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Republican legacy on international climate policy

In 1992, the George H.W. Bush administration negotiated an unprecedented multilateral treaty, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, which received bipartisan consent for ratification from the U.S. Senate. At the time, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “I am pleased to support this fine agreement. I congratulate President Bush on his courageous leadership on the issue of global climate change.”  

This is a sharp contrast to the current political landscape on climate change. As world leaders meet today for the Paris climate summit—which is set to produce a new international agreement to limit carbon pollution and improve resilience to the effects of climate change—congressional Republicans are largely denouncing international climate cooperation and domestic clean energy policies.  

{mosads}Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), for example, typified the views of his colleagues in Congress when he recently claimed that President Obama “would like to shut down livelihoods and ship American jobs overseas while imposing a cap and trade energy tax on the American people so he can pay for his international climate legacy that hinges on cooperation from rent-seeking developing countries.” 

Amid this rhetoric, it is helpful to remember that there was a time when Republican leaders—in the White House and Congress—held positions on international climate cooperation that were constructive, even prescient. The UNFCCC, negotiated by a Republican administration with support from Republican senators, created the global mandate to address climate change and now serves as an umbrella treaty—and, in many ways, a model—for the forthcoming Paris agreement.  

As the Bush I administration had advocated during negotiations of the UNFCCC, the treaty did not impose legally binding targets. This earned praise from Republican senators: “It is clear that the convention does not obligate the United States or any other country to achieve any particular target or timetable for limitation of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “To me, that is the correct and responsible approach.”

Such sentiments in praise of the UNFCCC could be aptly applied to today’s Paris agreement. In order to secure maximum participation in the agreement—and in order to respect that countries have different national circumstances—the agreement will require all countries to submit non-binding, self-determined climate goals and plans. 

It is also helpful to remember prescience from Republican political leaders with respect to international climate investment. As announced in the 2008 State of the Union Address, the George W. Bush administration pledged $2 billion to the Climate Investment Funds, or CIFs, “to help confront climate change worldwide.”  

The CIFs are a precursor to the new Green Climate Fund, or GCF, which is positioned to become a major channel for international climate finance. It aims to promote low-carbon economic development, improve resilience to climate change, and leverage investment from the private sector. Obama continued the history of U.S. climate investment last year, when he pledged $3 billion to the GCF.  

Republicans congressional leaders today, however, have largely slipped into denial of climate change, seemingly convinced that rising carbon pollution could become compatible with economic prosperity and human security through sheer assertion. To that extent, congressional Republicans have become open to attacks that they are committing fiscal and diplomatic folly and are reckless with the welfare of the American people. 

Some Congressional Republicans, however, are going against this tide. In September, Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) and ten Republican colleagues introduced a resolution calling for climate action. In October, four Republican senators—Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.)—created a working group focused on how to “protect our environment and climate while also bolstering clean energy innovation that helps drive job creation.” This month, Ayotte and Kirk, joined by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), supported the Clean Power Plan. 

One of the missions of these Republican iconoclasts on climate change should be to remind their colleagues and the American people that Republicans have a sensible and constructive legacy on international climate policy that they should own and continue. The global community would welcome them back. 

Dotson is the vice president for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. Gwynne Taraska is a senior policy adviser at CAP.

Tags James Inhofe Kelly Ayotte Lamar Alexander Lindsey Graham Mark Kirk Mitch McConnell Susan Collins

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