The New York Times reports today that President Barack Obama is pursuing an international climate agreement ahead of next year's United Nations climate-change summit in Paris. Why pursue an accord, rather than a treaty? Because the latter would require Obama to get two-thirds approval in the Senate, and that's never going to happen.
While it's not clear how far along the discussions are, that an agreement is even in the works is further proof that Republican extremism isn't just grinding American politics to a halt and rolling back civil and women's rights: It's imperiling our planet, too.
The climate accord, according to the Times, would update an existing 1992 treaty with countries around the world. Because it is not a new treaty, it would include both a mix of mandatory and voluntary action. Industrialized countries would be legally required to enact domestic climate policies to cut emissions, but the level of cuts and programs specifically to help poor countries are entirely on a voluntary basis. This is clearly not an ideal policy.
The potential agreement puts more of a financial burden on developing countries while potentially letting rich nations off the hook. Poor, coastal countries will need more dams to keep sea level rise and worse storms from destroying cities, and other countries will need food aid in times of drought. In a non-binding agreement rich polluters could avoid paying for it.
“Without an international agreement that binds us, it’s impossible for us to address the threats of climate change,” Tanzania negotiator Richard Muyungi told the 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.”
Also, because such an accord would likely fall short of the deep emissions cuts needed to stave off the planet's warming by more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) over pre-industrial levels—the ceiling that world leaders agreed to in Copenhagan in 2009—the entire world might miss its last window to limit global warming to a manageable level. Meaningful action on climate change is impossible given the current the state of the Republican Party, with its many climate deniers. Even the conservatives who admit climate change is real are afraid to talk publicly about it, for fear of a Tea Party challenge.
It's not clear how other countries like China would react to an accord, but the right's reaction was sadly predictable. "Unfortunately, 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,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. The Senate’s most infamous climate denier James Inhofe said there’s no hope for a treaty, either. “The Senate will not ratify a treaty that binds the United States to a regulatory body at the United Nations, and we will continue to fight the President’s economy crushing domestic greenhouse gas regulations,” he said in a statement.
The outrage may be premature. The administration insists the agreement isn't very far along. On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said, "Not a word of the new climate agreement currently under discussion has been written, so it is entirely premature to say whether it will or won’t require Senate approval."
But this is the best option Obama and the rest of the world may have. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 failed because the U.S. never ratified the treaty, thanks to a GOP-controlled Senate. Republicans don't control the Senate—not yet anyway—but have enough votes to filibuster any treaties they dislike. What's especially embarrassing is that even international negotiators are aware of the pitiful state of Hill politics. Speaking about the accord, France's ambassador for climate change to the United Nations told the Times, “There is an implicit understanding that this not require ratification by the Senate."
Rebecca Leber is a staff writer for The New Republic.