Second-Term Climate Change
Obama seeks an energy policy that would accomplish little at great cost to the American economy.

President Obama speaks at the Copenhagen climate conference, Dec. 18, 2009.


It was characteristically bold of President Obama in his second inaugural to speak of the overwhelming judgment of science on global warming, given that we are well into the second decade of average global temperatures that indicate no statistically significant warming trend. The temperature standstill was not predicted by climate scientists, leaving them struggling to rationalize its significance.

In citing climate change and making sustainable energy the priority of his second term, the president is following in Bill Clinton’s footsteps. But in so doing, he implicitly acknowledges that the issue wasn’t the priority of his first term. The president who did make energy the priority of his first term never got a second.

Jimmy Carter inherited a raft of price controls and restrictions on energy producers from the Nixon administration. In the Democratic primaries, he had pledged to remove price controls on natural-gas producers, helping him win the crucial primary in Texas, but he reversed his position after he won election. According to his domestic-policy adviser Stu Eizenstat (who later negotiated the Kyoto Protocol under Clinton), it was the most fateful domestic decision of his presidency.

Solving the energy crisis was the centerpiece of Carter’s presidency. He called it “the moral equivalent of war.” In his first year, he gave three televised addresses on the subject, as well as one to Congress, and made countless appearances at public forums. Yet the more he talked about it — culminating in his infamous malaise speech — the lower he sank in the polls. As his pollster Pat Caddell found, Americans no longer believed Carter’s warnings about future energy shortages.

They were right. One of Reagan’s first acts was to remove price and allocation controls on domestically produced oil. The 1980s turned out to be a decade of energy abundance and falling oil prices, showing Carter’s energy crisis to be a politically created artifact.

In his first term, Clinton avoided Carter’s mistakes. Even with Al Gore as his vice president, Clinton’s interventions in the energy market were modest leftovers from the administration of George H. W. Bush. The Sierra Club complained that Clinton looked global warming in the eye and blinked, and the National Wildlife Federation compared Clinton’s energy policies to date rape.

The economy was humming, and the deficit was soon to give way to surpluses. Once reelected, Clinton could afford to prioritize climate change. By then, however, the cause had been lost. The most controversial item in Clinton’s first-year deficit-reduction package was Al Gore’s BTU tax. When the Senate spiked it, Clinton’s relief was palpable.

The loss of the BTU tax was enormously consequential. Using targeted tax hikes to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions was taken off the table and replaced by attempts at cap-and-trade, which were far more problematic. Quantitative restrictions, which could easily be gamed, rather than imposing taxes on carbon emissions, became the focus of international climate-change negotiations, culminating in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which the Clinton administration signed but refused to send to the Senate for ratification.

Despite the serious efforts Clinton made in his second term, his climate-change policies suffered from a major flaw. The Kyoto Protocol excluded developing nations from requirements to restrict emissions, and the U.S. Senate objected, passing the Byrd-Hagel Resolution by a vote of 95–0. Even if Clinton had found a way to overcome the Senate’s opposition, the approach prescribed by the Kyoto Protocol could not have worked. The treaty could have made sense only as a means for the West to show by example to developing nations that it was possible to cut emissions at little cost and that green growth was not a mirage.

But for the Clinton administration, compliance with Kyoto was predicated on the U.S.’s ability to buy emissions credits from the rest of the world — Russia had a lot of “hot air” to sell after the collapse of Communism. As long as the U.S. was buying other nations’ credits as a substitute for cutting its own, the Indians and Chinese would not have been persuaded to cut theirs and thereby shackle their economies. 

Obama inherited from George W. Bush a climate-change policy that recognized Kyoto was a dead end. The downside of the policy was that it was heavy on biofuels and the development of other wasteful renewable fuels. But it acknowledged Kyoto’s failure and aimed to include all the world’s major emitters in any future deal on global emissions. In this, the community organizer from Chicago, who presented himself as a true believer in climate change, followed the lead of the Texas oil man.

At the critical moment, Europeans discovered to their horror that saving the planet wasn’t Obama’s priority. When the Europeans most needed Obama to take the lead, at the height of the December 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations, he informed them that he wouldn’t prolong his stay there. “All of us obviously have extraordinarily important other business to attend to,” he told them. Flying back to Washington early, he collected the 60th and deciding Senate vote for his health-care reform.

The Copenhagen negotiations left the climate-change talks in disarray. There was no new treaty to follow the expiry of Kyoto’s first term at the end of 2012 — or even an agreement to negotiate a new treaty.  The best negotiators could do was to agree to negotiate a new treaty that would take effect in 2020, leaving an eight-year gap. The subsequent withdrawal of Canada and Russia from Kyoto makes it even less likely than it had been in 2009 that developing countries will agree to a global emissions cap in any successor treaty to Kyoto.

If Obama’s pledge to lead the world’s transition to sustainable energy is anything more than a political effort to piggyback on America’s shale-gas revolution, all it will do is unleash a feeding frenzy of rent-seeking by special interests.As Britain showed in the 1990s, switching from coal to gas for electricity generation is the only sustainable, pain-free way of cutting carbon emissions. 

Even if climate science is as robust as the president asserts, in the absence of a global agreement on carbon emissions, mandates and subsidies to produce renewable energy  will have negligible impact on global temperatures and on the weather. A 1998 study on the effect of the Kyoto Protocol estimated that, if fully implemented, it would delay the rise in global temperatures by four to 14 years over the course of the current century and have a minimal effect on the rise of sea levels. However, the cost of the attempt would be at the expense of the competitiveness of American business and American taxpayers and consumers. Unlike Jimmy Carter, however, President Obama can afford such a crusade. He got reelected.

— Rupert Darwall is author of the forthcoming The Age of Global Warming: A History.