In the 1970s the USA was a world leader on serious long-term environmental issues, and its scientists rang many of the first alarm bells regarding side-effects of industrial chemicals. The USA joined many groups in protecting endangered species, oceans and fisheries. Much of this continued into the 1980s. But, this didn't last. The USA drew worldwide criticism for failing to adopt the greatest international agreement for the reduction of some greenhouse gases, the Kyoto Protocol, which was accepted by nearly every other country. This is despite the fact that the USA is by a very wide margin the world's biggest polluter over time, and very disproportionately so for its population; in 2000, it had 4% of the world's population but produced 25% of the worlds' pollution1. Starting with President Bush, it has been Republican Party policy not to combat climate change and to deny the scale of the problem.
Despite the failure of USA politics, its scientific institutions have been effective in pursuing sustainable goals, led by high quality and serious university-led research, managing to co-operate at state and local levels to improve the USA's impact on the world.
Under President Jimmy Carter, the USA managed many bipartisan (two-party) agreements between the Democrats and the opposition party, the Republicans2. This included "mandated increases in the efficiency of appliances and required substantial gains in automobile mileage performance" as result of concerns about the environment2. But, this was followed by a complete change from the Republican Presidents which followed.
“Two decades of bipartisan support for environmental science evaporated when Ronald Reagan became president. He and his appointees flatly denied the existence of either an energy problem or a threat of global warming.”
The USA's Republicans are the only mainstream conservative party that denies climate change in their official policies and documents3, according to Sondre Båtstrand at the University of Bergen in Norway who studied the policies of conservative parties from a collection of advanced countries3.
The USA's most powerful party sits in such an extreme and worrying position out-and-out because of the political influence of its fossil fuel industry3. But it doesn't have to be like that - Canada and Australia both have economies with a greater share occupied by fossil fuels; yet in those places the governments are much freer to pursue climate goals3. The USA is an outlier3, with harmful positions remaining popular and immovable, damaging the health of the entire planet.
"Global Warming" again hit the news in the USA in 1988, when American scientists such as Jim Hansen began sounding the warning bells publicly, after a scientific consensus on the matter had already emerged. But it was a decade where the Republicans dominated American politics. In that year, 32 climate-related bills had been introduced in Congress, but none of them were passed2.
“[Republican] Senator James Inhofe (then-chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works) called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people." In 1997, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution blocking adoption of the Kyoto Protocol by a vote of 97-0. In Washington, politics, money, and ideology were in ascendancy over science. The situation became even worse under George W. Bush.”
The techniques use to try to bury the evidence for anthropogenic climate change knew few bounds; active lies and deceit, suppression of science and scientific voices, and huge public-relations campaigns were all employed to limit, slow and remove control measures and to stop the public from understanding the problem.
“Hansen's book [Storms of My Grandchildren (2010)] describes his... interactions with Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush's Climate Task Force. We also hear about Hansen's experience in 1989 when he revealed, at a Senate hearing chaired by Al Gore, that the White House had altered his written testimony. In 2005 he again became the center of a controversy over censorship, as political appointees at NASA Headquarters tried to control even the basic temperature data that were being posted on the GISS website. When Andy Revkin of the New York Times exposed this heavy-handed attempt at political interference, the NASA Public Affairs officers backtracked and blamed the "misunderstanding" on a twenty-four-year-old intern who had faked his college degree and boasted that his job at NASA was "to make the President look good."”
In 1990 the US population was 4% of the Earth, but, it accounted for 36.1% of worldwide greenhouse emissions4. It has a moral obligation to help correct this damage.
In 1997, to combat Global Warming, the Kyoto Protocol aimed to lower the production of greenhouse gases; industrial countries committing to an 8% reduction by 2012 compared to 19904. Bill Clinton signed it in 1998 and in 2004, Russia accepted it5, making the protocol legally binding internationally as Russia accounted for 17% of the 1990 levels of global greenhouse emissions, meaning that over 55% of all greenhouse gases were accounted for internationally. Kyoto had shortcomings, but it was still invaluable as a symbolic statement wherein the world sought to act in unison to combat a shared threat and 73 countries become signatories to it4.
But President Bush of the Republican Party opposed it, and in 2001 the United States provoked widespread international criticism by rejecting the Kyoto protocol1 as soon as he was inaugurated. He argued that the US economy was more important6. The USA similarly scuppered the Bonn amendment.
“This ignorant, short sighted and selfish politician, long since firmly jammed into the pockets of the oil lobby, clearly couldn't care less. The talks in Bonn in July must now concentrate on world action independent of the U.S.”
European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström (2001)7
“We will not do anything that harms our economy, because first things first are the people who live in America.”
“George W Bush ... walked away from his international obligations. [...] Why? The answer is corporate payback. This has been the defining trait of President Bush's administration. His election was a straightforward capitalist venture for the energy corporations. Oil, gas, coal and nuclear companies are the power behind Bush; together, they donated more than $50 million dollars to put him in the White House. As soon as he was elected, it was payback time and Bush declared the Kyoto Protocol on reducing carbon-dioxide emissions dead and buried.”
Bianca Jagger (2001)9
There are people in the US government who wish take measures to reduce US pollution. In 2003 October an amendment to an inactive US global warming bill was backed by Republican John McCain and Democrat Joe Lieberman, which would have required power stations to reduce their emissions to the same levels that they were in 2000, three years ago, by 2010. This would be woefully inadequate, and "Senator McCain told the Senate that it was "a very minimal proposal" that should be the first step"10. Despite it being way below the minimum required, it was still voted out 55-43. "However, opponents of the bill backed the White House view that it would increase household energy bills and hamper job creation"10.
An agricultural pesticide, this chemical is agreed to be completely eliminated in accordance with international agreement on account of its dangerous effects on the Ozone layer which protects us from the sun's radiation. But, despite the success that both underdeveloped and the most advanced countries have had in eliminating its use, the USA wants to increase its own usage of it for commercial farming:
“Developed nations have already cut their use of the chemical by 70%, pledging to phase it out by 2005. [...] But the [US team at the Nairobi conference] asked to be allowed to increase methyl bromide use in 2005 rather than eliminating it. [...] US farmers argue there is no effective alternative.
But David Doniger of the environmental group the Natural Resources Defence Council, who was at the talks, said the US government gave in to the demands of business. "The Bush administration is tilted way over towards the polluters and caters to their wish-list of regulatory weakenings," Mr Doniger said. [...]
US negotiators said they remained committed to the protocol. But the head of their delegation admitted there would now be pressure inside the US simply to ignore its obligations on methyl bromide. Environmental groups are concerned that if the US does not abide by the Montreal Protocol, some poorer countries will also decide to ignore it.
Although the damage to the ozone layer is continuing, scientists say the protocol is having an effect and should eventually return the atmospheric layer to health later this century - but only if nations stay committed to the cause.”
BBC News (2003)11
The scientific community and the responsible educated world all agree that short term economic interests are not as important as maintaining the viability of life on Earth. The USA commercialist government, however, disagrees, and appears to think that as long as the US economy is bolstered at all costs, the Ozone layer won't matter. Agriculture in other developed countries get around the use of this chemical by using cleaner ones and better practices, and the USA government should be pressurizing its own agriculture to do the same.
Oil and petrol lobbies have spent fortunes on climate change denial since the 1980s. They put on fake conferences, produce pseudo-scientific reports that look and sound like science and they excel at manipulating social media and news outlets with slick and subtle campaigns. One technique is to fund research by a large number of scientists, and then to disregard all of the ones that come to the 'wrong' conclusions, and publish only the information that suits the petroleum industry. The intention is to convince as many people as possible that climate change isn't real, or, if it is real, that humanity isn't causing it, or that we don't need to (or can't) do anything about it, or, if it actually can be averted, that petrochemicals aren't actually a major factor, and therefore, the oil industry should be left alone.12,13,14,15
It is an industrial-scale long-term misinformation campaign, funded, often collaboratively, by Exxon, Ford, Texaco, General Motors (GM), British Petroleum (BP), and DaimlerChrysler amongst others. They, along with many rich and influential oligarchs, especially from the USA and oil-exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia, pour millions into corrupting politicians and contributing to outfits that are willing to deny anthropogenic climate change.12,13,14,16. The money spent on this denial dwarfs any of the budgets of scientific or governmental bodies that attempt to educate the public and it represents the single biggest self-destructive endeavour our species has pursued so far.
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When we first discovered that we were destroying the essential ozone layer, the oil industry reacted with denial and lies.
“Ozone blocks short-wave ultraviolet sunlight that would otherwise be a risk for all life on land. The primary culprit was CFCs, which were used as refrigerants and spray-can propellants and to clean electronic components. Billions of pounds of CFCs were being manufactured every year. In their defense, the chemical companies, through their trade organizations, began to follow the tobacco strategy. They dispensed millions of dollars in research grants and established several organizations for public relations purposes, such as the Aerosol Education Bureau. The industry promoted the idea that volcanic eruptions, not CFCs, were destroying stratospheric ozone.
In 1985, public interest and concern were stimulated by the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole. Suddenly the invisible chemical changes in the stratosphere were made visible by satellite images of the Antarctic. A counternarrative was soon developed, led by Fred Singer. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Singer criticized the "ozone scare" and asserted that there is no proof of ozone depletion or of a cause-and-effect relationship with CFCs. His thesis was that the science is uncertain, replacing CFCs will be difficult and expensive, and the scientific community is corrupt and motivated by self-interest and political ideology - the same arguments later used by global warming deniers.
As late as 1995, after the Montreal Protocol had banned most manufacture of CFCs, Singer testified before Congress that the scientific concern about ozone depletion was simply "wrong." He attacked the Swedish Academy of Sciences when the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was given for analysis of stratospheric ozone chemistry. Singer described his motivation in 1989 this way: “There are probably those with hidden agendas of their own - not just to save the environment but to change our economic system. Some are socialists, some are technology hating Luddites; most have a great desire to regulate on as large a scale as possible.” In 1991 he wrote that the real agenda of environmentalists was to destroy capitalism and replace it with some sort of worldwide utopian socialism - or perhaps communism. (All taken from Merchants of Doubt, which has extensive documentation.)”
Singer may have descended into paranoid nonsense in his social commentary, but his anti-science outputs had great influence - and still today, even though he died a few years ago. He received funding from Exxon Mobil for his activities, and, $5,000 a month "plus expenses" from the 'Heartland Institute", an anti-science, anti-government lobby body17.
This situation of large-scale misinformation can only be rectified by a strong government that is willing to stand up to the commercial-media free for all, but, during the period covered by this article the USA has had its politics dictated by commerce rather than by long-term good sense.