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 has been 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. 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 American politics, American scientific institutions have been effective in pursuing sustainable goals, 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 Republicans1. This included "mandated increases in the efficiency of appliances and required substantial gains in automobile mileage performance" as result of concerns about the environment1. 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 documents2, according to Sondre Båtstrand at the University of Bergen in Norway who studied the policies of conservative parties from a collection of advanced countries2.
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 industry2. 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 goals2. The USA is an outlier2, 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 passed1.
“[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 emissions3. 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 19903. Bill Clinton signed it in 1998 and in 2004, Russia accepted it4, 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 it3.
But President Bush of the Republican Party opposed it, and in 2001 the United States provoked widespread international criticism by rejecting the Kyoto protocol5 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.
Several industries have been caught out producing fake and heavily biased science reports, orchestrating so-called "grass-roots" movements that cast doubt on science, producing endless reams of misleading public-relations material and manipulating news outlets with fake think-tanks. They have well-practised and efficient methods for influencing the news and swaying public opinion, and the money and effort that goes into these channels of deception are great. They produce "manufactured doubt" using scientific-sounding organisations as fronts, to try and discredit the mountains of evidence that stand against them. They are expert at getting their content on to broadcast media. In every success they maintain their own profits, but cause long-term harm.
The worst culprits in spreading mass-lies in this way are: (1) the tobacco and smoke industry12,13,14, (2) the fast-food and junk food industries15, (3) those who sell most nutritional supplements16 and (4) the petrol and oil industries17,18,12.The worst outlets for promulgating rubbish without checking sources are the sensationalist, downmarket and popularist news bodies.
Oil and petrol lobbies have spent fortunes on PR tricks. They produce scientific reports engineered by their own scientists12, which serve to boost their own industries by deceiving the public. The Global Climate Coalition was founded in the around 1990, and funded "scientists and writers who would provide disinformation regarding climate change to anybody who would listen. For more than ten years they supported 'research' that would cast doubt on scientific reports" about the dangers of burning fossil fuels17. Basically, their reports were distorted lies, pretending to be science. Who funded this maverick outfit, which received a lot of media coverage each time it produced a report? It was Exxon, Ford, Texaco, General Motors (GM), British Petroleum (BP), and DaimlerChrysler17 yet there was no indication given in the mass media that these "scientific" reports were funded by the oil lobby - it was all presented as unbiased research, and done long-term damage to the popular understanding of climate change.
“Reminiscent of the way in which the tobacco industry previously poured huge sums into 'independent' research showing that the effects of smoking on health had been greatly exaggerated, so now the oil and energy industries are supporting science to challenge research about global warming and its effects.”
“Within months of the UN producing its first report endorsing the idea of man-made climate change, in 1989, Exxon and other big corporations started setting up pseudo-groups. The first and biggest was the Global Climate Coalition which was soon lobbying in the corridors of power [...]. As a single example of its activities, the coalition made a classic appeal to the subconscious feelings of its American audience before the Kyoto conference in December 1997, when it spent $13 million on TV advertising, aimed at reining in the Clinton administration. It pitched the whole issue as a matter of freedom and patriotism. 'America has signed many treaties... but never a treaty of surrender,' was the key line in one advertisement, over a photograph of the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War.
When Kyoto nevertheless produced an agreement to cut emissions, Exxon, in early 1998, helped to set up a new front group, the Global Climate Science Team. [...] Between 1998 and 2005, ExxonMobil alone spent $15.8 million on forty-three different front groups, according to research published in January 2007 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, who described this as 'the most sophisticated and successful disinformation campaign since Big Tobacco misled the public. [...]
A columnist at the Daily Mail [...] Melanie Phillips [wrote] a series of outspoken columns denouncing the whole concept of man-made climate change. 'Global warming is a scam,' she wrote in February 2002. 'The latest evidence is provided in a report published today by the European Science and Environment Forum, in which a group of the most eminent scientists from Britain and America shred the theory.' However, the forum whose work she was quoting was, in truth, yet another pseudo-group, created with the help of two PR agencies (APCO Worldwide and Burson-Marsteller) with the specific intent of campaigning against restrictions on corporate activity; and the report to which Phillips referred in such glowing terms was recycled work which had been funded by Exxon.”
“Opponents [of legislation to protect the environment] have embarked on a major effort to Washington to... modify, or defeat it. Nearly every environmental organization, the majority of scientific organizations, and most Democrats support the legislation; most spokespersons for the energy industry, some scientists, and the more conservative Republicans tend either to oppose it or at least to seek major modifications. [...] Representing the opposition according to Environment Maryland, a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization, are approximately 2,000 lobyists who have been engaged by American energy industries to identify flaws.”
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Aside from those above, some other industries have followed the same techniques. When we first discovered that we were destroying the essential ozone layer, the 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 body20.
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.