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Timeline: The Politics of Climate Change



February: First World Climate Conference

The conference is considered the first major global recognition of man’s role in climate change, and will provide the foundation for the United Nations’ panel to study the issue nine years later.

“Carbon dioxide plays a fundamental role in determining the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere, and it appears plausible that an increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can contribute to a gradual warming … but the details of the changes are still poorly understood.”
— Report’s Official Declaration


UN Forms Panel on Climate Change

The United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess available scientific data and the possible broader impacts of climate change, and to propose a global response.


December: The Kyoto Protocol Is Adopted

The protocol requires 37 industrialized nations, including the U.S., to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The larger burden falls on developed countries, because, the treaty argues, these nations share more responsibility for the current level of pollution. The treaty will enter into force in 2005.


April: Global Warming Skeptics Make a Plan

Oil and gas giant ExxonMobil had lobbied against the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it would be too expensive and that it put too much of the burden on developed nations. Then Lee Raymond, the chief executive, became personally convinced that the science was wrong, too. Exxon begins funding groups to research his theory, including the Global Climate Science Team, which writes up a national plan to challenge the science behind climate change. “Victory will be achieved when … average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the “conventional wisdom.”

April: Oregon Petition Circulates

What becomes known as the “Oregon Petition” is organized by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, a small group in the northwest, to collect signatures from scientists who believe that there’s “no convincing scientific evidence” that climate change is manmade. The petition boasts, at last count, more than 31,400 signatures — but only 39 are climatologists, and several environmental groups critical of the petition found questionable names, including that of Geri Halliwell, better known as Ginger Spice, on the list. The petitioners, though, say they remove fraudulent names when they find them. The petition is frequently cited by climate-change skeptics as evidence of consensus on the issue, and it’s still gathering signatures.


March: U.S. Withdraws from Kyoto Protocol

President George W. Bush declines to send the Kyoto Protocol to Congress for ratification, effectively withdrawing the United States from the agreement. The administration rejects the treaty because it puts more of the burden for reducing emissions on industrialized nations instead of developing ones. Canada withdraws shortly after the U.S.

“The president has been unequivocal. He does not support the Kyoto treaty.”
— White House spokesman Ari Fleischer


Feb. 16: Kyoto Protocol Takes Effect

The Kyoto Protocol takes effect, but without major emissions producers, including the U.S. and Russia on board, it’s essentially a symbolic agreement between the 141 nations who ratified it.


March: New ExxonMobil CEO Signals Change

Rex Tillerson takes the helm of the major energy company.

“We recognize that climate change is a serious issue. We recognize that greenhouse gas emissions are one of the factors affecting climate change.” —Tillerson, in an interview with The New York Times

May: Carbon Dioxide is “Life” Advertisement

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank funded in part by the energy industry, releases pro-carbon dioxide ads ahead of the release of the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. One, called “Energy,” shows scenes of people enjoying the outdoors and features the tagline: “Carbon dioxide. They call it pollution. We call it life.”

May: An Inconvenient Truth is Released

After losing his bid for the presidency in 2000, former Vice President Al Gore launches a campaign to educate people about the dangers of global warming. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, the documentary chronicles Gore’s personal interest in the issue, and the presentations he makes on climate change worldwide. A critical success, the film wins two Academy Awards — one for Best Documentary Feature, and another for Best Original Song.

June: Public Opinion Poll on Climate Change

A Pew Research Poll finds that 41 percent of Americans believe there is “solid evidence” that the earth is warming due to human activity.


Sept. 9: Fox News Attacks Gore

With the success of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore becomes the face of climate change advocacy — as well as the target of global warming skeptics. Fox News produces a report on Gore’s own carbon footprint, accusing him of hypocrisy for traveling by private jet and running up the electricity bill in his home.

Oct. 12: Gore Wins Nobel Peace Prize

Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In his acceptance speech, Gore speaks of the problem as an urgent danger:

“Now comes the threat of climate crisis – a threat that is real, rising, imminent, and universal. Once again, it is the 11th hour. The penalties for ignoring this challenge are immense and growing, and at some near point would be unsustainable and unrecoverable.”

Nov. 17: U.N. Releases Definitive Report on Climate Change

The IPCC, the group established by the U.N. to investigate climate change, releases a major report confirming that climate change is occurring now, mostly as a result of human activities. With more 500 lead authors and 2,000 expert reviewers, the report is widely deemed the most definitive to date on global warming.

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level… There is very high confidence that the global average net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming.”

December: ExxonMobil to Stop Funding Skeptics

In its 2007 Corporate Citizenship Report (pdf) ExxonMobil announces that starting in 2008, it will “discontinue contributions” to research groups that question climate change. Other funders step into the void, including the American Petroleum Institute and the Koch brothers, major donors to conservative causes. By 2009, according to Bob Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University who has tracked this funding, two linked groups named DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, will come to make up 25 percent of all funding for climate-change skeptics. The two funds aren’t required to list their donors, however, so the contributors aren’t known.


March: The Heartland Institute holds first conference on climate change

The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research organization that promotes free-market solutions, becomes one of the most prominent backers of groups that are critical of climate change, and its annual conferences become a who’s who of climate change skeptics.

April: Bipartisan Consensus on Climate Change

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and current Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi film a television ad together to generate public awareness of climate change. Seated close together on a loveseat, the two political foes say it’s the one thing they have in common. “We do agree,” Gingrich says. “Our country must take action to address climate change.”

April: Climate Change Critics Go to Grassroots

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by the Koch brothers, launches a “Hot Air” tour to oppose carbon regulation with a hot-air balloon bearing the slogan: “Global Warming Alarmism: Lost Jobs, Higher Taxes, Less Freedom.” “For a long time the other side has had the momentum on this issue,” he said at the tour’s launch in Washington, D.C. “We can win this issue… we’re going to take this tour across the country and we’re going to take this fight to the other side, and we’re going to educate our fellow citizens on this.”

May: McCain Backs Climate Change

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, expresses support for cap-and-trade legislation, which would require manufacturers, power plants and others responsible for major carbon emissions either to reduce pollutants or buy credits to offset them. “Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming or the precise timeline of global warming, we need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring,” he says in what his campaign billed as a major speech. The New York Times noted that McCain was the only Republican challenger to call for mandatory limits on emissions.

August: Democrats Address Climate Change

The Democratic Party platform calls climate change “an epochal, man-made threat to the planet.” Both major candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, back a mandatory cap on carbon emissions.


Jan. 8: ExxonMobil Advocates a Carbon Tax

Chief Executive Rex Tillerson says that ExxonMobil supports a carbon tax instead of cap-and-trade legislation. He also states that greenhouse gases are a problem and likely to increase. “These two fundamental realities — meeting enormous demand growth and managing the risk of greenhouse-gas emissions — are the twin challenges of our time.”

Jan. 24: Obama Calls for Cap and Trade

In his State of the Union address, speaking of the “ravages of climate change” Obama calls for a “market-based cap” on carbon pollution, which would cap the level of carbon emissions that could be produced. Companies that exceed the cap could lease additional credits from companies that produce less than the allotted amount, creating a financial incentive to reduce emissions.

June 2: Climate Skeptics Release Report

The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, (NIPCC), a group established to study the findings of the UN’s climate-change panel, releases a report(pdf) published by the Heartland Institute, noting that the earth may be warming, but that the cause is primarily natural:

“A warmer world will be a safer and healthier world for humans and wildlife alike.”

June-August: Carbon-Regulation Bill Fails

The Waxman-Markey carbon regulation bill, known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, passes the House, 219-212. The energy bill is intended to reduce pollution from global warming and to move the U.S. toward a clean-energy economy, in part by setting performance standards for coal-fueled power plants, for example, and providing funding to train workers for jobs in the renewable energy industry. But in July, the Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, says he won’t bring the legislation forward in the Senate, noting that he wouldn’t be able to pass it. “We know that we don’t have the votes,” he says. The bill’s collapse marks a major setback for the Obama administration’s plans to combat climate change.

October: Fewer Americans Believe in Climate Change

A Pew Research Center Poll finds that only 36 percent of Americans believe there is “solid evidence” the earth is warming because of human activity, down from 47 percent in 2008 and 41 percent in 2006. In a larger shift, only 57 percent of Americans believe there is solid evidence the earth is warming at all — down from 71 percent a year before.

November: Climategate

As delegations assemble in Copenhagen for a global summit on climate change, 1,000 hacked emails spanning 13 years surface from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia’s research unit. Global warming critics say the emails prove that scientists manipulated key evidence that debunked climate change and that they disprove the groundbreaking IPCC report from 2007. Several independent investigations later find that while the scientists should have been more open about their work, they did not manipulate data. The investigations also show that none of the emails affect the scientific consensus on climate change. The IPCC defends (pdf) its report:

“There is … no possibility of exclusion of any contrarian views, if they have been published in established journals or other publications which are peer reviewed.”


January: NASA Reports Further Warming

NASA reports that 2000-2009 was the warmest decade on record. The map at left, from NASA, shows how much warmer temperatures were during this decade compared to average temperatures recorded between 1951 and 1980, which NASA notes is a common reference period for climate studies.

May: New Report from National Academy of Sciences

The National Academy of Sciences releases its most comprehensive report to date on climate change:

“Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems.”
—NAS report

May: National Academy Warns of “Political Assaults” on Scientists

In an open letter from 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences, the group says: “We call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.”

Nov: Republicans Take Control of the House

Midterm elections bring a sweeping victory for House Republicans, including the first wave of Tea Party candidates, many of whom stridently oppose climate change.


Jan. 5: Republican Majority Eliminates House Committee on Global Warming

Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner says that in order to eliminate waste in the government, climate change will be handled by the science committee.

Jan. 25: Obama’s State of the Union Speech

Obama talks about energy, but makes no mention of global warming or climate change in his third address.

March: House Committee Votes Against Climate Change Amendment

All 31 Republican members of the House Energy Committee vote against an amendment proposed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) accepting climate change, as well as two other amendments with similar language: “Congress accepts the scientific finding of the Environmental Protection Agency that warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”

October: Romney Questions Climate Change

At a fundraiser in Pittsburg, Penn., Romney is asked about his stance on climate change:

My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.
—Mitt Romney

November: Gingrich backtracks

Gingrich, now running for the Republican presidential nomination, denounces the 2008 ad he made with Pelosi on Fox News, saying: “It’s probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years.”

December: Public Opinion Turns Partisan

A Pew Research Center poll finds a modest rise in the number of people who believe that human activity is to blame for global warming, up to 38 percent from 34 percent in 2010. But the partisan divide remains stark: While 51 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Independents say it is mostly because of human activity; only 19 percent of Republicans and 11 percent of Tea Party Republicans agree.


January: Climate Skeptics Turn to Schools

Texas and Louisiana require teachers to teach both sides of the climate change issue as valid scientific positions, while Tennessee and Oklahoma introduce similar legislation. Meanwhile, leaked documents from the Heartland Institute reveal plans to pay a consultant for the Energy Department $100,000 to develop a curriculum that teaches that the science on global warming is in dispute.

January: More Warming Reports from NASA

NASA reports that nine of the 10 warmest years since 1880 have occurred since the year 2000.

February: Study Examines Public Opinion on Climate Change

A report studies why public opinion has turned against belief in climate change: “…[I]nformation-based science advocacy has had only a minor effect on public concern, while political mobilization by elites and advocacy groups is critical in influencing climate change concern.”

August: Republican National Convention

The Republican Party platform mentions climate change only once in a passing criticism of Obama’s focus on the issue: “Finally, [Obama's] strategy subordinates our national security interests to environmental, energy, and international health issues, and elevates ‘climate change’ to the level of a ‘severe threat’ equivalent to foreign aggression.” During his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney mocked earlier remarks by Obama on climate change, to laughter from the crowd.

August: Democratic National Convention

The Democratic Party platform alters its language from 2008, acknowledging the science of climate change, and calling the phenomenon “one of the biggest threats of this generation.” Obama, in his speech, adopts stronger rhetoric, possibly in an answer to Romney’s remarks at the RNC: “Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future.” But the issue will hardly be mentioned in his campaign for the presidency.

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