Deliberately sidestepping Congress, President Obama formally entered the U.S. into an international climate-change agreement Saturday with China and dozens of other nations to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
In a ceremony in Hangzhou, China, Mr. Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping deposited each country’s official “instrument of acceptance” with U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon to join the agreement.
“Some day we may see this as the moment when we decided to save our planet,” Mr. Obama said. “History will judge today’s efforts as pivotal.”
Separately, Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi agreed on a side deal aimed at curbing other pollutants in the U.S. and China. They committed to “freeze” the production of hydrofluorocarbons, the chemicals often used in air conditioning and refrigeration, and cut aviation emissions by an unspecified date, possibly as early as 2021.
The U.N. climate-change pact cannot take effect until 55 nations representing 55 percent of worldwide carbon emissions formally ratify the agreement. The U.S. and China, the world’s two largest emitters, represent about 38 percent of total global emissions.
With the formal entry of Washington and Beijing into the deal, the agreement now has been joined by 25 nations representing slightly more than 40 percent of total emissions. Mr. Obama is hoping to push the agreement to completion by the end of this year as one of his prime legacy goals.
White House climate adviser Brian Deese said Saturday’s action is intended to “provide confidence to other countries” to join the pact. He said there are commitments from more than 55 nations, including Brazil, Argentina and South Korea.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said he would cancel the agreement if elected. Mr. Deese said despite opposition by Mr. Trump and by many Republicans in Congress, there is “broad support” among the public and the business community for an international climate agreement.
“We’re quite confident the United States will continue to be a part of this agreement going forward,” he said.
Environmental groups hailed the move. Greenpeace East Asia’s senior climate policy adviser Li Shuo said “political ambition must keep up with rising sea levels faced by vulnerable communities around the world.”
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said the “historic announcement has set a global precedent that has catapulted the world to the cusp of formally implementing the Paris [climate] Agreement and will have major positive implications for generations to come.”
The agreement forged by 195 nations last December in Paris sets non-binding targets for the reduction of carbon emissions that most scientists blame for rising temperatures and sea levels.
The Obama administration is not calling the pact a treaty, thereby avoiding the step of taking it to the Senate for a ratification vote — and likely rejection.
Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said the Senate should make it clear that the agreement “will have no force or effect until such time as it is ratified by the Senate.”
“Then the Congress should prohibit any funding for the Paris Climate Treaty, the Green Climate Fund, and the underlying UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,” Mr. Ebell said. “Finally, if the Obama administration ignores the Congress, the Senate should take up and vote on ratification of the Paris Climate Treaty.”
A vocal opponent, Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, has criticized the deal as “full of empty promises that will have no meaningful impact on the climate.”
White House aides say the president has the legal authority to ratify the accord without the two-thirds Senate vote required for treaties. They say the pact is merely an “executive agreement.”
“The United States has a long and well-established process for approving executive agreements … that is distinct from treaties,” Mr. Deese said. “Executive agreements represent over 90 percent of the international agreements that the United States enters into.”
He said Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush “joined important international environmental agreements by using executive agreements.”
Steve Groves, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Obama’s action “is a shameful, unilateral power grab.”
“The White House has long sought to call the Paris Agreement anything other than a ‘treaty’ in order to avoid the Senate’s advice and consent role under Article II of the Constitution,” Mr. Groves said. “But let’s be clear — the Paris Agreement is a treaty by every definition of the word and should be submitted to the Senate for its consideration. This action by the president is an intentional end-run around the American people and their elected representatives, done to advance an ineffective, expensive climate agreement. The U.S. should stay out of the Paris Agreement.”
In a head-to-head meeting later, Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi discussed issues including North Korea’s nuclear belligerence, maritime security, trade and human rights.
“The president reiterated America’s unwavering support for upholding human rights in China and stressed the need for China to protect religious freedom for all of its citizens,” the White House said.
There were tense moments upon Mr. Obama’s arrival in China. As the president disembarked from Air Force One, a Chinese official screamed at U.S. reporters to move away, yelling “this is our country.” He also yelled at a White House official and seemingly tried to block National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice and her deputy, Ben Rhodes from getting closer to the president.
Later, at the ceremony, U.S. officials and their Chinese counterparts got into a screaming match at a security checkpoint.
U.S officials could be heard arguing in Chinese with Chinese security officials over how many Americans could be allowed to go through security at a time. As the disagreement escalated, a Chinese official assisting the Americans grew angered by how guards were treating the White House staff and began yelling, nearly coming to blows with a Chinese security official, according to a pool reporter traveling with the president.
“You don’t push people. No one gave you the right to touch or push anyone around,” he yelled in Chinese at one of the security officials.