As President Obama tries to cement his legacy on climate change, his administration may pursue a sweeping international accord without the help of Congress — but even members of his own party have vowed “to do everything we can to stop them.”
The White House on Wednesday confirmed reports that the president is eyeing a global deal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and aims to release the agreement at a United Nations climate-change conference in Paris next year.
Efforts to reduce carbon emissions are nothing new for this administration, but its approach to an international deal has touched off an unprecedented firestorm on Capitol Hill. In crafting the agreement, the administration says it may forgo consultation with the Senate, which the Constitution says must sign off on any formal international treaty.
Instead of such a treaty, White House officials say it’s possible they’ll seek an informal political agreement in which countries agree to carbon-emissions reductions with little penalty if they don’t meet their goals, other than the public shame of not following through.
The new approach was first reported by the New York Times.
Leading Republicans immediately slammed the move, casting it as yet another power grab by a president who frequently brags of his desire to get things done without Congress. House Speaker John A. Boehner, for example, said the plan is the latest example of Mr. Obama “circumventing the wishes of the American people” and acting unilaterally on issues of great economic importance.
Furthermore, some analysts say an international deal that can’t be ratified at home likely wouldn’t be as effective as the administration may hope.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest shied away from discussing details of the plan, saying it’s still being hashed out within the State Department and elsewhere across the federal government.
“Because this agreement is not written, it’s not clear what sort of role Congress would be required to play. Will be this be the kind of agreement that would require congressional approval in terms of exceeding to a treaty?” he told reporters Wednesday. “Or is this the kind of agreement that’s been described in the past as a political agreement, in which there would be a little transparency about which countries are living up to the standards reached in the agreement and which aren’t?”
Since coming to power in 2009, Mr. Obama has been looking for international partners in the fight against climate change. His first attempt to secure a broad carbon-reduction deal in Copenhagen in 2009 failed.
Now, with just over two years before his successor is elected, the president is making a renewed push to get major global greenhouse-gas emitters such as China and India on board.
But Mr. Obama faces resistance not only from developing countries that rely on carbon-intensive fuels such as coal for economic growth. He’s also feeling the heat from within his own party.
“It is fruitless for this administration — or any administration — to negotiate agreements with the rest of the world when it cannot even muster the support of the American people,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, West Virginia Democrat and frequent critic of the administration’s climate-change and environmental policies.
“Whether it’s the regulatory overreaches that would shut coal out of our energy mix, or this latest end-run around Congress on climate change, these actions cannot stand, and I will work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to do everything we can to stop them,” he said.
Thus far in his presidency, Mr. Obama has taken a number of dramatic steps to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. His Environmental Protection Agency has put forth highly controversial rules to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants, and his Transportation Department and other agencies crafted new fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, among other initiatives.
Despite that, analysts agree that the problem of carbon pollution can’t truly be addressed by the U.S. alone.
American emissions actually have dropped significantly in recent years, partly due to the actions of the administration and partly due to market forces as electricity producers have moved away from coal to cheap, abundant and cleaner-burning natural gas.
But some analysts say a non-binding international agreement could be a relatively fruitless endeavor. In some ways, the administration’s approach harkens back to the Kyoto Protocol, a major greenhouse-gas reduction push undertaken by the United Nations during the Clinton administration.
The U.S. signed on to the agreement, but it was never ratified by the Senate, and ultimately President George W. Bush pulled the nation out of even the not-binding commitments.
The looming climate deal looks as if it may follow a similar blueprint — informal agreement by the U.S. but no legal commitment.
“What would happen is the U.S. would agree to a sort of pledge — we’re going to try to achieve these levels of emissions, this level of reduction … but there wouldn’t be any legal consequences internationally if we didn’t make it,” said Adele Morris, policy director for climate and energy economics at the Brookings Institution and a lead climate negotiator during the Clinton administration. “If anybody learned anything from the Kyoto Protocol, they should understand that there’s little to be gained from inducing the administration to take on commitments that can’t be ratified.”