After weeks of announcing to their constituents and the world their opposition to President Barack Obama’s agenda at the Paris climate talks, Republicans in Congress may take some satisfaction in the fact that the agreements to emerge from the conference are unlikely to be legally binding.
As the two-week United Nations conference comes to an end, negotiators are aiming to ensure commitments from nations across the globe to prevent the planet from crossing the two-degree Celsius warming threshold, which scientists agree would lead to irreversible changes such as rising sea levels and an increase in extreme weather.
In the weeks leading up to and during the conference, Republican lawmakers busied themselves with legislative efforts to scuttle new EPA regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, to prevent the U.S. from contributing to a global fund to help small countries respond to climate change and to encourage domestic fossil fuel development by ending a ban on oil exports. They’ve also expressed their disagreement with U.S. participation in any legally mandated greenhouse gas emission targets.
The action against the EPA’s power plant emission rules came as the House last week adopted Congressional Review Act resolutions, adopted earlier in the Senate, to nullify the regulations that are a central pillar of Obama’s carbon goals. The White House has promised he would veto such resolutions, and their backers are unlikely to gather a veto-proof majority in either chamber.
If the Republicans’ goal was to influence global climate negotiators’ confidence in Obama’s effort to make the U.S. a leader in fighting climate change, or to raise doubts about the validity of climate scientists conclusions about the man-made nature of climate change, the effort may have fallen flat.
“Negotiators in Paris are aware that Congressional Republicans oppose President Obama’s climate policies,” David Sandalow, an inaugural fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said in an email. “The recent Congressional resolutions are having little if any impact on the Paris climate talks.”
Sandalow added: “None of the 150 heads of state who traveled to Paris for the opening of the climate conference questioned the science of climate change. The climate denial in Congress hurts the United States’ image and interests around the world.”
Still, the views of Republicans opposed to U.S. participation in binding agreements to limit carbon emissions may have found some fertile ground.
“We do not expect the Paris agreement to include legally binding [greenhouse gas] emissions reduction targets,” said a report from Clearview Energy Partners, a Washington-based consulting group that advises clients on energy policy. “The U.S. has opposed legally binding cuts for at least two reasons: (1) near-zero odds of receiving Senate ratification of such an agreement; and (2) realization that developing countries may not accept legally binding cuts, either. The E.U. appears to have acknowledged the difficulty in achieving a legally binding deal, too.”
By limiting the legal authority of the agreement, negotiators are looking to avoid the need for the Senate’s approval, although Congress would still have the ability to affect the outcome through other means.
Without the treaty, any future presidential administration could back away from the target emission reductions, but that could cause a loss of international “political weight,” according to a Congressional Research Service report on the Paris talks.
“While adherence to such arrangements might carry significant moral or political weight with their participants, these non-legal arrangements do not have the effect of modifying participants’ existing legal obligations under domestic statutes and international legal agreements,” the report said.
The report added: “The primary means Congress uses to exercise oversight authority over the making of non-legally binding agreements is through its appropriations power or via other statutory enactments, by which it may limit or condition actions the United States may take in furtherance of the arrangement.”
Republicans have targeted the funding areas, such as U.S. appropriations for the Green Climate Fund, as a way to stop the agreement.
Obama in 2014 pledged a $3 billion contribution to help the United Nations-sponsored organization, which, to date, has totaled $10 billion in pledges from the industrial world. The State Department requested $500 million for this effort in its fiscal 2016 budget request.
The fund plans to redirect the money to help developing nations afford low-carbon energy sources and prepare for environmental effects, such as rising sea levels, from climate change.
“President Obama is so desperate for a climate deal in Paris that he will do anything he can to get one,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said in a statement last week. “This includes undermining U.S. sovereignty and misusing American taxpayer dollars to grease the wheels. The president needs to understand that Congress does not support this pay-to-play promise.”
Some Republicans have suggested attaching a policy rider to an omnibus appropriations bill to prevent the flow of U.S. money to the Green Climate Fund.
Barrasso has vocally opposed any U.S. dollars going to the Paris climate agreement, and, according to a statement from his office, “he will continue to explore all options to protect American taxpayer dollars, including the omnibus.”
Barrasso’s home state of Wyoming mines more coal than any other state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
A coalition of 10 Democrats, led by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, traveled to Paris this past weekend in an effort to combat Republican assertions that Congress would not support the Obama administration’s carbon reduction policies.
“It is our intention to both join and support the high ambition coalition here in Paris, and to assure the world community that the United States Senate will absolutely have the back of the negotiating team and President Obama,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said during a news conference in Paris.
The coalition focused on its willingness to prevent Republican energy policies from interrupting the president’s carbon strategy.
“What you see here are the people who are going to protect what the president is putting on the table here in Paris as a promise from the American people to the world,” Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., said during a news conference in Paris. “Republicans want to take the president’s clean power rules off the books. Last week, we blocked them from doing that, and we are going to continue to block them from doing that.”
Markey cited renewable fuel standards, solar and wind tax credits and the crude oil export ban as areas where Senate Democrats plan to ensure continued Senate support and to “give the president what he needs.”
Cardin told the international community to “look at the United States’ actions, not necessary the rhetoric of individual members of the Senate.”