As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama declared with almost classical hubris that his ascent to higher office marked the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” So naturally he went into the Paris global-warming talks with appropriate fanfare and theatricality. In reality, President Obama’s approach to global warming is like his approach to health-care reform: He is willing to put his name to any agreement that lets him declare victory without bothering too much about the details.
The accord reached in Paris fails in three key ways: It cannot satisfy an elementary cost-benefit analysis; it does not serve the national interests of the United States; and the Obama administration is seeking to bind the United States to a treaty while insisting that it is not a treaty and thereby shutting Congress out of its proper role in ratifying such accords. For these reasons, the Paris agreement should be considered dead on arrival, and Congress should make it clear that the United States will not consider itself legally bound by it for the simple reason that it has not been legally adopted.
On the matter of cost-benefit analysis — which is to say, the basic question of the efficacy of what is being proposed — the evidence is, for a change, fairly straightforward. Current analysis by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — not exactly a nest of fossil-fuel conservatism — suggests that the emissions cuts being agreed to in Paris would reduce that estimated warming by as little as 0.0°C or by as much as 0.2°C. At a real cost of some hundreds of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy alone, one would like to get in front of the decimal point.
That proposed improvement is scanty in part because of the agreement’s second defect: It mainly burdens the United States and other Western countries, while two of the world’s three largest emitters of greenhouse gasses — China and India — give up little or nothing. China has committed to peaking its emissions precisely when U.S. government estimates believed they would anyway. India’s commitment represents a slowing of its recent efficiency improvements and falls squarely in the middle of a business-as-usual forecast.
The accord mainly burdens the United States and other Western countries, while two of the world’s three largest emitters of greenhouse gasses — China and India — give up little or nothing.
One of the important political aspects at work here is the complaint from many of the world’s poorer countries, led by India, that expecting the developing world to make emissions cuts amounts to “carbon imperialism.” As rhetoric, that pudding is a little big over-egged, but the underlying analysis — that the United States and Western Europe became rich during a period of more or less unrestricted emissions, but we expect today’s poor countries to do so while burdened by significant restrictions — is not entirely without merit.
That is why it is no surprise that India’s development-minded nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, remains committed to doubling India’s coal consumption over the next few years, even as he puts out the obligatory pronouncements of global-warming concern for the consumption of Western liberals. Rather than commit itself to emissions reductions, India has pledged only to reduce (slightly) its “carbon intensity,” which is to say that it hopes to increase its consumption of cleaner sources of energy at a rate that is proportionally a smidgen higher than its consumption of coal and crude oil. Even as India leads the developing countries in seeking large wealth transfers in the name of combating climate change, it is using earmarks for alternative-energy projects to simply hook rural communities up to the electrical grid.
The gentlemen in Beijing are not the only world leaders with an insufficient commitment to the rule of law and genuinely accountable government, which brings us to the third major objection to the Paris accord: The Obama administration seeks to bind the United States to this treaty while subverting the treaty process. This is politics as Schrödinger’s cat: As with the matter of the Democrats’ health-care program, under which the individual mandate is simultaneously considered a tax and not a tax, depending on the political and legal need of the moment, the Paris accord is being presented as simultaneously both a treaty and not a treaty, depending on what outcome the administration is seeking. It wants the Paris agreement to be legally binding, which would normally demand Senate consent, but also insists that it is not a treaty and therefore needs no congressional attention at all.
What has been agreed to in Paris promises to be ineffective and to undermine the national interests of the United States.
As Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions put it: “The Paris agreement will very likely be a treaty under international law, but probably not a treaty as that term is generally understood in the U.S. context.” Just so. The Democrats want this to be considered not a treaty but instead a mere extension of current U.S. commitments under prior agreements, for the purposes of subverting the constitutional process for adopting a treaty; but they also want legally binding rules, which would go beyond current U.S. commitments under previous accords. Secretary of State John Kerry has, with characteristic clarity, been on both sides of the question, causing a minor furor when he insisted in November that the Paris agreement would not be legally binding, subsequently changing his story. U.S. negotiator Todd Stern further muddied the waters by saying that the United States is seeking an agreement that is “legally binding in many respects.”
One would have to be remarkably dewy-eyed not to see that this is simply an elaborate process for legally committing the United States to an expensive and cumbrous climate-change agenda without going through the obligatory legal process for making such a commitment. If it is intended to be binding, then it is a treaty and must go to the Senate; if it is not intended to be binding, then the administration should be clear about that, and Congress probably should take steps to clarify that fact beyond doubt.
In sum, what has been agreed to in Paris promises to be ineffective and to undermine the national interests of the United States, which is why the administration is attempting to impose it on the country illegally. Congress should take this moment to rediscover its institutional self-respect and put a stop to this nonsense before its entrenchment.