National Security Archive: The Clinton White House and Climate Change: The Struggle to Restore U.S. Leadership

11 December 2015 — National Security Archive

The Clinton White House and Climate Change: The Struggle to Restore U.S. Leadership

Early U.S. Optimism Frustrated by Disputes over Greenhouse Gas Goals, Role of Developed and Developing Countries, Other Enduring Challenges

High-Level Documents Track Internal Debates and Public Disappointments, Prefiguring the Road to Paris 2015

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book #537

Edited by Robert A. Wampler, PhD

For more information contact: Robert A. Wampler, 202/994-7000 or

Washington, D.C., December 11, 2015 – The Clinton administration came to office in 1993 determined to restore the United States as the preeminent global protector of the environment, but saw its hopes for a major climate treaty run aground on a series of international and domestic political and procedural setbacks, according to a selection of declassified and previously unpublished records posted today by the nongovernmental National Security Archive, based at The George Washington University (

President Bill Clinton’s aims and experiences, as reflected in the documents, provide an illuminating backdrop for President Barack Obama’s high-profile foray onto the same difficult turf at the Paris climate summit these past two weeks. The National Security Archive obtained the documents in this posting under the Freedom of Information Act. This is the second in a series of web compilations on United States policy toward climate change. The first compilation covered the Reagan and Bush 41 presidencies and appeared on December 2, 2015.

The records in today‘s posting string together a sobering narrative that opens with American officials sharing optimistic visions of recapturing for the United States a leading role on climate matters, following what the Clinton White House saw as an abdication of leadership by the George H.W. Bush administration. Over the course of Clinton’s presidency, a laundry list of differences arose among key international constituencies. Questions ranged from how ambitious the targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emission cuts should be, to the respective obligations of developing and developed countries, especially the roles of China and India. Battles with Congress over priorities and possible effects on the American economy and productivity further agitated the waters. Even before the landmark Kyoto talks of 1997, the administration found itself obliged to give up many of its “most cherished ideas” and to look instead for “fallback” options across the board, according to the documents.

This declassified snapshot of the Clinton record suggests a number of parallels with the Obama experience. The comparisons help provide a deeper understanding of the underlying issues that continue to challenge U.S. presidents – and other world leaders – in an area most nations agree is a vital priority but where consensus on solutions to the most contentious issues remains elusive.

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________________________________________________________ THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.