President Barack Obama plans to sidestep Congress—once again—in order to combat climate change. This time it involves hammering out a global agreement to reduce the use of fossil fuels: The New York Times reported Tuesday evening that negotiators for the Obama administration were working to produce a “politically binding” agreement that would “name and shame” countries into reducing their carbon emissions.
In the United States, at least two-thirds of the Senate must approve a treaty in order for it to become legally binding. But there’s no chance the current Senate would approve any deal intended to force controversial carbon cuts. Sources say Obama intends to bypass congressional resistance by negotiating an update to a 1992 treaty, a move that would not require a Senate vote. The Times said the agreement was being prepared for signing at a United Nations summit in Paris in 2015. Delegates plan to discuss the deal next month at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and draft the language in December at a meeting in Lima, Peru.
In 1992, the United States signed and ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty that called for countries to work toward the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.” President Bill Clinton signed a subsequent global climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, in 1998, but the Senate never voted to ratify it.
Since then, the subject of global warming has remained a political nonstarter. While some scientists warn of environmental disaster caused by burning fossil fuels, others say the research isn’t clear that human-produced carbon dioxide is responsible for most of the recent warming, or that a small amount of warming would be harmful overall.
E. Calvin Beisner, a spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance, a Christian environmental organization, said the world’s poor desperately need cheap fossil fuels to improve their lives and reduce illness: The World Health Organization estimates 4.3 million people died prematurely in 2012 because of indoor air pollution caused by heating homes and cooking over rudimentary coal, wood, and biomass stoves. That total is greater than the amount of premature deaths attributed to outdoor air pollution.
“None of the developing poor are going to be stupid enough … to sign on to anything that requires them to reduce their fossil fuel use,” Beisner told me Wednesday. “This is grandstanding for Obama. It pleases his base.”
Obama made a separate end run around Congress in June, when he announced the first national limits on carbon dioxide—a 645-page plan to reduce emissions from power plants. It will be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Unfortunately, this would be just another of many examples of the Obama administration’s tendency to abide by laws that it likes and to disregard laws it doesn’t like—and to ignore the elected representatives of the people when they don’t agree,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told The Times in a statement.