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Trump drags feet on climate treaty, and Republicans aren’t happy

As Kigali Amendment languishes, Sens. Kennedy, Carper point fingers at the administration

Hydrofluorocarbons — found in air conditioners — are worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. A plan to limit them has bipartisan support, but the Trump administration is standing in the way, Republican senators say. (iStock/Composite by Jason Mann)
Hydrofluorocarbons — found in air conditioners — are worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. A plan to limit them has bipartisan support, but the Trump administration is standing in the way, Republican senators say. (iStock/Composite by Jason Mann)

It has the support of industry heavy-hitters, environmental advocates and a bipartisan cushion of votes in the Senate.

But the Kigali Amendment, a global treaty to limit hydrofluorocarbons — highly potent greenhouse gases found in air conditioners, refrigerators, insulation and foam — is stuck.

When representatives of the world’s largest nations gathered in 2016 in the Rwanda capital city of Kigali, they agreed nearly unanimously to limit the gases, which are far worse for the climate than carbon dioxide but dissipate faster.

“It is likely the single most important step we could take at this moment to limit the warming of our planet and limit the warming for generations to come,” John Kerry, then secretary of State, said at the United Nations talks that October. “It is,” he said, “the biggest thing that we can do in one giant swoop.”

Three years later, the United States has not ratified the deal despite bipartisan support in the Senate and backing from environmentalists and companies that make and distribute HFC-filled products. Without ratification, the U.S. could be subject to trade sanctions under the Montreal Protocol, the legal backstop of Kigali itself, and lose out on more than 30,000 new manufacturing jobs and billions of dollars worth of exports, according to industry estimates.

American companies that sell air-conditioning units could also be locked out of lucrative foreign markets, such as China and India, where demand for cooling systems is booming.

“The demand for AC is going up and up and up,” said Durwood Zaelke, founder and president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, an environmental advocacy group. “We’re going to need more cooling.”

The landmark deal went into effect in January and could prevent up to 0.5 degrees Celsius worth of warming by 2100, a critical and time-buying effort to arrest climate change.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper said ratifying the Kigali agreement “is a decision by the administration that should not take that long to make.” Asked what’s behind the delay, the Delaware Democrat said, “Beats the hell outta me,” adding, “It’s insanity.”

Sen. John Kennedy said there is opposition within administration. “It’s somebody over at EPA and/or the White House that doesn’t like the idea,” said Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, adding that he couldn’t say more. “Not without running the potential of defaming somebody.”

In a statement, the Environmental Protection Agency said the White House is considering the “implications” of ratification. “EPA has been fully engaged in these discussions.”

In a June 2018 letter to President Donald Trump, Kennedy and 12 other Republicans urged the White House to send the Kigali paperwork their way.

“By sending this amendment to the Senate, you will help secure America’s place as the global leader in several manufacturing industries, and in turn give American workers an advantage against their competitors in the international marketplace,” the letter said. “The failure to ratify this amendment could transfer our American advantage to other countries, including China, which have been dumping outdated products into the global marketplace and our backyard.”

The White House referred questions to the State Department, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Kennedy said he checks in with the White House and EPA on the status of the treaty. “I can’t prove it, but I think I know who’s objecting to it, and every time I talk to them over there, they say they’re studying it,” he said.

“We’re told … off the record by people who know that the pushback appears to be coming from EPA,” Carper said. “We’re told that State Department is ready to go.”

Under Senate rules, treaties need a two-thirds vote to pass. With the 47-member bloc of the Democratic caucus and the 13 Republicans who pledged their support last year, that threshold is in sight.

Carper and Kennedy are confident they would have the numbers if they get their hands on the treaty.

“It makes sense,” Kennedy said. “It’s important to our industry and it’s important to our environment.”

But Kigali does not register with many senators. In brief hallway interviews, two Republican senators, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Todd Young of Indiana, could not recall what Kigali is about. Both signed the letter.

Watch: A GOP sea change on climate? Not quite

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Kigali has its roots in a different environmental treaty — the Montreal Protocol, which nations reached in 1987 to phase out chlorofluorocarbons, or ozone-depleting chemicals, known as CFCs. With industry guidance, HFCs emerged as substitutes. But there was a problem: While the new chemicals were safe for the ozone layer, they were thousands of times more powerful greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Environmental advocates then pushed to phase out HFCs for years, culminating in the summit decades later in Rwanda.

“From a sheer climatic perspective, phasing down HFCs is one of the more important things you can do,” said Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute. Full implementation of Kigali would deliver a serious blow against rising temperatures, Light said. “This half degree of avoided warming is massive.”

HFCs are the fastest-growing greenhouse gases domestically and globally, and they are incredibly potent. And while they don’t linger as long as other greenhouse emissions, they do a lot of damage while present.

Negotiating with the private sector to limit HFCs, which occupy a sliver of the economy, is different from pressing firms to lower emissions from hydrocarbons, which are ubiquitous.

Major chemical companies and manufacturers Honeywell, Dow, Ingersoll Rand, Mexichem, General Mills, Chemours and Dell support ratification. So does Carrier, the air-conditioning manufacturer Trump used as a campaign-trail talking point about outsourcing.

George David Banks, a former Trump White House official, pushed for ratification of Kigali before resigning last year. Without Banks, the issue petered out.

Banks did not respond to inquiries for this story. But he has publicly supported Kigali, and multiple sources said he pushed for the deal.

“There really isn’t anyone left in the White House who’s an advocate for this,” Light said, adding that some White House officials in 2017 were also urging ratification. “There are no bodies there.”

Sarah Hunt, co-founder and CEO of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy, which calls itself a “post-partisan” policy research and leadership development group, said the administration may be delaying because if it supports ratification it would be acknowledging the dangers of climate change.

“I think if people were to be frank, that is a larger part of it,” Hunt said. “Also, this administration has not been a big fan of multilateral agreements.”

The eclectic group of forces supporting Kigali adds to the complications. Environmentalists and Democrats support it. So do industry groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, as well as Americans for Tax Reform, led by anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist.

“How often do you see the Sierra Club and the Chamber of Commerce on the same side?” Hunt said. “You don’t usually see everyone lined up.”

Francis Dietz, vice president for public affairs at the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, an industry trade group, said his organization views it as an apolitical issue and would have pressed a Democratic administration to ratify too.

“All of our members are firmly on board,” Dietz said. They want to get the cut in HFCs in place “one way or another.”

For Dietz’s group, Kigali is about American companies maintaining their technological and competitive edge against rivals overseas. “That’s probably the biggest argument that we make with the administration,” he said.

Federal agencies are going to weigh in “at any given time,” said Samantha Slater, vice president of government affairs at AHRI. “When that time is is unclear.”

Kevin Fay, director of the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, said the administration should act to ratify soon. Still, treaties can take years to secure approval. “To our knowledge, the White House has only sent up one treaty to the Senate in the last two years — a tuna treaty,” Fay said.

After inauguration, Trump set about swiftly promoting interests of fossil fuel companies and stripping Obama-era climate regulations of their teeth. He also criticized the Paris climate accord in a showy, made-for-TV speech in the White House Rose Garden, where he said he would withdraw. (Under international rules, Trump can extract the U.S. from the deal in November 2020 at the earliest.)

Paul Bledsoe, strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute, said the holdup has a simple explanation: a fervent rejection of anything climate-related.

“I think it’s much more visceral for Trump,” Bledsoe said. “He has the mistaken belief that poking his thumb in the eye of any policy that would have climate benefits is better politics, even if those policies create tens of thousands of new jobs,” he said.

Bledsoe, a climate expert in the Clinton White House, suggested Democrats running for president should target key states and districts where HFCs are made — regions that stand to lose jobs if the U.S. does not keep pace with the global market.

“Only something as directly political as that is ultimately going to matter,” Bledsoe said, adding that he’s skeptical Trump will warm to the treaty. “He’s made 100 decisions in one direction and zero in the other,” he said. “There’s a real direct economic cost of Trump’s climate nihilism.”

Last year, Kennedy and Carper introduced legislation to give EPA authority to phase down domestic HFC manufacturing to give way to their replacements.

They pitched it as a jobs bill, and a bipartisan group of senators signed on: Republicans Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Susan Collins of Maine and Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

“It’s not often that Democrats, Republicans, industry and environmental groups come together to agree on anything,” Kennedy said. “But we are all in agreement on this one.”

Riding the Senate subway recently, Carper turned to an aide and asked why Kigali shouldn’t get a vote in the Senate. It made no sense, they agreed.

“Why we wouldn’t seize the day is beyond me,” Carper said. “We’re still waiting for it.”

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