PARIS — As delegations from nearly 200 countries gather in Paris to hammer out an agreement over stemming worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases, the U.S. delegation said any agreement coming out of the talks will have only a “legal character” and will not be legally binding in its entirety. It is the latest comments indicating that the White House will likely not seek ratification of any climate deal by the GOP-dominated Senate.
Paul Bodnar, the senior director for energy and climate change at the National Security Council and a member of the U.S. delegation negotiating in Paris, said in an interview on Thursday that the U.S. advocated for countries to be legally mandated to put forward pledges to reduce emissions — and for those pledges to undergo periodic reviews — but “we don’t support [emission] targets themselves to be legally binding,” he said.
In Paris negotiators from 195 countries are trying to forge a global agreement that would sufficiently reduce emissions to limit average warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from preindustrial times, the amount agreed to in earlier negotiations. Under the current round of talks, each country submits voluntary pledges to reduce cuts rather take on specific mandatory emission targets, as was the case under the Kyoto Protocol. That 1997 climate agreement is largely considered a failure — in part because the treaty was not ratified by Congress, leaving the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases out of the agreement.
In 2007, China surpassed the U.S. in carbon dioxide emissions.
“What we are trying to do is to create a framework for climate action at the multilateral level that will endure and be effective in the decades to come rather than create what comes to another stopgap solution that forces us all to return to the negotiating table in five or 10 years,” said Bodnar.
Asked whether the U.S. is opposed to a legally binding treaty because of opposition in Congress, he said, “It’s not a narrow political calculus at all. It’s a broad assessment over how you get the major emitters on board, including the United States” and developing nations like India.
Last month Secretary of State John Kerry caused controversy in France when he said that any new deal in Paris would “definitely not be a treaty.” The EU and many other countries have argued that the agreement should be an international treaty with legally binding measures to cut emissions. His comments prompted French President François Hollande to respond, “If the deal is not legally binding, there is no accord, because that would mean it’s not possible to verify or control commitments that are made.”
Speaking at the opening day of the climate talks, President Barack Obama said the United States “not only recognizes our role in creating this problem — we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.”
“What should give us hope that this is a turning point, that this is the moment we finally determined we would save our planet, is the fact that our nations share a sense of urgency about this challenge and a growing realization that it is within our power to do something about it,” he said.
Despite the political momentum this week in France, Obama faces a tough task selling a new treaty back home.
Only about two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is taking place — an issue that is generally not in dispute in the rest of the world. This belief is largely divided along political lines, with 56 percent of conservative Republicans saying there is no evidence of global warming and a third saying it is “just not happening,” according to a recent Pew poll.
On Tuesday, House Republicans voted to block Obama’s recent regulations on reducing greenhouse gases, which call for the power sector to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by at least 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Obama will likely veto the House vote.
It was the most recent in a number of attempts to force the White House to submit a new Paris climate agreement to the Republican-controlled Congress — which the administration has resisted because of the strong likelihood of its being blocked. “I don’t think we’re out of step with public opinion wanting jobs, wanting economic growth, weighing the costs and the benefits,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Tuesday. “I think when you weigh the costs and the benefits against these so-called legally binding obligations, they don’t add up. I think it’s very clear people want jobs.”
However, in the United States, international agreements can be adopted not only through approval by at least two-thirds of the Senate or by simple majorities in both houses of Congress but also through executive action. According to legal analysts, executive action is a possibility if a treaty can be implemented on the basis of existing national law. In this case, the U.S. requirement to submit pledges on cuts to greenhouse gases as well as undergo periodic reviews was put into U.S. law when the Senate ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on Oct. 7, 1992.
Bodnar said he remained confident that any carbon-cutting measures taken by executive action would endure past the end of Obama’s term in January 2017. “We are confident that by the time this president leaves office, we will have put in place the most solid foundation we can,” Bodnar said.
The U.S. position on the legality of the new climate agreement is not the only issue causing waves in Paris. The Alliance of Small Island States, a negotiating bloc at the U.N., is advocating for any new agreement to recognize damage caused by climate change and to leave open the possibility of financial compensation by long-standing emitters like the United States.
Yet that position is a red line for many leaders of wealthy states, including the United States. Bodnar noted that the U.S. is the largest humanitarian donor in world, adding that “we will be there when disaster strikes, no matter the cause” but that “we’ve made clear that we have not accepted liability and compensation as part of this agreement.”
Negotiations have progressed slowly since talks began on Monday. As of Friday morning, the treaty text had been reduced from 55 to 46 pages, but hundreds of sections were still under discussion. The summit is set to wrap up on Dec. 11.
Editors note: Paul Bodnar's name was spelled incorrectly in a previous version of this story, as Bodner.