The United States Is No Longer a Climate Laggard

Authored By 
Matto Mildenberger
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
Publication date 
July 15, 2015

For two decades, the United States has been cast as an international climate villain. Having rebuffed ambitious European proposals for a global climate agreement throughout the 1990s, the US refused to ratify the uninspiring Kyoto Protocol and then infamously abandoned the agreement in 2001. To talk with climate advocates during the long climate policy winter of the George W. Bush administration, the United States was a carbon-guzzling policy laggard single-handedly dragging the world into a climate catastrophe.

Yet, with the Obama administration’s recent executive actions on climate change, its time to rethink this out-of-date caricature. By enacting a series of ambitious environmental regulations, the United States has suddenly gotten serious on climate change in a way that few European countries can boast.

Europe’s pro-climate reputation dates back two decades, a consequence of early climate policy action. Nordic countries introduced the first taxes on carbon pollution in the early 1990s, beginning with Finland in 1990. Then, in 2005, the EU introduced the world’s most expansive emissions trading scheme. This policy caps the total amount carbon pollution allowed in Europe each year, and then allows companies to trade the right to pollute greenhouse gases in a ‘carbon market’.

However, early climate policies have not always been ambitious or even effective. While Europe remains on track to meet its Kyoto emissions reductions targets, this is more the result of deindustrialization and the recent economic downturn than European climate policies.

Above all, European policies have struggled to impose meaningful costs on carbon polluters.  The EU’s carbon market has been volatile, with the price on pollution repeatedly crashing to trivial levels.  Likewise, European carbon taxes have tended to exempt key emissions-intensive sectors and have instead imposed high costs on households. Across Europe, coal continues its climate-destabilizing burn. In Germany, coal makes up 45.2% of the electricity mix, up from 41.5% in 2010. Neighboring Poland thumbed its nose at the international community by hosting a global coal summit in 2013 in conjunction with its turn as host of international climate negotiations. In such countries as Spain and Portugal, generous subsidies for renewable energy technologies were overturned during the recent economic downturn.

Contrast Europe’s record with the United States, where a long policy delay has been punctuated by unprecedented executive action.  Climate advocates won a major Supreme Court victory in 2007 with Massachusetts v. EPA, which authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. The court decision empowered climate policy advocates to bypass legislative opposition to climate policy and directly apply meaningful costs on carbon polluters through regulation. Since 2010, the Obama administration has moved to restrict pollution from vehicle tailpipes, new emissions-intensive infrastructure and, most ambitiously this June, existing coal-fired power plants. These EPA carbon regulations involve deliberate imposition of costs on polluters in a way that threatens the economic viability of coal-fired electricity, one of the biggest US carbon pollution sources. Regulatory action of this sort would be unthinkable in many parts of Europe, where polluting industries have traditionally held a strong veto on environmental policy reforms. For example, in Norway the national government has had the legal authority to regulate carbon pollution directly through its air pollution laws since the mid 1990s, but has never exercised this authority.

Critics of the US political system often lament that special interests control the political agenda; yet, the influence of organized interest groups shifts over time. When fossil fuel companies are deeply embedded in the executive branch, as they were during Bush administration, then climate policy losers can block climate from even getting onto the political agenda. But the combative US political system also offers windows where climate advocates can force through ambitious policies of their own. When the Waxman-Markey bill to establish a US carbon price stalled in Congress in 2009, environmentalists were deflated and fossil fuel companies seemed triumphant. Yet, climate advocates may have won by losing, since the EPA’s regulatory approach is arguably more ambitious than anything in the Waxman-Markey package.

Of course, it is not all good news. Even the most generous interpretation of US climate policy suggests that the country remains well short of the actions necessary to mitigate the worst of the global climate threat.  US emissions reduction achievements are being facilitated by fuel switching from carbon-intensive coal to less carbon-intensive natural gas; however, natural gas is still a major source of carbon pollution that will need to be phased out in turn. Even so, perhaps its time to rethink the common fable. The EU tortoise may have been first out of the gate, but this time it could be the US hare who wins the climate policy race.

Matto Mildenberger is a PhD student in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and an ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow, class of 2014-1015.  His research seeks to understand climate policy inaction in the face of dramatic economic and social costs associated with climate change.