Diplomats from around the world this week said they worry Republican attacks on climate change action in the United States could undermine a global accord, despite efforts by the Obama administration to reassure them.
In a series of talks with negotiators responsible for hammering out an international agreement in Paris in December, no one said they think GOP opposition in the United States will stop progress on a deal. But several key players said legal and political challenges to the federal plan for curbing power plant emissions make them uneasy about America’s ability to be a true long-term partner in fighting rising greenhouse gas emissions.
"There is a discussion ongoing in Europe. Yes, Mr. Obama says ‘yes’ to the agreement in Paris. But what if the elections go a completely different way? Are we going to see the United States move out of this?" asked Artur Runge-Metzger, head of international climate strategy at the European Commission.
Indeed, the scenes that greeted diplomats as they gathered in Washington, D.C., these past two weeks for climate talks at the World Bank, State Department and think tanks were not entirely reassuring. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had just heard arguments in a challenge from 15 states, coal companies and industry groups to U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan for reducing emissions from new power plants. The regulation will be critical to the United States’ meeting its international pledge of cutting emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, a key House committee moved draft legislation that would give states the power to opt out of the EPA rule. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed he would not let up on opposition to the rule, saying, "It’s a fight I intend to win." Just weeks earlier, when the Obama administration formally unveiled its Paris climate targets, McConnell declared the United States would never meet those goals, warning that "our international partners should proceed with caution" before cutting a deal with the administration on climate change.
"It makes the credibility of the U.S. commitment a little more cloudy," said David Wei, associate director for climate change at Business for Social Responsibility and a former negotiator for the Marshall Islands. But, he said, "You’re speaking to something of perception. We have to dispel that perception. We need more voices that reassure the Europeans or the Chinese as to the credibility of the U.S. commitment."
Fears of a Kyoto Protocol repeat
U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, speaking after a recent two-day meeting of ministers working on the Paris deal, acknowledged that some of his counterparts are concerned. But, he said, the administration has been reassuring them that they are on "solid legal ground" by using executive authority under the Clean Air Act to enact carbon-cutting regulations.
It remains unclear, though, if that message is resonating.
"We’re worried," Chinese Special Representative for Climate Change Negotiations Gao Feng said yesterday when asked about Republican opposition in the United States.
"We’re worried about that. The U.S. must be on board," he said. "I don’t want to see the Kyoto Protocol again where a big guy like the United States is out. That is a failure, in my view, if that happens again."
The United States helped craft the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and even signed it. But when it came time for Congress to ratify the deal, lawmakers objected to the structure that demanded legally binding emissions cuts only from industrialized nations and allowed voluntary efforts in exchange for finance for all other countries. It responded with a unanimous resolution declaring the Senate’s opposition to the treaty, and the United States never became a party.
The new deal leaders are hammering out will for the first time call on all countries, rich and poor, to take responsibility for reducing emissions. Yet while the Paris agreement is being crafted heavily around U.S. demands, longtime negotiators are quick to recall that countries also bowed to American demands in crafting the Kyoto Protocol, only to see the U.S. depart.
"A repetition of that story of what we had after Kyoto would be a major backlash," Runge-Metzger said.
He said part of why Europeans are pushing so hard for an internationally legally binding agreement is because industry is worried that the E.U. promise to cut emissions at least 40 percent by 2030 from 1990 levels won’t be met with action from American partners.
"Our industry in Europe is talking to me almost every day and saying, ‘Look, I really want to know what my competitors are doing across the Atlantic, and can I really count on that?’" Runge-Metzger said. "The politics of that in the United States is something we look at very closely."
Funding a ‘moral obligation’
Gambian Environment Minister Pa Ousman Jarju slammed climate skeptics in Congress and took particular aim at those who have vowed to deny climate funding for poor countries like his. The Obama administration has pledged $3 billion over four years to the Green Climate Fund, but a number of Republicans have declared that the money will never be approved.
"It is beyond imagination that people in the United States of America and people in Congress and some so-called scientists are denying what is happening in other parts of the world," he said. "This is money that is going toward really supporting those who are in dire need, and it is a moral obligation."
The Gambian minister said he has actually been encouraged by assurances by the Obama administration that the United States can deliver on a Paris deal without going through Congress. And, he said, he is hopeful that the accord struck there will be preserved even if Republicans take the White House in the next U.S. election.
"We hope that there will be no backsliding from the United States, because it has a responsibility as a world leader to join in the global efforts to address this issue," he said.
Yet at the same time, he and other negotiators this week said they are fundamentally optimistic about the chances of a landmark global agreement in Paris this year. While serious differences still exist among countries on a range of issues — from finance to whether the agreement will be legally binding — almost all said they believe there will be an agreement that starts all countries on a path to real decarbonization.
China’s Feng said he believes the Obama administration is doing "what they can do" to reassure him and other diplomats that it can make good on a Paris agreement. He said he hopes even Republicans in Congress can be brought on board.
"I know some Republicans. I don’t want to give you names, but I know some Republicans, and they are doing a very good job," Feng said. "I hope the Congress can join to hopefully make this happen."