This year’s high-stakes climate conference in Paris is still months away, but congressional offices are already calling and meeting with environmental staffers at foreign embassies, making their case that the United States either can or cannot deliver what the White House has promised toward a global deal.
GOP Senate staff, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) energy aide Neil Chatterjee, has been reaching out to foreign officials over the past months to warn that the White House’s pledges of emissions reductions and aid dollars won’t withstand congressional opposition — and especially the possible election of a new Republican president. E.U. members who have been among the strongest proponents of a stringent deal in Paris this year were on their call list.
Republicans say they’re trying to manage expectations. They note that the U.S. system differs greatly from European parliamentary governments, where one party may control all the levers of government.
"We have some ability to control the money," said one senior aide. "But also in terms of the targets, I think it is important to express to some of these international negotiators that two-thirds of the U.S. government — the legislative branch and the judiciary — have not yet signed off on the Clean Power Plan."
Embassies don’t supply climate negotiators, but they do provide advice.
President Obama has pledged that the United States will cut its emissions between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. But that promise, which makes up the core of the U.S. negotiating position ahead of Paris, is contingent on U.S. EPA moving ahead with its newly final rule for existing-power-plant carbon dioxide and promulgating other curbs that already have a Republican bull’s-eye painted on them.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee majority staffers say they’re mulling a fall strategy to unravel the Clean Power Plan using the Congressional Review Act (CRA).
"If they’re going into Paris with this idea that the Clean Power Plan is automatically going to be the law of the land in the U.S., [we are] just trying to educate folks that that is not necessarily the case, and that they ought to have that information before committing to a deal with the U.S.," said the senior aide.
The committee says staff followed up with embassy personnel after an event in late July hosted by the conservative American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF). Officials from a broad array of countries were told the United States’ so-called intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) — the 26 to 28 percent pledge — would never materialize (ClimateWire, July 22). The EPW Committee’s majority counsel, Mandy Gunasekara, said at that event that Obama’s second-term policies are politically and legally vulnerable, something countries should consider before sitting down with State Department negotiators in the French capital this December.
Meanwhile, Democratic offices are doing outreach of their own. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) met with Laurence Tubiana, France’s special representative for the 21st Conference of the Parties, during her visit to Washington, D.C., in April. A French official said the ambassador and the senator discussed ways to increase ambition ahead of this year’s conference. And the Whitehouse aides have since met with French embassy officials on the same topic.
"As Senate Republicans threaten to undercut U.S. climate commitments, Sen. Whitehouse would urge our European allies to take a look at the GOP’s record of empty threats," said Seth Larson, a Whitehouse spokesman.
Republicans in recent years have loaded policy riders onto spending bills and filed CRA resolutions — but those efforts require a presidential signature to become law.
But conservatives say it’s only a matter of time before the Clean Power Plan will be invalidated by the courts. The EPW aide said Republicans are trying to counter the messages resonating from the White House and State Department, which hold that the administration’s policies are all on firm legal footing. That becomes even more crucial, the aide said, if pro-climate-regulation members like Whitehouse are engaging the embassies.
"Maybe we need to be having conversations, as well, so they’re not just getting their earful from President Obama and his administration and then the Sen. Whitehouses when there are Republicans who have valid points to make, as well," the aide said.
But Jake Schmidt, who directs the international program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it was ironic that after years of arguing EPA would act alone if it tackled climate change, Republicans now seem to be trying to persuade other countries not to cooperate.
"Now McConnell’s strategy has shifted to ‘Since those countries are moving ahead, we’re going to try to undercut the international efforts because the U.S. isn’t trustworthy,’" he said.
As for McConnell’s threat to prevent the White House from delivering on its pledges, Schmidt said this year’s State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs spending bill provided a taste of the Senate’s appetite for withholding aid from climate-impacted countries when Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) co-sponsored an amendment in committee that removed language barring the State Department from contributing $500 million to the Green Climate Fund in fiscal 2016 (E&ENews PM, July 9). The president has pledged a total of $3 billion to the fund over four years.
"So even within his own party, votes are challenging," Schmidt said of McConnell. "And that still doesn’t mean he can get over a veto threshold for stopping the Clean Power Plan or stopping a Paris agreement."
One of Congress’ chief tools in crippling the U.N. process will be withholding climate aid, the senior aide said, calling the Green Climate Fund "a bribe being paid from industrialized nations led by the U.S. to pay for these developing countries to come to the table."
‘A lost cause’
Some of the strongest international proponents of a stringent climate deal say they haven’t fielded any calls from the Capitol or Senate office buildings.
"I would suggest that they probably — and rightly — see us as a lost cause," said one European official.
A French official said his embassy had been in touch with both parties on Capitol Hill about COP 21, though recent discussions had revolved more around efforts to secure a nuclear treaty with Iran than the climate talks. But the official said Republicans in those exchanges hadn’t predicted the United States would fall short of Obama’s targets.
"I haven’t heard that message from them at all," he said.
The French ambassador did host a dinner at his Kalorama residence in late July with aides and chiefs of staff for senators and House members of both parties to discuss the conference. The guest list included staff for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the official said, and the embassy is also trying to plan a meeting with White House climate adviser Brian Deese for the near future.
A German official invited congressional Republicans to call him so he could drive home the point that the United States should do even more to address emissions than it already is. He said that at July’s ACCF gathering at the Cosmos Club, Gunasekara and a speaker from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued that the United States was likely to fall short of its INDC goal even in the unlikely event that all its rules moved forward as planned because the administration is overestimating its reductions.
The German official suggested that the United States simply add manufacturing to the list of sectors slated for carbon regulations to make up the difference.
In fact, he said he raised that idea at the ACCF forum but found that the aide to Senate EPW Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and representatives from the nation’s largest business group "wanted to avoid that discussion, actually."
"I wanted to know whether there were new arguments in the field, but I didn’t hear any," he said.