international analysis and commentary

The US debate on climate policy after the Paris agreement


US President Barack Obama called the climate change agreement signed in Paris on December 12 by the representatives of nearly 200 countries “a turning point for the world.” On the other hand, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said it “goes nowhere near far enough,” while the Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, warned that it “is subject to being shredded in 13 months,” if a Republican is elected president in November 2016.

In a nutshell, this is the spectrum of reactions to the climate deal by American public officials, commentators and civil society leaders. The Administration, which pushed hard for the agreement, and its liberal-to-moderate supporters consider it a historical accomplishment; progressives deem it inadequate for the enormous task at hand; conservatives, who are skeptical of the man-made nature of global warming, are strongly opposed to it but, for the time being, appear determined to simply ignore it, or at least underplay it. They hope that it will go away on its own or that it will prove largely unenforceable.

There is no doubt that the deal is, in and of itself, not sufficient to eliminate the threat of climate change and that it represents merely an initial attempt at mitigating its most catastrophic effects. The White House itself acknowledges as much. “Even if all the initial targets set in Paris are met, we’ll only be part of the way there when it comes to reducing carbon from the atmosphere,” President Obama said. “The problem is not solved because of this accord.” What matters, according to the Administration, is that it finally provides an agreed upon global framework to addressing this challenge over the long-run and that it locks in ambitious goals and the mechanisms necessary to achieve them, even if this will happen gradually as each country scales up its own individual effort. “I think this Paris outcome is going to change the world,” Christopher Field, a prominent American climate scientist, told the New York Times. “We didn’t solve the problem, but we laid the foundation.”

What’s more, from the White House’s point of view, is that this was done not in spite of a reluctant Washington, as many feared, but rather thanks to the multipronged offense the US orchestrated, particularly with the aim of bridging the different interests of developed and developing countries. According to the President, “the American people can be proud” of the fact that “over the past seven years, we’ve transformed the United States into the global leader in fighting climate change.” Finally, and contrary to what opponents anticipated, this effort has not undermined the economic recovery in the US. “[W]e’ve seen the longest streak of private-sector job creation in our history,” Obama said. “We’ve driven our economic output to all-time highs while driving our carbon pollution down to its lowest level in nearly two decades.”

Though they take care to point out that the agreement is not the definitive answer to climate change but only the first step, the US’ largest green groups are on board with it. The Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune described it as “a dramatic step forward”; Rhea Suh, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council, commented that “a great tide has turned”; Bill McKibben, Co-founder, said that “This didn’t save the planet but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.” Naturally, not all environmentalists are as keen. “[T]he United States is failing – by a long shot – to do what climate science and justice demand,” said Erich Pica, President of Friends of the Earth US.

Among the key concerns of the deal’s detractors on the left of the political spectrum is that emissions reduction pledges are not legally binding. And neither is the commitment by rich nations to provide financial aid to their developing counterparts, to ensure that they too can afford to take action. This was done also at the behest of Washington, so that the agreement would not be considered a treaty and therefore would not have to be ratified by the US Congress, where the Republican majority was likely to strike it down.

Nevertheless, how well the US upholds its end of the bargain going forward still depends in large part on how Republicans go about it, as well as on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. First of all, whatever additional spending President Obama calls for in order to fight global warming in the remainder of his administration will have to be appropriated by Congress. So the first thing the GOP can do to at least slow the agreement’s implementation is to simply tighten the purse strings – thanks to their majority in both the Senate and the House. Additionally, since this president never had Congressional support to pass the more stringent fuel efficiency standards he wanted for vehicles and his trademark Clean Power Plan, to reduce pollution from power plants, he ended up enacting them via executive action. This means that if a Republican were to take over the White House in 2017, he or she could use his executive powers to gut the US Environmental Protection Agency and undo that work. Obviously, this would not be an issue if a Democrat were to win. Both Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have praised the Paris deal. And even Sanders, who is doubtful that it has any bite in its current form, is bound to uphold it and, potentially, attempt to make it even tougher.

In any case, though not impossible, it is unlikely, that a future president could wiggle his way out of it altogether, as international accords, once signed, carry a huge political, and public relations, weight. In that sense, President Obama is right when he says: “Together, we’ve shown what’s possible when the world stands as one.”