The White House on Monday defended President Obama’s decision to enter into the Paris climate accord without Senate ratification but stopped short of confirming a Chinese report that he will do so this week during his trip to China.
Still, it would surprise no one if Mr. Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping were to announce the ratification of the sweeping climate change agreement before the Sunday opening of the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang.
White House senior adviser Brian Deese said the president has the legal authority to ratify the accord without the two-thirds Senate vote required for treaties. He said the pact negotiated by 195 countries in December is merely an “executive agreement.”
“The president will use his authority that has been used in dozens of executive agreements in the past to join and formally deposit our instrument of acceptance, and therefore put our country as a party to the Paris Agreement,” Mr. Deese said at a White House press conference.
He noted that both presidents announced in March that they “would seek to formally join the Paris Agreement in 2016.”
“That’s a process that is quite well-established in our existing legal system and in the context of international agreements and international arrangements,” Mr. Deese said. “There is a category of them that are treaties that require advice and consent from the Senate, but there’s a broad category of executive agreements where the executive can enter into those agreements without that advice and consent.”
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Republicans have insisted that the accord requires Senate ratification and warned the Obama administration as well as international leaders that Congress will not be bound by an agreement ratified by unilateral executive action.
Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, predicted Monday that Mr. Obama will “pretend to ratify the treaty in China.”
“What could be more insulting to our Constitution than ‘ratifying’ it in the presence of the Chinese president-dictator?” asked Mr. Ebell, who opposes the deal. “And what could be more appropriate, since, like Xi, Obama is unaccountable?”
Speculation about the ratification soared after the South China Morning Post reported that two leaders are “set to jointly announce their ratification” as early as Friday. The report cited sources who said that “senior climate officials from both countries worked late into the night in Beijing on Tuesday to finalize details.”
Mr. Deese confirmed that he traveled to China last week to meet with officials on the Paris Agreement, which calls for nations to adopt emissions limits with the aim of holding increases in global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.
“I anticipate when the presidents meet, they will discuss topics that will include this issue of trying to get the Paris Agreement to enter into force as quickly as possible,” Mr. Deese said.
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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a plea last month for world leaders to accelerate the ratification process, which lost steam after the agreement was announced in December.
To take effect, the accord must be signed and ratified by 55 nations responsible for at least 55 percent of global emissions. So far, 23 nations emitting about 1 percent of greenhouse gases have completed the ratification process, according to Climate Analytics’ ratification tracker.
“Together, the U.S. and China represent just under 40 percent of global emissions,” said Mr. Deese. “So the act of our two countries joining and when that happens will help move us closer to that goal.”
Climate change skeptics dismissed the anticipated executive ratification as a sham designed to prop up Mr. Obama’s legacy.
Climate Depot’s Marc Morano predicted that “Obama will surely do his best play-acting and pretend the ‘ratification’ has actual meaning, but as a former constitutional law professor, even he knows better.”
“What they need right now is a game-changer, and if they can’t get it then, true to form, they will manufacture the illusion of it,” Australian science writer Joanne Nova said on her JoNova blog.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman, has repeatedly said that the Paris Agreement will change nothing. He issued a white paper in April that said the pact amounts to “empty promises that will have no meaningful impact on the climate.”
“The problem with international climate change agreements is that they ignore basic economic and political realities and therefore are doomed to failure,” said Mr. Inhofe. “When the hype over the signing fades, the reality will set in that the policies President Obama is promising will not last.”
Critics fear that the executive branch will use the Paris Agreement, while not legally binding, to enact sweeping climate policies without Congress.
Mr. Obama has argued that urgent action is needed. “No challenge poses a great threat to future generations than climate change,” he said last year.
Mr. Deese credited the president with reaching out to China to reset the international malaise on climate change that followed the failed 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, which resulted in a weak accord that was not adopted.
“I think the second significant thing about president’s approach to climate change is seen in his engagement with China,” Mr. Deese said. “The president recognized early on in the administration that if we were going to have an effective global response to climate change, we were going to have to write a new playbook. That the old approaches had not succeeded.”
The Paris Agreement was the result of “a very consistent and steady diplomatic effort that the president prioritized year after year, working to restore U.S. credibility on climate issues through our Climate Action Plan, demonstrating that we actually could make progress in reducing emissions,” he said.
Mr. Obama is scheduled to embark Wednesday on a Pacific Rim trip that includes a stop in Honolulu for the World Conservation Congress, the G-20 Summit in China and a visit to Laos for the first such presidential visit in history.