International Agreements and Cooperation Examples: UNFCCC / Kyoto Protocol - United States as Non-Signatory

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In 1997, the United States Senate signed a unanimous resolution (95-0) rejecting any climate change treaty that did not include limits on developing countries (India and China in particular).  President George W. Bush was also skeptical of the agreement, and so the United States rejected the Kyoto Protocol.  At the time, the United States was the largest carbon emitter in the world (although China superseded the US in 2008), and its rejection of Kyoto was a major blow to the potential and perceived success of the international climate change framework.

Ever since, the United States’ holdout has been a primary concern of researchers, officials, and politicians around the world.  The key issue from the American perspective has been and continues to be the potential cost of Kyoto—or, more broadly, the cost to the US economy of any type of climate change legislation.  Apart from scientific skepticism expressed by some, the debate concerns whether carbon caps or taxes would be an undue burden on the American economy.  Outside of the US, the key issue is whether Kyoto (or any agreement) can be successful without US participation.  A related concern is whether and to what extent other countries can encourage or force the US to participate (perhaps, for example, through border tariffs or other means of pricing carbon internationally).

Other issues include: (1) the domestic (and international) political reasons for Kyoto’s rejection, and the political consequences both for the US and the world of that rejection; (2) the economic rationale for rejecting Kyoto; (3)  the extent to which the inclusion of binding targets on developing countries would help (by prodding the US to join) or undermine (because it places an unjust or unrealistic burden on large poor countries) the environmental success of international climate negotiations; and (4) the extent to which the United States’ rejection of Kyoto affected the decisions of Russia and Australia (the other two major holdouts, who eventually signed in 2004 and 2007, respectively) to join the Kyoto Protocol—especially in the case of Russia, whose signature ensured that Kyoto covered a critical mass of global emissions and would thus enter into force.