Time is running out for congressional leaders to rescue America from the Paris Agreement, the capstone of President Obama’s agenda to kill off affordable fossil fuel-based energy. Some Republican lawmakers have dismissed the agreement as a feel-good exercise they can safely ignore. Yet far from a toothless declaration, the Paris Agreement is designed to control U.S. and global energy markets, policies, and infrastructure for decades to come. Certainly, other countries recognize it is a very big deal.
Officials from almost 150 nations are expected to sign the agreement at United Nations headquarters in New York this Friday, April 22—which is also Earth Day. That would “surpass the previous record of 119 signatures for an opening day signing for an international agreement,” the U.N. crows. Under international protocol, signing an agreement is a preliminary endorsement—an expression of intent to consider ratifying it.
The Paris Agreement endangers America’s economic future and capacity for self-government but many Members of Congress don’t seem to realize it. Beguiled by the administration’s claims that the agreement is non-binding, non-enforceable, and, therefore, not a treaty, many Republican lawmakers don’t see how it could suppress domestic energy production or lock in the EPA’s power plant rules. After all, if Obama can join the agreement with the stroke of a pen, why can’t a Republican president withdraw from it just as easily?
They need to understand three things very quickly.
First, the agreement is a treaty by virtue of its costs and risks, “ambition” compared to predecessor climate treaties, dependence on enactment of subsequent legislation by Congress, intent to affect state laws, degree of formality, past U.S. practice, and general international practice with respect to similar agreements. Yet, the President pretends the agreement is not a treaty so he can attempt to adopt it unilaterally, without engaging the Senate, where the pact would be dead on arrival.
Second, the agreement’s reporting, monitoring, and verification provisions are legally binding, and they constitute the framework for a multi-decade global pressure campaign directed chiefly against Republican leaders, red-state voters, and the fossil-fuel industry.
What chiefly determines policy is politics, and the political function of the Paris Agreement is to build a permanent coalition of 190-plus foreign governments, legions of multilateral bureaucrats, and hundreds of green lobbying groups, all primed and ready to “name and shame” U.S. leaders who oppose the Obama EPA’s climate regulations, refuse to implement increasingly “ambitious” five-year plans to suppress fossil-fuel production and use, or fail to pay developing countries billions of dollars annually in “climate finance” for renewable energy projects.
Third, if Republicans accept Obama’s fiction that Paris is not a treaty but an executive agreement—a pact the President can approve on his sole authority—they will be stuck with it for a minimum of four years after Obama leaves office. The Paris Agreement enters into force when at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions ratify it. Then, a nation may not notify its intention to withdraw until three years later, and withdrawal cannot take effect until one year after the notification.
The United States and China alone account for about 40 percent of global emissions, and developing countries, which stand to gain trillions in climate finance, are lining up in droves to ratify the agreement as soon as possible. So the agreement will likely enter into force on Obama’s watch. Consequently, by the terms of the agreement, the next president could not withdraw until 2020, and would face an entrenched, organized, and well-funded global coalition forcefully opposing U.S. withdrawal.
What can congressional leaders do now to avoid the trap Obama has prepared for them? They should clarify immediately that Obama has no authority to make America a party to the Paris Agreement in the first place. They should explain why the agreement is a treaty, insist that under the U.S. Constitution treaty making requires the consent of “two thirds of Senators present,” alert foreign leaders that a Republican president will submit the treaty for a debate and vote on ratification during his first 100 days, and that the Senate declining to ratify it is a virtual certainty.
But here’s the rub. Congress cannot afford to wait until 2017 to challenge Obama’s climate coup. They must act before the Paris Agreement enters into force. Otherwise Democrats will accuse them—with some justice—of blindsiding America’s negotiating partners, undermining an extant agreement, and upsetting expectations on which multi-billion dollar investments depend.
The optimal time to challenge Obama’s climate diplomacy hoodwink is this week, when media coverage of the U.N. signing ceremony focuses public attention on the Paris Agreement. If Republican lawmakers play their cards right, the Paris Agreement will be no more binding on the United States than the Kyoto Protocol, which the Senate never ratified.
Lewis is a Senior Fellow in Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute