We can’t say the Global Climate Treaty is dying, because doing so would imply that it had ever lived. What is apparent, however, is that momentum for a binding international accord addressing climate change stalled some time ago; delegates who still trudge to the do-nothing annual summits must be more disheartened by the year.
Now, the White House seems to be acknowledging the futility of the GCT movement, as the Obama Administration is reportedly pursuing a non-binding approach to international climate policy, in the hopes that such a strategy will sidestep the need to seek Congressional approval. The New York Times reports:
President Obama’s climate negotiators are devising what they call a “politically binding” deal that would “name and shame” countries into cutting their emissions. The deal is likely to face strong objections from Republicans on Capitol Hill and from poor countries around the world, but negotiators say it may be the only realistic path. […]
American negotiators are instead homing in on a hybrid agreement — a proposal to blend legally binding conditions from an existing 1992 treaty with new voluntary pledges. The mix would create a deal that would update the treaty, and thus, negotiators say, not require a new vote of ratification.
Countries would be legally required to enact domestic climate change policies — but would voluntarily pledge to specific levels of emissions cuts and to channel money to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change. Countries might then be legally obligated to report their progress toward meeting those pledges at meetings held to identify those nations that did not meet their cuts.
Of course, Congress isn’t happy with this new tack. In fact, the strategy has drawn fire from both sides of the aisle, with one Democrat calling the effort “fruitless.” The State Department has already responded to Congressional ire, claiming it’s too early to say whether or not this voluntary agreement would require Senate ratification, as the proposal hasn’t yet been drafted.
We’ll have to wait for Obama’s climate team to mock up a draft before we can tell how this will play out, but there are already some things to take away from this NYT report. First, it seems the President is intent on following through on his promise to take more executive actions in order to circumvent a quagmired Congress. A climate accord, binding or not, would be a significant battleground on which the conflict between the two branches of government is played out, and for that alone it’s worth paying close attention to.
But this also highlights the pure fecklessness of the GCT movement. The gap between the developed and developing world, in terms of both responsibilities for and vulnerability to climate change, is enormous. Both sides have cases to make, axes to grind, and real concerns when it comes to agreeing to the terms of such a massive deal.
Our climate is enormously complex, and crafting policy regarding it is understandably difficult. Add to that the simple fact that many measures to mitigate climate change also curtail economic growth, at least in the short term, and it’s no wonder there’s a dearth of politicians willing to step up to the table and sign off on a binding international treaty.
None of this is new; we’ve known the GCT was in the gutter for a long, long time. But it’s significant that the Obama Administration is acknowledging that even if, by some miracle, the world’s big players were able to iron out conditions for such a deal, Congress wouldn’t approve of it (a fact we’ve known since 1997, when it voted against the Kyoto Protocol), and is exploring other options. The White House is now effectively giving up on GCT. It’s about time.