Close vote in Senate previews GOP attacks on Obama’s global climate strategy

By Lisa Friedman | 01/23/2015 08:13 AM EST

The Obama administration yesterday narrowly survived the first major attack on its efforts to forge a new global climate change agreement.

The Obama administration yesterday narrowly survived the first major attack on its efforts to forge a new global climate change agreement.

By a vote of 51-46, the Senate rejected a measure by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would have insisted upon Senate approval of any new international global warming accord and barred any deal that imposed "disparate" carbon commitments for the United States and other countries. It also would have declared invalid an agreement Obama crafted with Chinese President Xi Jinping last year, calling it a "bad deal" for America.

"We’re the only party that has a commitment made in the agreement with China. The Chinese agree to increase emissions," Blunt said in arguing for the amendment.


Agreed Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who co-sponsored the measure, "We heard in the [president’s] speech on Tuesday that they’re negotiating with China and some great, successful negotiation took place. … Do you know what they came out with in that? Nothing. China said we’ll keep increasing our emissions until 2020, then we’ll look at it and decide if we want to lower it. That’s not much of a negotiation, and it’s not very comforting."

The amendment, which came as part of a marathon debate on the Keystone XL pipeline, needed 60 votes to pass. Yet it still won the approval of a majority of lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who once championed strong U.S. action on climate change. Only one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted in favor of the measure, while two Republicans, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Susan Collins of Maine, opposed it.

Analysts slam talking points on China

Coming ahead of U.N. negotiations expected to conclude in Paris in December with a new international climate agreement, energy experts said the attack foreshadows a year filled with Republican efforts to upend the talks. Democrats blasted the measure as hypocritical, noting that Republicans for decades have insisted that China must take action alongside the United States for any deal to win congressional approval. They argue that China is finally doing just that.

"Republicans who fight taking action on climate have used China as an excuse for years, saying if they don’t act to cut their carbon pollution, neither should America. Now that we’re working towards an agreement that gets China to act along with the United States, Republicans decide they want the option to block that agreement. This amendment makes it clear that Republicans don’t want any action on climate change at home or abroad," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

"This is all just a massive amount of posturing," said former Sen. Tim Wirth, who served as State Department undersecretary for global affairs under President Clinton. Calling the U.S.-China agreement "the most important thing that’s happened in the last year," followed by rallying for climate action by hundreds of thousands of people in New York, Wirth said global momentum is propelling leaders toward a new global deal. "The critics are going to try to stop it because they don’t want to see things happening," he said.

Under the deal struck in Beijing, Obama and Xi both agreed to announce new carbon emissions targets. The United States, Obama said, will cut climate pollution 26 to 28 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels. Xi announced that China will peak its emissions by 2030 while ramping up the country’s share of zero-carbon energy to 20 percent of energy production.

To many Republicans, that has translated into a mantra: China won’t have to act for 20 years. Energy analysts across the political spectrum yesterday refuted that.

"China is absolutely doing something every day," said Taiya Smith, a managing partner at Garnet Strategies LLC who has worked on China since she served in Republican President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department.

Smith noted that China has already set in motion policies to cap coal use by 2020 and has invested far more money than the United States in both renewable energy and carbon capture and storage research. The goal to peak emissions by 2030 doesn’t go beyond what the Chinese government had already been planning, she said, "but what it was already planning to do was monstrous, and their goals are actually pretty ambitious."

She criticized the Blunt amendment as "poorly researched" and poked fun at its assertion that Americans will suffer higher electricity bills immediately because of power plant restrictions, while citizens in communist China won’t face similarly rising prices.

"Yeah, of course you won’t see their electricity rates decrease, because their electricity is not market-determined," Smith said.

Fighting ‘unchecked unilateralism’

Michael Levi, a senior energy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, called the Blunt amendment "factually ill-grounded and bad policy," and said its demand that every country cut the same level of absolute emissions "is not environmentally responsibly or economically fair."

But, Levi added, "this is all a bit silly, because if you don’t believe that climate change is caused by people, anything you say about the unfairness with regard to China is pretty secondary."

China recently surpassed the United States as the world’s largest absolute emitter. But according to the World Bank, the United States burns about 17 tons of emissions per person, while China emits 6.2 tons per person. In India, the world’s fourth-largest emitter, each person emits about 1.7 tons.

The Obama administration has pushed for a global climate deal that demands all countries take legal responsibility for curbing emissions while recognizing that nations of different levels of development may act at different speeds.

Opponents of that effort said they won’t stop trying to block the Paris agreement.

"Bypassing Congress at every chance, the president has already put the United States on the losing end of a so-called climate ‘deal’ with China and has vowed to champion a binding international climate agreement at the Paris climate talks later this year," said Mike Duncan, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, in a statement. "Senator Blunt’s amendment is an important step in putting an end to the Obama Administration’s unchecked unilateralism."