Obama eyes legacy-defining climate pact
President Obama heads to Paris Monday seeking to clinch an international climate pact that would help define his legacy.
But major obstacles stand in the way of that goal, including the dispute over whether the document will be legally binding for all the countries participating or whether political pressure would be the main enforcement mechanism.
Obama is also facing pressure at home from Republicans who oppose his executive actions on climate change and want to derail the global deal organized under the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change.
For a president who has made climate change a top priority of his second term — and has become the first commander in chief to take significant action to counter global warming — the Paris meeting presents a rare opportunity to make significant headway in fighting climate change.
While domestic climate policies, like Obama’s carbon dioxide limits for power plants, can only have a marginal impact on global temperatures, getting the rest of the world on board can make a real difference.
“Obama 2.0 looks very different from Obama 1.0 on climate change,” said Timmons Roberts, an environmental studies professor at Brown University and fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Obama has staked a lot on Paris being a success, as can be seen by the effort his White House has put into these bilateral agreements and commitments,” Roberts said, referring to recent high-profile agreements on climate change that Obama has made with the leaders of China, Brazil, Mexico and other nations.
The China deal was particularly historic, as it was the first time the Asian power has promised to limit greenhouse gases. China agreed to peak its emissions by 2030, and in return, the United States promised a 26 percent to 28 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2025, compared with 2005 levels.
Obama has also made a point to insert climate change language into nearly every official diplomatic communication with a foreign leader in recent months.
Those pledges became countries’ commitments under the UN deal. It’s structured in a bottom-up way, so that countries submit what they think they can do to fight climate change, and those commitments are likely to be wrapped up into the deal, along with agreements on deciding further reductions in the future and how to report progress.
The strategy reflects a departure from the top-down approach that failed to yield a deal during climate talks in Copenhagen five years ago.
One of the main controversies going into the Paris meeting is whether the deal will be legally binding.
Secretary of State John Kerry recently tussled in the press with French leaders over the issue arguing, in a Financial Times report, the Obama administration’s case that the deal should not be a binding treaty, something with which France disagrees.
It’s a top concern for Obama, since a two-thirds majority of the Senate would need to approve such a binding treaty.
“With the Senate needing a two-thirds majority, he can’t really agree to anything binding. He’s looking for something that remains voluntary,” Timmons said.
Republicans are doing everything they can to prevent the United States from entering into a deal. As part of that, they’re pressuring Obama to submit it for a vote if it obligates the United States to anything — a vote that would certainly fail.
“Just like the Kyoto Protocol and the United Nations framework convention on climate change, any agreement that commits our nation to targets or timetables must go through the process established by the founders in our Constitution,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said at a recent hearing. “It must be submitted to the United States Senate for its advice and consent.”
But the bigger leverage for the GOP could come from funding, and from their attempts to stop Obama’s $3 billion pledge toward the Green Climate Fund. Poor nations say without the fund, they likely will not be part of the deal to cut emissions.
“When it comes to the financing: I know a lot of people over there, the 192 countries, assume that Americans are going to line up and joyfully pay $3 billion into this fund,” said Sen. James Inhofe, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “But that’s not going to happen.”
Thirty-seven senators and 110 House members have pledged to block the funding.
A key disagreement in the GOP, however, is whether to simply deny Obama’s request for money, or to block Obama from using other money for that purpose. The Senate has proposed to do the former, while House Republicans want to go farther.
Paul Bodnar, director for energy and climate change at Obama’s National Security Council, said protecting the funding is a top concern of Obama.
“As we’ve made clear, the Green Climate Fund is a priority for the president,” Bodnar said, adding that the White House is optimistic that it’ll get the money it needs.
Republicans’ other tactic against the deal is to try to show that Obama’s commitment to reductions can’t stand. For the most part, that means arguing that the carbon limits for power plants, the main pillar of the commitment, is on shaky legal and political ground, and will probably be overturned by a court or Congress.
To demonstrate that, the Senate voted recently to overturn the rule, and the House will take a similar vote next month, sending it to Obama’s desk for his certain veto. Opponents have also filed a lawsuit against the rule.
Megan Mullin, an environmental politics professor at Duke University, said Obama needs to convince world leaders and negotiators in Paris that those moves by his opponents are simply messaging.
“The challenge for the Obama administration going into Paris is to convince the rest of the world that the policy activity that has happened here in the U.S. is durable, and not susceptible to political change in 2016 and unpredictable actions by the courts,” Mullin said.
“And those who want to undermine his efforts know that,” she said. “Even if it will all be vetoed, anything that they can do now to try to prove that those commitments aren’t durable, to try to raise doubt about the durability of those commitments is helpful to their goals.”
The fact that Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) voted in the Appropriations Committee to save Obama’s ability to contribute to the climate fund should go a long way to show that the commitment can withstand political pressure, she said.
Obama will be in Paris on Monday and Tuesday, when he’ll participate in a number of bilateral meetings with major leaders, a meeting with the heads of various island nations and a dinner with French President Francois Hollande, among other activities.
The conference is continuing, complete with about 150 heads of state or government, despite the recent terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
Obama and Hollande have proudly reminded their countries in recent days that the event will continue, with Obama declaring that the summit will be a “powerful rebuke” to the terrorists.
The conference will continue for another 10 days at least. Other Obama administration officials will participate in other stages of the talks, including Kerry, Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Kathryn Sullivan.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) will lead Democratic delegations to support the Obama administration, according to Bloomberg BNA. Neither lawmakers’ representatives returned requests for details about their plans.
Some congressional Republicans will also attend to reinforce their arguments to negotiators and sow doubt. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the energy and power panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will lead a House GOP group, although committee staff declined to provide details.
Inhofe, who has proudly declared that he served as a “one-man truth squad” aiming to derail the Copenhagen talks in 2009, said he won’t be making the jaunt this time.