The New York Times has an article today on an initiative by President Obama’s team of climate negotiators towards a new international “accord” to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The word “accord” rather than “treaty” indicates that the Senate would not be expected to ratify it – as it has not ratified any climate treaty, including the original 1997 Kyoto protocol – and thus it would not be legally binding under the Constitution. The accord would be “politically binding”, meaning the President would make the commitment himself on behalf of the US, with the understanding if we fail to adhere to it we will look bad. The article uses the phrase “name and shame” to describe the punishment for signing on and then violating the accord.
This is simultaneously encouraging and depressing. But the depressing is old while the encouraging is new, so I’m choosing to see the glass half full today.
That the President is even thinking about something like this – and that other countries’ representatives are willing to seriously talk about it with him – indicates the sad state of international climate negotiations, and the US’ primary role in bringing that sad state about. There would have been difficulties even if there had been strong US leadership over the last 20 years; but there has been no such leadership (to put it mildly) and that has pretty much guaranteed failure.
The US’ passivity has been due largely to the obstacle of Senate ratification, starting with Kyoto – under President Clinton, the US signed that treaty, but the Senate didn’t ratify it. Actually Clinton never submitted it to the Senate, because it was already clear it wouldn’t fly. A resolution had been passed unanimously stating that the Senate shouldn’t ratify any treaty that didn’t have binding targets for developing nations as well as developed ones. Kyoto asked for participation only from developing countries, which emitted by far the most greenhouse gases. The US was at that time the world’s top emitter (and continued to be until 2007, when China took over).
The possibility of getting a binding treaty through the US Senate has only dimmed in recent years. The Republican party has moved strongly backward on climate; the positions of most in the GOP range between silence and outright flat-earth denialism. And Obama, until fairly recently, had chosen to spend his political capital on other issues. The President said very little about climate in his first term.
So the present effort represents an attempt by Obama to do something that he can actually do on climate. This follows other recent efforts, including pushing forward with the EPA regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
The article quotes one developing country leader to the effect that this initiative is bad because what the world really needs is for the US to ratify a legally binding treaty. Surely true, but the world needs a lot of things it is not going to get any time soon. We could wish for more from the President – stopping the Keystone pipeline for example – but given recent history I find today’s story heartening. The US has been such a hindrance to international progress on climate that any forward motion coming from our federal government should be cheered on.