Climate Change: Debating America’s Policy Options Experts Take a New Look at U.S. Policy and Offer Three Alternatives to Address Global Warming

Climate Change: Debating America’s Policy Options Experts Take a New Look at U.S. Policy and Offer Three Alternatives to Address Global Warming

June 14, 2004 12:28 pm (EST)

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June 14, 2004 - Since its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, the United States has faced widespread criticism for its stance on global climate change. Three years later, experts remain divided on the severity of the problem and on the policy responses required. Yet the matter is urgent, as greenhouse gasses continue to build up.

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To help address this increasingly critical issue, the Council Policy Initiative (CPI) Climate Change: Debating America’s Policy Options describes three options presented as "speeches" a president of the United States could give, to explain to the American people how the country could address problems of climate change. The options range from a cautionary approach to one that describes overwhelming and catastrophic results if immediate, drastic measures are not taken.

The options are:


  • modest precaution— managing hazards from a changing climate with a program of research and adaptation through new technologies;



  • re-engagement with an improved Kyoto-like international agreement; and



  • a "bottom up" solution, where policy is dictated by local needs and solutions to local problems, resulting in the emergence of markets for new low-emission technologies both in the United States and overseas, notably in developing countries.


“Our goal with this CPI is to present clearly and comprehensively the many issues involved in climate change and the range of options available to policymakers,” said Council President Richard N. Haass. “We use the ‘three speeches’ format because many of the critical federal policy decisions ultimately require the president to decide— and then to articulate the chosen policy and explain why it is superior.”

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Written by David G. Victor, Council adjunct senior fellow and director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University, the CPI was prepared in consultation with an advisory committee of recognized experts on climate change and other relevant issues. Victor is also the author of the highly-acclaimed book, The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to Slow Global Warming (Princeton University Press, 2001).

Highlights of the options as set in the three "speeches":


  1. Adaptation and Innovation: Argues that uncertainties in the science of climate change make it unwise to expend substantial resources attempting to control emissions. It recommends relying on voluntary emission reductions and advocates investing in new technologies that might make it less costly to reduce emissions in the future. “Climate change is inevitable, and thus investments in adaptation are essential.”



  2. Reinvigorating Kyoto: Argues that “climate change could cause abrupt and potentially catastrophic shifts in weather patterns or sea level,” and that the “only sensible response is the adoption of aggressive controls on emission to slow and stop climate change at its root.” The United States should therefore re-engage in international climate change negotiations and create a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol that contains emission reduction targets the United States could realistically achieve while also imposing binding emission limits on developing countries. The second option would also create a global system that allows firms and governments to trade emission credits in an effort to find the most economically efficient solution.



  3. Making a Market: Recognizes “the need for concerted international action,” but dismisses Kyoto-style solutions as an “unrealistic” and unworkable because they try to create a global emission reduction system from the “top down.” It instead recommends that the United States create its own emission trading system, and envisions an international emission trading system eventually emerging over time from the “bottom up” as individual national programs are linked together.


The CPI is designed as a tool for interested citizens as well as experts in order to raise awareness and inspire debate on this critical foreign policy issue. Instead of seeking an unlikely consensus, the CPI is presented in the form of a policy memo to an American president that reviews the relevant historical, political, and technical background to the issue and then presents competing speeches that could be given on the topic. The CPI makes the best case for each alternative rather than advocate any particular strategy.

With additional resources in the appendices and on-line at, this book can be used by educators, students, journalists, policymakers, and interested citizens to galvanize serious debate.

Founded in 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, national membership organization and a nonpartisan center for scholars dedicated to producing and disseminating ideas so that individual and corporate members, as well as policymakers, journalists, students, and interested citizens in the United States and other countries, can better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other governments.

Contact: Lisa Shields, Vice President, Communications, (212) 434-9888

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