impacts in Norway (NORKLIMA).

The researchers have based their work on political scientist Robert Putnam’s two-level game theory, which postulates that when two or more countries negotiate at the international level, they only consider those agreements that could be ratified by all the participants in the negotiations. That is, the agreement must have the potential to be approved by the countries’ national assemblies.

“Why wasn’t this the case in Kyoto? Why was the Kyoto agreement designed in a way that was unacceptable to the Americans? This is the question we have sought to answer,” says Dr Hovi.

Dr Bang spent a year in the US looking for the answer, interviewing many players in the American political arena. Drs Bang and Hovi have also interviewed experts on the climate negotiations in other countries and spoken with climate delegates, environmentalists and other researchers. The conclusions they have drawn are thought-provoking.

Vice President Al Gore played for the gallery during the Kyoto negotiations, according to the researchers. Photo: Shutterstock Vice President Al Gore played for the gallery during the Kyoto negotiations, according to the researchers. (Photo: Shutterstock) Putting on a climate-friendly face

When Al Gore and Bill Clinton came to Kyoto to take part in the negotiations, they had already given up hope of achieving an agreement that would be acceptable to the Senate, according to the researchers. Gore, who led the negotiations for the Americans, knew that he would not be able to get the minimum 67 of the 100 senators needed to support ratification.

“Instead Gore and Clinton set out to negotiate an agreement that would give the administration a climate-friendly face. They succeeded, but the agreement was so unappealing to the US legislators that the president and vice president did not even send it to the Senate for deliberation when they came home. That was how certain they were it would not be accepted,” Dr Hovi explains.

According to some US delegates to Kyoto, the US negotiators believed it was possible to get the Senate’s support for an agreement that committed the US to a zero per cent increase in emissions from 1990 to 2012. But when Al Gore arrived at the table, he said the US had to give more, and consequently the delegation ended up committing the Americans to a seven per cent reduction in emissions. Gore knew that US legislators would not accept this since the Senate had just unanimously approved a resolution that went in the opposite direction.

Lacked understanding of the US

The other major question is why leading players in Kyoto such as the EU and Japan drew up an agreement that the US, one of the worst polluters in this context, could not accept – a move that was in direct conflict with Robert Putnam’s theory.

“The answer is that they had a poor understanding of the US system. Many actually believed that if Clinton and Gore could sign an agreement committing the US to reduce emissions by seven per cent, they would also be able to gain approval for it at home. But that was not the case.”

Countries in green have ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Countries in grey are undecided.  Countries in red will not ratify the agreement. (Graphics: Wikimedia Commons) Countries in green have ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Countries in grey are undecided. Countries in red will not ratify the agreement. (Graphics: Wikimedia Commons)

State interests over party affiliation

Both the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent negotiations on a global climate agreements illustrate how important it is to understand US politics and the US political system.

“In the US there is no clear dividing line between Democrats and Republicans on the climate issue. Some Democrats oppose US participation in a climate agreement while some Republicans support it. As it turns out, it is equally important where the senators come from and whether the coal industry or other climate-related interest groups wield power in their states. We find very often that Democratic senators allow regional interests to influence their vote on climate issues,” asserts Dr Hovi.

Even with Barack Obama in the White House, a president who places climate issues high on the agenda and who had a solid Democratic majority in both houses of Congress up until the mid-term elections in autumn 2010, the interests of the states continued to take precedence over party affiliation for some Democrats on the climate issue. As a result, President Obama has also been unsuccessful so far in gaining approval for climate legislation that would pave the way for the US to sign a new climate agreement.

Written by:
Bård Amundsen/Else Lie. Translation: Connie Stultz/Carol B. Eckmann
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