Obama team held its ground, shaped deal around its wishes

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, December 15, 2015

PARIS — The United States got almost everything it wanted in the landmark climate deal struck here this weekend.

The historic agreement by 195 countries handed President Obama an international legacy on global warming without crossing any red lines drawn by U.S. negotiators. And it allowed the administration to tell the American public that it had pushed China, India and other major developing nations to shoulder an unprecedented share of the responsibility for cutting emissions.

But environmentalists are divided on whether U.S. muscle helped broker the strongest practicable deal or whether it bullied smaller countries and lost an opportunity to cut carbon to the extent that scientists say will avoid environmental catastrophe. And Republicans are already calling the deal a “paper tiger” that a GOP president could walk away from.

For his part, Obama was quick to claim credit for the United States’ helping to broker the deal. In remarks hours after the gavel went down at the sprawling Le Bourget conference center just outside Paris, the president said the world had been able to “seize the moment” on climate, in part, because of American work at home and abroad since U.N. negotiations ran aground in Copenhagen, Denmark, six years ago.

“Today, the American people can be proud — because this historic agreement is a tribute to American leadership,” he said from the White House. The United States helped rebuild the world response to warming after Copenhagen, he said, by taking steps to curb its own greenhouse gases through domestic actions like U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Senior administration officials immediately after the conference praised Obama’s involvement, including his bilateral outreach over the past few years to a range of countries, which helped set the stage for Saturday’s agreement.

The highlight, an official said, was last year’s joint U.S.-China announcement, in which the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters put forward post-2020 reduction commitments that “surprised the world and changed the dynamic of this issue.”

Secretary of State John Kerry spent his birthday week with delegations from China to Tuvalu, attempting to eke out a deal that would move the needle on warming but not be vulnerable in the Senate.

Kerry told reporters after the conference that China’s agreement to peak its emissions no later than 2030 ensured that contrary to the Kyoto Protocol — which the United States didn’t ratify — and the failed architecture of Copenhagen, the Paris deal would stand because it is global.

Previous efforts “didn’t have this kind of momentum behind them,” he said. “And the bottom line is that this agreement recognizes that we are going to have to begin to change the way we power our planet, the way we power things, whether it’s transportation or buildings, create electricity that everybody draws on.”

‘Good things were actually lost’

The administration’s top objective was striking a deal that Obama could join without consulting the Senate.

That meant it could not make funding levels or emissions cuts subject to international law, and had to stay within the bounds of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the Senate has ratified.

In public statements here, the administration painted this “bottom-up” approach as the best way to secure global buy-in.

Developed countries, U.S. officials noted, would not agree to make their own emissions commitments binding under international law. And the form most developing countries preferred — which bound rich countries, but not themselves, to emission cuts — is no longer appropriate, the American negotiators said, because it would perpetuate obsolete distinctions that ignore the growth of China and other economies in the last 25 years.

“We’re past that,” a senior administration official said. “That’s the backward-looking world.”

But behind closed doors, developing countries say, Kerry drove home to them that a deal that included mandatory commitments of cash or carbon cuts was a deal the world would have to implement without its largest economy. Participants say the top U.S. diplomat warned them that such a deal would die in the Senate.

So poor countries were forced to roll over, advocates for those countries said, and accept a deal that guaranteed them neither funding nor a future of climate stability.

“I think the constraints of the U.S. domestic politics that makes it so difficult for the U.S. administration to take on even domestic action, let alone ambitious global actions, I think that domestic constraint unfortunately has spilled over into the international arena,” said Chee Yoke Ling of Third World Network in Malaysia. “Behind closed doors, a lot of really good things were actually lost.”

But some greens say omitting binding targets in this deal will not ultimately weaken it. Countries would tend to put forward less-stringent goals if they knew they could be held liable for missing them, they say.

“There’s a silver lining to nonbinding commitments, because they foster greater ambition and wider participation,” said Alex Hanafi of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Did U.S. stance become ‘consensus position’?

But a Senate-proof deal wasn’t the only win the United States wrung out of these talks.

Asked whether the world’s wealthiest countries had to “cave” during negotiations, a senior administration official replied, “I don’t think we had to cave on anything, actually.”

And that was borne out in the elements of the agreement that are made legally binding as much as in the ones that are left to national discretion.

The agreement requires countries by 2020 to resubmit commitments through 2030, even if their existing pledges cover those years, a concession the United States secured from a reluctant China and India.

While those new commitments need not be more ambitious than the ones now in place, many advocates hope large economies will be pressured to not simply reiterate promises they’ve already made.

The administration holds that it has the authority to bind the United States to make a submission of its own in 2020 under authorities granted when the Senate ratified the UNFCCC.

And Hanafi said the United States was right to prioritize transparency of monitoring and verification in these talks.

The final deal includes U.S.-backed language on transparency that is also binding under international law and grants developing countries more time and yet-unspecified “flexibility” in the agreement’s early years. But it will eventually mandate that all but the poorest countries meet the same standards of disclosure required of the United States and the European Union.

This is a win for the environment as much as for the United States, Hanafi said, because transparency is necessary to any agreement that relies on common action.

“Ultimately, what countries can do and how much they’re willing to do is going to depend on what they see others doing and the opportunities they see for themselves,” he said. If countries don’t trust that trade competitors are making good on their promises, he said, they’ll be unlikely to put forward more ambitious goals in 2020 when countries submit their next tranche of commitments.

Policy consultant Paul Bledsoe, who has followed these talks for decades, disputed that the United States drove the agenda in Le Bourget.

“What happened was that the U.S. goals became consistent with the goals of most nations,” he said. “The American position evolved into the consensus position, and that’s why they were able to carry the day.”

Europe and progressive developing countries wanted binding commitments, but their agreement to allow the United States to join the “high-ambition coalition” was viewed as a statement that nationally determined targets weren’t incompatible with a strong result. The United States did come to embrace the need for an aspirational goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, which was an evolution of its position, if not a major reversal. And the world’s largest economy promised some additional support for poor country adaption — a nod to developing countries’ top request.

The United States secured language in the deal that precludes compensation and liability for losses poor countries sustain due to climate change. But Bledsoe argued that China as well as the United States would have a stake in wanting that exclusion in place. And Hanafi said that poor and climate-vulnerable countries wouldn’t have signed onto the deal at all if they didn’t on the whole support it.

Nicaragua’s delegation determined that the deal did not strike that balance. It was the lone dissenting voice, though it did not officially move to scuttle the deal, which under U.N. rules required consensus to move forward.

Paul Kelley, chief negotiator for the Central American country, told reporters after the deal was adopted that Nicaragua took its stand because the deal did too little to protect poor nations from warming. The country’s agriculture, fisheries and coastlines were all in danger, he said.

“We demand that there be a scientific, objective, measurable, verifiable and transparent carbon budget based on historic responsibilities,” he said. “Those that have given out the greatest emissions should be the ones who cut the emissions to meet the 1.5-degree target,” he said. “They’re the ones who have the carbon; they’re the ones who have the funds.”

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth and the self-described “skunk at the garden party” here, said that the United States “absolutely threw its weight around in these talks.”

“You got an unanimous agreement on the deal because no one wanted to be blamed for taking it down,” he said in an email. “Unfortunately, the mitigation targets and the squishiness of the commitments and review will nearly guarantee that countries in Africa and small islands will feel the brunt of climate change.”

But Joe Aitaro of Palau, an island nation vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, emerged from the plenary smiling. The deal gives his country a path to survival, he said.

“I have hope today,” he said. “I didn’t yesterday, and today I do.”

Deal could be ‘shredded’ — Sen. McConnell

The response from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean began the moment the gavel went down in Le Bourget.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said conference attendants should put away their Champagne because the next president is unlikely to follow Obama’s lead.

“The president is making promises he can’t keep, writing checks he can’t cash, and stepping over the middle class to take credit for an ‘agreement’ that is subject to being shredded in 13 months,” McConnell said.

The Kentucky Republican has taken a leading role in targeting the administration’s rules for clipping greenhouse gas emissions from power generators. Without those rules, the United States can’t meet its 26 to 28 percent emissions reduction commitment.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement that poor countries that “hope to be flooded with financial resources” would be disappointed.

The Senate has already said that Obama’s commitments to the Green Climate Fund and other climate aid programs would not be forthcoming, he said. And the outcome of these talks would be the same as it was after the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated 18 years ago; the president could accept it, but the Senate wouldn’t comply with its strictures.

“I regret to say Sen. Inhofe is just wrong,” Kerry said after the deal was approved.

The Obama administration had maintained credibility throughout the talks despite messaging from congressional Republicans thanks to a combination of domestic achievements and negotiating prowess, he said.

“My being here for five days — I can’t tell you how many people commented how that made a difference to them,” Kerry said. “It said the United States is serious.”

The fact that the deal is an executive agreement rather than a treaty means the next president would have less legal difficulty removing the United States from it. But Kerry said that would be unlikely.

“I just personally do not believe that any person who doesn’t understand the science and isn’t prepared to do for the next generations what we did here today and follow through on it cannot and will not be elected president of the United States,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said this deal is already viewed as a global achievement. Governments across the world have contributed to it and labored over it. If a U.S. president withdraws now, it will not only damage American credibility internationally but make it difficult or a new president to find support abroad for his or her other priorities.

“I think the blowback on that would be much more severe than it was when George Bush pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol,” he said.

Climate change has become a “geopolitical issue of the first order,” he said, not least now that the world has succeeded in reaching an agreement about how it should be addressed. “I think it’s really a different environment.”