By Timothy Cama - 08/31/14 07:30 AM EDT
International negotiators have been working for years on an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world to fight climate change.
The negotiations caught the American public’s attention this week when The New York Times reported that President Obama is pushing for a voluntary agreement that would allow him to bypass the Senate, which must approve all binding treaties.
The State Department denied the report, saying that since no agreement has been written, it’s premature to judge whether ratification would be necessary.
Republicans and some Democrats were furious at the notion that Obama would try to sidestep Congress, and promised to do all they could to avoid getting the United States involved in an international agreement on climate change.
With that in mind, here are five important things to know about the climate talks.
1. World leaders want to reach an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions next year.
The United Nations, through its Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed in 2011 to write a pact in 2015 to cut greenhouse gas emissions globally.
Under the plan, the pact must take effect in 2020, have legal force and be binding on all countries. Everything else is up for negotiation.
Leaders have been discussing details since then, and some opinions have taken shape.
“The United States is proposing that every country propose its own action plan for controlling and reducing emissions, and that all of these action plans be rolled into one big document, and that’s the agreement,” said Myron Ebell, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which watches the negotiations.
The agreement is unlikely to force emissions reduction figures on individual countries. Instead, leaders have agreed that they want to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above the Earth’s pre-industrial temperature.
2. Negotiators have been trying to reach an agreement since 1992.
In 1992, nearly all of the nations in the world agreed to work together to fight climate change.
“That is the foundation for all the negotiations since,” said Elliot Diringer, senior vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), another group that is watching the talks.
But since then, there has been little significant progress.
The UN followed up in 1997 with the Kyoto Protocol, in which the wealthiest countries agreed to cut their emissions. But the United States did not ratify it.
Kyoto expired in 2012, and many nations, including Japan and Canada, refused to continue cutting emissions until 2020.
To replace Kyoto, the UN met again in 2009 in Copenhagan. That session ended without an agreement.
It did result in rich nations agreeing to put together $100 billion to help developing nations reduce emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change.
“This is what keeps the developing nations involved in these negotiations, because they have very little interest in the main negotiation,” Ebell said.
3. The pact might have parts that are legally binding on countries and parts that are voluntary.
While the Times reported that Obama is trying to write a voluntary pact, the UN leaders want it to have legal force.
The disparity arises from an unwillingness on the part of some countries to make massive, difficult emissions cuts. That dynamic could result in a climate agreement with parts that are binding and parts that are not.
Diringer imagines the pact could have a treaty at its core. “That could just apply to a set of procedural commitments, as opposed to a set of reduction levels that parties are committing to.”
The reduction levels, therefore, would not have legal force.
Paul Bledsoe, who was communications director for President Bill Clinton’s climate task force, said there is precedent for such a move.
“Nations make all sorts of moral, ethical pledges all the time that don’t involve treaties, and yet are very important on a whole host of issues,” he said.
“I think that kind of international pressure can be very important,” he said.
The 1992 treaty committed all of the countries to certain emissions reporting and monitoring mandates that would carry over into any future deal.
4. The deal might have parts that require congressional approval and parts that do not. The domestic legal status of the pact could be mixed as well.
Diringer said that once the agreement is written, different experts are likely to take different approaches to the legal status.
“There are various means by which the U.S. ratifies agreements,” he said. “Senate advice and consent is the best known and probably the most common. But there are a series of circumstances under which the Executive Branch can ratify on its own authority.”
The parts of the agreement that commit the U.S. to take certain actions would probably need the Senate’s approval, since the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate for any treaty ratification.
Ebell thinks it’s pretty clear-cut, and that any international agreement would require the Senate’s approval.
“It should worry a lot of people that the Executive Branch is trying to work around the Constitution,” he said.
5. It might not happen.
There’s a great deal of doubt that a successful international agreement will be reached.
Some large nations that did not agree to Kyoto, such as China and India, might not want to cut their emissions.
And after major countries such as Canada and Japan dropped out of Kyoto, it might be difficult to get them on board. Australia’s status is uncertain, since Prime Minister Tony Abbott has not been friendly to environmental rules.
There’s also room for failure within the United States.
“Unless the global mean temperature starts going up again in a really big way … this whole process seems to me to be one that will potentially give President Obama some kind of international success and then will be dead as soon as his successor takes office,” Ebell said.
Given all of that, the agreement might not even mitigate climate change.
Many countries in the negotiations have already revealed what they can bring to the table in terms of emissions reductions. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in a report earlier this month that those figures don’t add up to the 2-degree limit that scientists have endorsed.