Democrats this week dismissed GOP demands that the State Department stop funding the U.N. climate body because Palestine has joined it.
Democratic lawmakers past and present said support for the state of Israel is a separate issue from global efforts to address climate change. They criticized as political opportunism Republicans' argument that because U.S. law bars the State Department from providing funds to a U.N. agency that grants Palestine membership, that must now apply to funding for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change -- which "the state of Palestine" joined in March.
"Republicans are just using that as an excuse," former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told ClimateWire. "They've never wanted us to participate in the international efforts to deal with climate change."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who co-chaired a bicameral working group with Waxman before his retirement last year, predicted that the GOP bid to tie international climate efforts to Middle East politics would not prompt pro-Israel Democrats to turn their backs on last year's Paris climate agreement.
"This isn't the tail trying to wag the dog; this is the flea trying to wag the tail trying to wag the dog," he said. "There's something happening, and I think it's going to continue irrespective of whatever little darts they try to throw."
Republicans on Capitol Hill and elsewhere say the 28 senators who signed a letter last week demanding that Secretary of State John Kerry pull funding for the U.N. body have the law on their side.
They point to a 1994 law which "prohibits U.S. contributions to any affiliated organization of the United Nations or to the United Nations if they grant full membership as a state to a group that does not have internationally recognized attributes of statehood."
"I'm trying to stop any U.S. money going to the U.N. or any U.N. agency which recognizes a, quote, state of Palestine," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the letter's lead author and the chairman of a key Foreign Relations subcommittee.
An awkward position for pro-Israel Dems?
Republicans argue that means the administration must withhold both the $13 million that State has requested in fiscal 2017 to pay UNFCCC dues and stop contributing to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to help developing nations cope with warming. The GCF, which finances adaptation and mitigation projects in poor countries, is administered under the UNFCCC.
By continuing to supply funding for the U.N. climate apparatus, he said, the State Department is "breaking the law, as I read the law."
The State Department doesn't read the law the same way.
Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield wrote in a response to Barrasso's letter last Friday that the 1994 law does not apply because the UNFCCC is a treaty, not a specialized agency, and Palestine's accession therefore does not make them a member of any organization.
But Scott Segal of Bracewell LLP said the UNFCCC is both a treaty and an organization because it includes a secretariat and administers the GCF.
"That stands in marked contrast to what the State Department now claims," he said.
While Barrasso and other GOP lawmakers insist that they're not trying to score political points by tying pro-climate action Democrats to support for an international body that has recognized Palestine, Segal said voters are likely to find it "distasteful."
"It's really hard to say where individual members might come down on this," he said. "But it's clear to me that implementing Paris is in no way made easier by being drawn into the intractable problems of the Middle Eastern peace process."
GOP strategist Mike McKenna was blunter. "I'm kind of looking forward to seeing how Chuck Schumer manages this," he said, referring to the pro-Israel Democratic senator from New York.
State Dept.: 'No shortcut to statehood'
But it's hard to see whether Democrats recognize any new political cost to continuing to back U.S. participation in international climate action. Most said this week that they were unaware of the issue, but others -- like Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) -- predicted this issue wouldn't gain traction.
While Middle East peace is a high priority, he said, the issue of Palestine's accession to the UNFCCC is less of a concern.
"I can't speak for the others, but I just think this is such an important issue," Lowenthal, who heads the Congressional Safe Climate Caucus, said of international climate action. "I think we have provided the leadership to the world. If other nations and other groups want to join us, that's wonderful."
Said Whitehouse: "I would be surprised if there are people who are such staunch supporters of Israel that they would take down a worldwide climate agreement over Palestinian participation in reducing carbon dioxide emissions."
In her letter to the Republican senators, Frifield stressed that the United States does not accept that it is in a treaty relationship with Palestine through the UNFCCC. She repeatedly called Palestine's accession to the convention "purported," apparently questioning that it had joined. The State Department declined to comment.
"There is no shortcut to statehood and permanent status issues can only be solved through direct negotiators between the parties," Frifield said in her letter.
But Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute said the State Department's "limp-wristed objection" to Palestine's accession should convince Republicans to act to defund the UNFCCC and GCF, "and make it stick."
"It may even motivate Chairman [Bob] Corker," he said. The Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, who has not focused on Paris, said yesterday that he was unaware of the Palestine issue.
Rabbi: Abbas 'counterproductive' on climate
Palestine also was one of the first to ratify the Paris Agreement. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas used his statement before signing the agreement last Friday to claim that Israeli occupation is "destroying the climate in Palestine, and Israeli settlements are destroying nature in Palestine."
Waxman criticized the United Nations for general "hostility" to Israel and said the United States should not fund the U.N. Human Rights Council's actions targeting the country, for example.
"But I think we need to approach it on a broader perspective than the climate change international effort," he said.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, former president of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, said that Abbas' use of the United Nations as a means of seeking international recognition for Palestine is counterproductive and in this case threatens to compromise international climate action.
He said he hopes the Obama administration can find a means of complying with the law that also allows it to fund the UNFCCC and GCF.
"Anybody who gets in the way of stopping the carbon immersion of our atmosphere needs to stop and think what they're doing," Gutow said. "All parties should really struggle to make sure they don't do that."