On Thursday, the EU reminded the planet why the United States might be the most problematic participant in the upcoming Paris Climate Conference.
In just a few weeks, delegates from almost 200 nations will gather in Paris to negotiate how the international community will deal with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. This summit, known as COP21, may result in the most important climate action of the twenty-first century. But that requires the US to play ball, something it may be incapable of doing.
Why an International Treaty Is a Problem for the US
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry told the Financial Times that any agreement in Paris is “definitively not going to be a treaty.” The very next day, the spokesperson for the EU’s climate commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, told The Guardian that Mr. Kerry is mistaken.
“The Paris agreement must be an international legally binding agreement,” said the spokesperson. “The title of the agreement is yet to be decided but it will not affect its legally binding form.”
This is a direct repudiation of Kerry’s statement to the Times, in which he also said the treaty would not have “legally binding reduction targets like [the Kyoto Protocol].”
Why the confusion? It’s possible someone got their wires crossed, but it’s also possible the Obama administration is trying every legal trick it can to keep COP21 from resulting in a treaty.
Here’s the thing about treaties: A President is completely within his rights to make them…provided two-thirds of the Senate agrees with him. If the Senate approves a resolution of ratification, then the US can ratify a treaty. If the Senate disapproves, no ratification.
Now let me pose a question to you, dear reader. Do you think two-thirds of the Senate is likely to agree with Obama on what color the sky is, let alone an international mandate to reduce carbon emissions? I’ll give you a hint: 72 percent of Republican Senators don’t even believe in climate change.
It’s for this reason that Obama has been seeking an alternative to a treaty.
What Can One President Do (Alone)?
In his second term, the President has pursued a committed agenda of climate action: using his executive authority to push his Clean Power Plan, mandating a 32 percent reduction in domestic emissions by 2030; pushing ambitious solar energy initiatives; denying new oil drilling leases in the Arctic; and (finally) rejecting the Keystone XL oil pipeline. But there is only so much the President can do alone.
Whether the bitter relationship between the President and Congress is indicative of a larger partisan trend; whether Congress is overstuffed with aging, conservative whites who’ve never even tried to compromise with Barack Hussein Obama; or whether the President, for all his idealism, is not so great at politicking, are all questions I will not attempt to answer here. The fact is, if COP21 results in a treaty, its chances of US ratification are only slightly worse than a snowball’s chance in Hell.
Which snowball? How about this snowball:
This is not the first time the United States has hit the ratification wall, nor the first time a pro-environmental President has had to deal with an anti-environmental Senate. Back in 1997, Democratic President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore were very keen to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
Kyoto was the first international agreement to set binding reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions. As The Guardian so eloquently puts it, it was created “to put teeth into” the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which called for a stabilization of emissions “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
Industrialized nations who ratified the pledge committed to cutting their annual emissions of carbon at an average rate of 5.2 percent by 2012. This would later prove to be a problem, as carbon emissions significantly increased between 1997 and 2012, but the real measure of the Protocol’s success was how many nations committed to the treaty, as doing so represented a concerted, global effort to acknowledge and combat the issue of man-made global warming.
In all, 192 countries ratified the Kyoto Protocol, with three exceptions: Afghanistan, Sudan and the United States of America.
President Clinton signed the treaty, but a signature means nothing without ratification. The Senate warned Clinton that the treaty would be dead on arrival if he submitted it for approval, so he never did. President Bush ignored it. President Obama allowed it to expire in 2012.
So what will Obama do now? Well, he’s been trying to find a way to turn the treaty into an international agreement, which he can make the US a party to – but there’s nothing legally binding about that. Unfortunately, any legally binding option is likely to be refused by the US Senate. “If you want a deal that includes all the major emitters, including the U.S., you cannot realistically pursue a legally binding treaty at this time,” Paul Bledsoe, an advisor to the Obama administration on international climate change policy, said earlier this year.
Is There Another Way?
On Thursday, Cañete’s spokesperson said there is still time to sort out the legalities of COP21. “What still needs to be negotiated is what provisions within the Paris agreement would be legally binding,” she added.
In an interview with Ken Berlin, President of the Climate Reality Project, Planet Experts learned that the Gore-led organization is hoping to get nations to agree to a five-year review period rather than one sweeping climate change commitment.
“If that happens,” said Berlin, “and we have a review in five years, then we get a lot of issues off the table now and we just come back in the next five years. And as the economics get better under renewable energy every year, the chance of getting the agreement we want increases.”
Could this be enough to sweeten the ratification pot for the Senatorial GOP? While it’s true the party’s presidential candidates are almost unanimous in their climate change denial, acceptance of the climate science is growing both here and abroad.
“Public support for this has evolved markedly,” said Berlin, both on the science and the economic front. It’s hard to deny: The weather is getting weirder and renewable technology is getting cheaper. But there’s one thing that’s still missing from the equation: Urgency.
“People have to make this a critical issue and take action now,” said Berlin. “If you believe in this then you’ve got to get involved, you’ve got to tell your representatives that you want action on climate change. They’ve got to know that you, Joe or Jane Smith, want action on climate change.”