Memos regarding "Signing Kyoto Protocol" and "Climate Change COP-6 Negotiations Issues," sent to President Bill Clinton, November 2000

Memos reviewed by Anna Lipscomb, HKS MPP

Smoke Pollution

“Signing Kyoto Protocol – Timing” (February 6, 1998) and “Climate Change COP6-Negotiation Issues” (November 10, 2000), obtained by the National Security Archive through a Clinton Library Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, offer a behind-the-scenes look into the Clinton Administration’s deliberations on international climate change policy decisions and actions at the Kyoto Protocol and Conference of the Parties (COP-6). Although these two memos address two different points of global climate discussions – one at the end of a negotiation and the other at the beginning -- they both described opportunities for the Clinton Administration to advance its climate goals during periods of uncertainty in domestic politics.

The first memo, “Signing Kyoto Protocol – Timing”, advises President Clinton on three potential options for when the United States can sign on to the Protocol. It was written by four top officials: Todd Stern, White House Staff Secretary; Kathleen McGinty, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality; Jim Steinberg, Deputy National Security Advisor; and Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council. While the negotiations have culminated into the Kyoto Protocol, the memo underscores the symbolic and political significance of appropriate timing in signing the treaty.

The structure of the memo is well-organized and offers a great deal of cohesion, which makes it easy to flow from one paragraph and section to the next. The introduction, though slightly long, clearly lays out the purpose of the memo, important upcoming deadlines, a list of options, and the advisors’ recommendation. The remainder of the memo is broken down into clearly labeled sections: Background, Analysis, and Options.

The background is intentionally brief and highlights both the importance of the Kyoto Protocol while still acknowledging that it is a “work in progress” and alludes to potential domestic critics including the Hill and business, labor, and farm groups. The advisors dig deeper into these concerns in the analysis, where they clearly outline four key considerations for the decision on when to sign the accord: diplomatic leverage, international signing policies, the Hill, and the reaction of environmental groups and businesses. This shows great attention to the priorities of the audience, President Clinton, who is dedicated both to his domestic climate change agenda but also cognizant that the Kyoto Protocol could affect his relationships with domestic stakeholders and his ability to pass future initiatives. Below each consideration, the authors explain the views and preferences of other key stakeholders at the domestic and international levels. Of the four considerations, the Hill appears to receive significant weight and space in the memo. At the time, the Republicans made up the majority of both Houses in Congress. Even among Congressional Democrats, views over signing varied. The advisors note that two key Democratic Senators – Senator Byrd and Senator Daschle – urge the administration to wait on signing but caution the President that “waiting postpones but probably does not avoid conflict with him [Byrd].”

The options section addresses the benefits, as well as the risk of opposition to each option, particularly in relation to domestic obstacles that could complicate the domestic climate change agenda. The advisors recommend Option 3 (state clearly that we intend to sign, but remain flexible on the timing), writing: “At the least, this approach would give us a few more months to try to build support for our policy before a debate is launched. At most, this approach could lead us to sign after the Buenos Aires meeting, at a point when Congress would have adjourned.” They also include official talking points for Clinton Administration officials use and the  ends with a checklist for the President to select which option he favors.

While this memo is persuasive overall, I would argue that the advisors may have pushed their favored option too subjectively, particularly with the inclusion of talking points. While the advisors did apply the criteria evenly to each option and explain their rationale for choosing Option 3 over the others, they could have made it even more compelling and balanced by including or offering to provide similar talking points for the other options should President Clinton choose a different course of action. Nevertheless, the memo does an excellent job of getting to the heart of the key considerations and stakeholders’ interests that may influence the President’s decision on the timing of the signing.


In contrast to the memo on the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, “Climate Change COP6-Negotiation Issues” was drafted for the President ahead of the COP6 negotiations beginning on November 13, 2000 in The Hague, Netherlands. Delivered days after the still-uncertain 2000 U.S. presidential election, this memo reached President Clinton in a diminished political position compared to the memo discussed above.

Prepared by a different set of advisors, this memo follows a different structure and is organized by negotiation topic: Additional Developing Country Actions, New Funding Commitments, Sinks, and Compliance/Price Cap. While a new format, this memo maintains effective cohesion, as each section starts with a paragraph that establishes background and context, weighs the merits and drawbacks of different approaches, and ends with a recommendation based on the consensus of agencies and senior advisors. Directly beneath each recommendation and the rationale, the President is given the choice to approve, disapprove, or discuss their recommendation.

A number of the policy issues addressed in the memo are relatively controversial, especially the first item on the list: Additional Developing Country Actions. The advisors write that this was an area where the United States was “isolated” in the negotiations. The advisors explain that while the United States could insist on placing this issue on the negotiating agenda, it was unlikely that developing countries would accept it. To strengthen the credibility of this claim as well as other claims throughout the memo, the advisor brings in assessments made by other agencies. In this case, they stated that the State Department “does not envision a realistic possibility of any breakthroughs on this issue at COP6.” They offer an alternative option of sidestepping this issue in order to make progress and promote consensus on other important topics, though warn of the domestic risks associated with this choice. Specifically, they are concerned that the Kyoto Protocol could be vulnerable to attack by opponents for not meeting the Byrd/Hagel resolution requirements. The upcoming presidential administration – which may not support Clinton’s domestic climate agenda – would decide whether to take on the issue before passing it to the Senate.

The last topic in the memo, Compliance/Price Cap, differs from the previous items listed in the memo. It mainly focuses on establishing background and context on a more provocative mechanism that the United States could consider. While it covers some risks of this option, it does not bring in relevant data or interagency opinions. The advisors write that it is “very complex and extremely controversial idea among both supporters and opponents of the Protocol” and state that they may need to present it for decision during the COP6 negotiations. The purpose of this section seems to ensure the President is aware of the mechanism while acknowledging that it is still a work in progress.

A weakness in this second memo, particularly compared to the first one, is its failure to clearly define the key criteria for which the audience can weigh the different choices. Multiple concepts appear throughout the memo which could serve as criteria such as diplomatic isolation, feasibility, progress on other issues, agreement/consensus-building, impact on the Kyoto Protocol, interagency opinions, and domestic response. The factors underlying each recommendation and the accompanying rationale seem to shift with each issue area. While this may provide room for necessary flexibility during an international negotiation, it also runs the risk of viewing each issue in isolation rather than as part of an overall U.S. negotiating position.

The two memos, “Signing Kyoto Protocol – Timing” and “Climate Change COP6-Negotiation Issues”, both highlight the importance of policy memos in informing principle decisionmakers and driving their chosen courses of action. President Clinton ended up signing the Kyoto Protocol in 1998. However, it was never sent to the Senate for ratification for many of the reasons alluded to in the first memo and reiterated in the second memo regarding developing country commitments. The COP6 negotiations, on the other hand, were suspended without agreement due to participants’ inability to agree on the issues.