Under the U.S. constitution, the President may only enter into a legally binding treaty if two-thirds of the Senate approve it. President Obama hasn’t had much luck getting Congress to approve of anything, much less climate change, so how can he make any progress on forging an international alliance to reduce carbon emissions?
The answer involves a game of legal limbo.
In 2015, a UN summit meeting will gather the leading industrial countries on the planet to hash out an international climate change policy. The UN’s two previous attempts to regulate its members’ emissions have ended in failure, both times with fingers left pointing at America.
In the 2009 Copenhagen summit, promises to keep global temperature rise limited to 1.5C were taken off the table, as well as an earlier goal to cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent in the next forty years. At the time President Obama implied that China was to blame for the failures of the summit, but Lumumba Di-Aping, chief negotiator for the 130 developing countries who would be most affected by the (lack of) decisions made in Copenhagen, said the final deal had “the lowest level of ambition you can imagine. It’s nothing short of climate change skepticism in action. …Obama has eliminated any difference between him and Bush.”
The story is the same in every decade, with only the presidents’ names exchanged. In 1997, President Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore gave public support to the Kyoto Protocol – a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent by 2012 – but after 127 countries ratified it, the U.S. chose to abstain. The Senate promised Clinton the bill would be dead on arrival, and so it was never even submitted for ratification. In 2001, President Bush would have nothing to do with Kyoto. In 2012, President Obama allowed the bill to expire.
Today, the Senate will not even acknowledge man-made climate change. In July, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked her colleagues for unanimous consent to Resolution 524, which stated only that climate change is real and potentially dangerous to the country. The move was blocked by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who called climate change the “biggest hoax” of our times.
This is despite the fact that both the UN and the U.S. have released reports warning of the increasing dangers of global climate change. A 3C rise in global temperatures will cost the global economy $150 billion per year, according to the report. “Each decade we delay acting results in an added cost of dealing with the problem of an extra 40 percent,” said Jason Furman, chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
Recently Obama attempted to sidestep his intractable Congress by using his executive authority to propose a nationwide 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions. Republicans lashed out at Obama en masse, with Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) calling the proposal “a dagger in the heart of the American middle-class, and to representative Democracy itself.”
Obama knows with absolute certainty that today’s domestic gridlock will prevent him from agreeing to any international treaty. Even relatively simple international ratifications are beyond Republicans’ willingness to abide. In 2012, Republican senators blocked the ratification of an international treaty that would grant equal rights to disabled people across the globe – despite it being modeled on American legislation developed by President George H.W. Bush.
So what will Obama do?
“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,” says Paul Bledsoe, an advisor to the Obama administration on international climate change policy. Instead, negotiators are attempting to update an existing 1992 treaty and gather voluntary pledges from countries to reduce their emissions.
This way would not require a new vote of ratification, but the world’s poorest countries – those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change – say that voluntary pledges lack the force of an international treaty.
“Without an international agreement that binds us, it’s impossible for us to address the threats of climate change,” Richard Muyungi, a climate negotiator for Tanzania, told The New York Times. “We are not as capable as the U.S. of facing this problem, and historically we don’t have as much responsibility. What we need is just one thing: Let the U.S. ratify the agreement. If they ratify the agreement, it will trigger action across the world.”
History is on Muyungi’s side. Anything less than a legally binding treaty will allow the world’s leading countries to continue emitting as they please. Obama may be pursuing climate change policy as best as he is able, but his domestic problems are holding the rest of the world back. And legal tricks do him no favors back home.
“Unfortunately,” writes Sen. Mitch McConnell in a statement, “this would be just another of many examples of the Obama administration’s tendency to abide by laws that it likes and to disregard laws it doesn’t like — and to ignore the elected representatives of the people when they don’t agree.”
To those paying attention, next year’s Paris summit may look very familiar indeed.