52 U.S. Senators voted to block an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule this week that would curb carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. Passing the resolution without a veto-proof vote (the President has already promised not to sign it) makes this act of defiance symbolic only. But with the Paris climate summit just a week and a half away, it’s powerful symbolism indeed. The Senate is sending a clear message to the world’s climate delegates, who are busy prepping for the impending COP21 conference: This legislative body won’t ratify any kind of binding Global Climate Treaty (GCT), so don’t even try.
Secretary of State John Kerry tried to side-step this problem last week when he insisted negotiators wouldn’t be working on a treaty in France, a comment that immediately inspired backlash and spurred the French foreign minister to suggest that Mr. Kerry was probably “confused.” But let’s clear any confusion up now: The United States won’t sign on to a binding, enforceable GCT. So what else is there for UN delegates to work towards, if such a treaty is off the table?
Harvard economist Robert Stavins sketched out a scorecard for the talks recently, saying Paris would be successful if the following goals are met: 90 percent of emissions are covered by national commitments; a robust review process is put in place to make sure nations are working towards these pledges; a mechanism is established to review national targets periodically; talks aren’t bogged down by “unproductive disagreements”; and a climate financing system is set up. Those are five big asks, and while Stavins is fairly sanguine about most of them, we don’t share his optimism for what may be the most important topic in that list: the money.
Here, once again, the U.S. Senate is key. That body says it will not contribute government money to a global climate fund that’s meant to spend $100 billion annually on helping poorer countries mitigate and adapt to a changing climate. Reuters reports:
“This president is going to go (to Paris) with no money,” said Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who chaired a hearing in the Senate environment panel on the international climate negotiations, which begin on Nov. 30.
Capito and other Republican members of the committee said they will ensure any deal the U.S. strikes in Paris will face congressional scrutiny, and warned they will block President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget request for the first tranche of the $3 billion pledged last year to the U.N. Green Climate Fund.
“Without Senate approval (of a climate agreement), there will be no money,” added Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, acknowledging that guarantees of climate aid to developing countries is “the linchpin” of the Paris climate conference.
This sends yet another powerful message to climate delegates. Even if negotiators stay away from a binding treaty for fear of America’s lack of participation, they won’t be able to entice the developing world to stick to national emissions reductions plans if the carrot in all of this—the climate fund—isn’t being backed by the developed world.
UN spokespeople have been busy this year hedging (read: lowering) expectations so that when the inevitable happens and Paris doesn’t produce some international climate breakthrough, negotiators can still claim some sort of success. The closer we get, though, it’s become clearer and clearer that the cards are stacked against this quixotic green quest.