Tom Burke’s Political Commentary: The US returns from the green policy wilderness

Published in ENDS Report (Issue 406, p53), in November 2008.

The US is back. The missing voice from the world’s environmental conversation has returned. It has been missing for a long time. Longer than you think. It is nearly 30 years since the world last looked to the US for environmental leadership.

There was a brief moment in the early years of the Clinton administration when it was poised to return. But those hopes were dashed when the incorrigible indiscipline of the Democrats of the time allowed the Republicans to gain control of the Congress. This did not stop some very good domestic environmental progress, but it restored the crippling environmental passivity of the Reagan and Bush years on international issues.

The mists of time conceal just how much US leadership mattered at the birth of modern environmentalism. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring lit the torch that was fuelled by a succession of seminal texts by Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, Herman Daly and many others. A host of campaigning organisations sprang up – the Natural Resources Defence Council, the Environmental Defence Fund and Friends of the Earth among them.

From our side of the Atlantic we looked on with envy at the size and capability of the US campaigners and the openness of their legislative process to influence. We were jealous of the activist role played by the courts in determining environmental outcomes and holding the government to account. We had no such ability – and still don’t – to make our government obey its own laws.

Environmental legislation poured out of Congress – the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TOSCA). Much of this legislation inspired analogues in the rest of the world. The reason environmental impact assessment legislation is found on statute books everywhere is simply that it was a central provision of NEPA. If it was good enough for the US it was good enough for the rest of the world. In a truly delectable irony, much of this legislation was enacted by a Republican president. Richard Nixon was one of the world’s less likely green heroes.

History has no plan. It is no more than a fortunate coincidence that just as the US was withdrawing from global environmental leadership, Europe was getting ready to take over. By the middle of the 1980s as the run-up to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro got underway, it was Europe driving global environmental policy forward against sometimes stiff resistance from the US. The signing at the Earth Summit of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity were both a consequence of European leadership. To its credit, the UK played a significant role.

Since then the world has looked increasingly to Europe for environmental leadership. Emissions trading was first pioneered in the US to deal with sulphur emissions, but it is the EU’s adoption of emissions trading at the heart of its climate policy that has made it a global policy instrument. Similarly, it was the US that first introduced comprehensive chemical legislation – but it is Europe’s REACH policy that has become the global model.

As well as sacrificing moral authority, when the US abandoned environmental leadership it put its businesses at a disadvantage as the rest of the world converged on the European way of doing environmental policy. The enlargement of the EU to 27 countries makes it the world’s largest single market. It operates to common environmental standards and rules. As governments elsewhere developed their own environmental rules and standards, the attraction of aligning them with those in Europe have become compelling.

Barack Obama was elected to change things. He will certainly bring about change in the way the US deals with the environment both at home and abroad. With effective control over both Houses of Congress he will have a strong hand. This will sharply challenge Europe’s global environmental leadership as the US re-enters the global policy arena with its own ideas and priorities. Americans are not natural followers. They will certainly want to play – but not necessarily the game that is now being played.

The policy that he and Joe Biden set out in their campaign is more comprehensive than anything the UK government has produced after more than 11 years in office. His administration will clearly reverse the stealth deregulation of the Bush years and reinvigorate all federal agencies with a role in environmental protection. Environmental science will be rescued from beneath the blanket of partisan distortion imposed by Dick Cheney.

But it is on climate change that expectations are greatest and where the future administration’s policy has been most developed. The dominant theme is the interlinking of economic, energy and climate security. There is great clarity in the Obama proposals for using the imperative for economic recovery to reduce the US dependence on imported oil and to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

He has pledged to reduce American carbon emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050 and to restore them to 1990 levels by 2020. He has also promised to immediately start setting annual reductions targets. These commitments are close to those that Europe has made, but in the wake of the lost Bush years they are hugely more demanding. To the jaded eyes of anyone locked into the interminable process of getting final agreement on the EU package they look impossible. But then equally jaded political eyes two years ago thought the same about a one-term African- American senator from Illinois becoming the US president.

Britain has long basked in a warm glow of self-approval for leading the world’s response to climate change. We have rarely walked as well as we have talked but until now this has mattered little. If President Obama does succeed in forging the climate, energy and economic imperatives into a powerful force for change we could quickly find ourselves left behind economically and technologically as well as politically.