The George H. W. Bush Administration and the Framework Convention on Climate Change at the 1992 Rio Conference: An Exercise in PR?

Twenty years after the landmark U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, world nations convened in Rio de Janeiro for another global environmental summit, informally known as the Rio Conference, in June 1992. The conference was articulated around five agreements, two of which were binding: the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In this instance of global environmental diplomacy, the primary motive of the George H. W. Bush administration for signing the UNFCC was its willingness to appease both its citizens and other U.N. member states, without having to implement new and potentially constraining policies at the national level. Faced with growing pressure from a Democrat majority in Congress, vocal environmentalists and concerned citizens at home, and an international community demanding action, Bush initially declined to attend the conference, and only signed the treaty after it had been rendered politically harmless. In a press release, the Global Climate Coalition, a foremost actor in the climate denial movement, called for the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty, a clear sign of its ineffectuality. If anything, the Rio Conference underlined the limits of the capitalist system in dealing with «externalities», or costs that are not factored in but are instead borne by others, whether it be the environment or countries whose environmental regulations are lax or non-existent. The U.S. government, in particular, articulated and promoted a «no regret» policy, which placed economic growth above environmental considerations, in a reversed understanding of the precautionary principle. Based on archival material from the Allan D. Bromley Papers, Bush’s science advisor, and records from the office of Science and Technology, which coordinated the U.S. government’s environmental policy, this contribution highlights how the Bush administration signed the UNFCCC out of domestic concerns and pressure from other states, but never intended for it to have any effect on its domestic economic or energy policies. Far from outlining a way towards sustainability, the UNFCCC further committed the world to its unsustainable path, jeopardizing the planet’s habitability for future generations and populations residing in the most economically vulnerable parts of the world.