Paris Agreement Is a Real Tiger: Lock and Load

by Marlo Lewis on December 27, 2015

in Blog

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Summary: The Paris climate agreement is “non-binding, underfunded, and unenforceable,” as one conservative commentator put it. However, Paris is a “paper tiger” only on paper. The treaty’s core purpose is not to impose legal obligations but to establish the multi-decade framework for a global political pressure campaign. The pressure will be directed chiefly at those who oppose EPA’s unlawful Clean Power Plan and other elements of the President’s climate agenda. Republicans will get rolled unless GOP leaders organize a political counter-offensive centered around a Byrd-Hagel 2.0 resolution. Key message point: Contrary to President Obama, the Paris agreement is a treaty, hence it is not a policy of the United States until the Senate ratifies it.

Dismissing the Paris Climate Agreement as a paper tiger because America’s emission-reduction and foreign-aid commitments are not “legally binding” is whistling past the graveyard. The Paris agreement is first and foremost a device for mobilizing political pressure against U.S. opponents of President Obama’s climate policies. Those would be Republicans and their fossil-fuel industry allies.

At the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) meeting in Paris, President Obama wanted, and got, an agreement in which each nation’s core commitments are “politically binding.” Those who laugh about the phrase being an oxymoron, because politicians break their promises all the time, miss the point. What chiefly determines climate policy is not science or law but politics.

The Paris agreement is “politically” rather than “legally” binding in two ways. First, each country’s core commitments are self-chosen (“nationally determined”) rather than specified by the agreement itself. Second, commitments are to be enforced via political pressure (“naming and shaming”) rather than through international tribunals or economic sanctions.

Obama wanted a politically-binding agreement for two reasons. First, he gets to pretend the Paris agreement is not a treaty, hence does not have to be submitted to the Senate for its advice and consent. Even when Democrats were the majority party, there was no chance “two thirds of Senators present” (Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2) would vote to ratify new international climate commitments. If Obama acknowledges the Paris agreement is a treaty, then it is dead on arrival. So he claims it is not a treaty.

Second, an agreement in which each country promises to implement its own “nationally determined contribution” (NDC) to limiting global emissions allows Obama to pretend EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) and other elements of his domestic climate agenda are “commitments” America has made to the world.

The absence of formal sanctions does not mean Paris has no teeth. Suppose, for example, the next president, future Congresses, or even courts try to upend any part of Obama’s climate agenda. Thanks to Paris, 190 foreign heads of state, hundreds of Democratic pols, scores of green advocacy groups, and legions of liberal pundits will be primed to denounce Republicans for breaking “America’s promises” and sacrificing mankind’s future on the altar of corporate greed.

Combating alarmist propaganda and confining EPA to the four corners of the Clean Air Act is hard enough already. Is it really of no political consequence if an international agreement grows and institutionalizes a global coalition of governments, U.N. bureaucrats, and Big Green pressure groups hyping climate risks and advocating cap-and-trade, renewable energy quota, and “keep it in the ground” restrictions on fossil-energy production?

Where Is It Written?

I twice used the word “pretend” above to describe Obama’s political strategy because his two main claims about the Paris agreement — it’s not a treaty and “we” have promised the world to implement his climate policies — are flimflam.

Where is it written that a climate agreement must have legally-binding emission-reduction requirements to be a treaty? You won’t find that maxim in the granddaddy of climate treaties, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Indeed, although the UNFCCC is indisputably a treaty, its emission-reduction goals are by all accounts non-binding, i.e. voluntary or aspirational.

Nor do we find “legally binding” among the State Department’s eight factors for distinguishing treaties from other agreements not subject to the Senate’s advice and consent (such as “sole executive agreements”).

More importantly, where is it written that the president gets to decide unilaterally whether or not a particular agreement is a treaty? The executive and legislative branches are co-equal, and treaty making is a shared power. If the President can by his sole voice declare a treaty not to be treaty because acknowledging it is a treaty would effectively kill it, then he can gut Article 2, neuter the Senate, and enact almost any policy he wants just by negotiating a sole executive agreement with foreign leaders.

Conservatives who gloat that the Paris agreement, by the President’s own admission, is non-binding and therefore not a treaty, unwittingly endorse Obama’s rationale for bypassing the Senate. They unintentionally aid and abet Obama’s ambition to make U.S. climate policy accountable, not to the American people via their elected representatives, but to foreign heads of state, U.N. bureaucrats, and green NGOs via political pressure.

Of Course It’s a Treaty

As noted, State Department regulations specify eight factors for distinguishing treaties from other types of international agreements. Here’s a quick overview (largely drawn from a study by Heritage Foundation analyst Steve Groves) of how the eight factors apply to the Paris agreement.

(1) The extent to which the agreement involves commitments or risks affecting the nation as a whole. The U.S. NDC requires the development and implementation of costly regulations to decarbonize all major sectors of the U.S. economy. The Paris agreement thus entails significant commitments and risks, especially considering its ratchet mechanism to increase “climate ambition” every five years, in perpetuity.

(2) Whether the agreement is intended to affect state laws. For Obama, the Paris agreement is in no small part a political strategy to shield the Clean Power Plan from hostile legislation and litigation. The CPP will require changes in state laws regarding electricity fuel mix, energy dispatch policy, demand management, and carbon trading.

(3) Whether the agreement can be given effect without the enactment of subsequent legislation by the Congress. The Paris agreement falls apart unless Congress ponies up billions for the Green Climate Fund.

(4) Past U.S. practice as to similar agreements. Nearly all international environmental agreements negotiated by the United States were subject to the Senate’s advice and consent.

(5) The preference of Congress as to a particular type of agreement. The Senate Republican caucus “is nearly unanimous in arguing that U.S. participation in a global climate deal should be subject to advice and consent in the Senate” (Bloomberg Energy and Climate Report, May 19, 2015).

(6) The degree of formality desired for an agreement. The Paris agreement and accompanying “Decision of the Parties” contain detailed requirements on mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer, capacity-building, transparency, implementation, compliance, and other topics.

(7) The proposed duration of the agreement, the need for prompt conclusion of an agreement, and the desirability of concluding a routine or short-term agreement. The Paris agreement calls for NDCs through 2025 and 2030, and aims to be self-renewing after 2030. There is no plausible time-urgency excuse to bypass the Article 2 treaty-making process.

(8) The general international practice as to similar agreements. The Paris agreement is the successor to the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol, both indisputably treaties requiring Senate ratification for U.S. participation. The agreement’s emission-reduction requirements are non-binding, making it similar to the UNFCCC. Industrial-country NDCs are targets and timetables, making it similar to Kyoto. Because the Senate ratified the UNFCCC but not Kyoto, the United States is a party to the former but not the latter.

Does Paris Merely Update Rio?

Obama claims he need not submit the Paris agreement to the Senate for its advice and consent because the agreement merely updates the UNFCCC, which the Senate ratified in 1992. But U.S. and other industrial-country NDCs are emission-reduction targets and timetables. As Groves documents, the Senate consented to ratify the UNFCCC only on the condition that subsequent agreements to adopt targets and timetables will also be subject to Senate review.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee memorialized that “shared understanding” with the Executive Branch when it reported the UNFCCC out of committee:

[A] decision by the Conference of the Parties [to the UNFCCC] to adopt targets and timetables would have to be submitted to the Senate for its advice and consent before the United States could deposit its instruments of ratification for such an agreement.

Lessons of Byrd-Hagel

Conservatives who assume a non-legally binding climate agreement poses no threat to our economy and capacity for self-government should reflect on the battle over the Kyoto Protocol.

A watershed event in that battle was the Senate’s passage of the Byrd-Hagel Resolution in July 1997. Byrd-Hagel preemptively nixed any climate agreement, like Kyoto, that would either exempt developing countries from emission-reduction targets and timetables or harm the U.S. economy.

As my colleague Chris Horner explains, Byrd-Hagel was above all a political solution to a political problem. The resolution passed 95-0, a landslide indicating that, with or without Byrd-Hagel, prospects for Senate ratification were dim. For the same reason, President Clinton was unlikely to submit the treaty for the Senate’s review. What then was the point of putting 95 Senators on record opposing Kyoto?

The Kyoto Protocol, with its cap-and-trade program and other “flexibility mechanisms,” broadly reflected the Clinton administration’s negotiating priorities, and President Clinton signed it on November 12, 1998. Byrd-Hagel deflated in advance any later pretense that Clinton’s signature represented new U.S. emission-reduction commitments. By putting the Senate on record as overwhelmingly opposed to an agreement like Kyoto, Byrd-Hagel undercut any future political pressure campaign based on the fiction that “you promised.” 

Byrd-Hagel’s political payoffs were substantial. The exercise helped build bipartisan coalitions in both chambers for the Knollenberg Amendment, which prohibited federal agencies from using funds “to propose or issue rules, regulations, decrees, or orders for the purpose of implementation, or in preparation for implementation, of the Kyoto Protocol.” The Knollenberg restriction, first included in the FY 1999 appropriation bill funding EPA, was a provision in at least five appropriation bills in FY 2001.

Byrd-Hagel also made it harder for EU leaders, “progressive” NGOs, and liberal media to divide and conquer Kyoto foes in the U.S. Senate. Having voted for Byrd-Hagel, a senator could not later flip-flop into the Kyoto camp without paying a political price.

Most importantly, Byrd-Hagel gave Clinton’s successor, President G.W. Bush, an unsinkable talking point when excoriated by Democratic pols, foreign leaders, and environmental activists for “pulling America out of Kyoto.” Like it or not, the U.S. Senate had spoken. Bush officials could truthfully argue that opposition to Kyoto was bipartisan and government-wide.

At times the Bush administration vascillated and endorsed “creeping Kyoto” policies such as carbon caps for electric power plants and regulatory credit for “voluntary” greenhouse gas reductions. But free-market advocates always thwarted such backsliding, in part by demonstrating the incompatibility of those initiatives with the logic and purpose of Byrd-Hagel.

In short, without Byrd-Hagel, the Kyoto Protocol could have become “politically binding” on U.S. policymakers via the sorts of pressures the Paris treaty is designed to gin up and sustain.

So unless today’s GOP leaders are men of iron (ha!), they will cringe and cave to the Paris pressure regime in 2017 and beyond unless they take strong preemptive action in 2016. The centerpiece of the GOP pushback should be a Byrd-Hagel 2.0. This time, both chambers should pass it, demonstrating that what Obama promised in Paris is only the proposal of an administration, not the policy of the United States.

Paris Is a Real Tiger

The Obama administration spins the Paris agreement as a non-treaty exempt from Senate review so that U.S. and global greens can more efficiently organize political pressure to defend and promote the Clean Power Plan, other regulatory assaults on affordable energy, and EPA’s unlawful reign as the nation’s climate legislator.

GOP leaders can ill-afford to be blasé about that strategy, because it is part and parcel of Obama’s broader agenda of political transformation.

Consider the political implications of the Clean Power Plan. If successfully implemented, the CPP will make every State’s electricity policies more like those of California and the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). That means the CPP will both narrow the differences between Red and Blue State energy policies and narrow the energy-policy choices within Red States. That will tend to shift national politics in a “progressive” direction. Why? Because there is little point in electing Red State politicians if We the People are only allowed to have Blue State policies.

Under the CPP, state energy policies from coast to coast will be subject to EPA’s direction and control. EPA, in turn, will be accountable, via the Paris-treaty pressure cooker, to foreign leaders, international bureaucrats, and transnational NGOs. The Paris agreement is the capstone of a “climate action plan” calculated to marginalize Red State politicians and disenfranchise Red State voters.

The “non-binding, underfunded, unenforceable” Paris agreement is a paper tiger only on paper. Keeping America safe from its claws and teeth will require much more than sneers.

Lock and Load

GOP leaders and their allies must mount their own campaign to undercut the global political pressure regime Obama plans to construct via the Paris treaty. The most important thing they can do is pass a Byrd-Hagel 2.0, such as the concurrent resolution introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Penn.). For maximum effect, they should pass it before April 22, 2016, when the Paris treaty is officially open for “ratification, acceptance, accession, or approval.”

The resolution and accompanying outreach should resoundingly affirm the following basic points:

(1) The legislative and executive branches are co-equal and treaty making is a shared power. The President does not get to decide unilaterally what is and is not a treaty subject to Senate review.

(2) The Paris agreement, by virtue of its detail, the extent of its commitments, previous national practice, and other factors, is a treaty.

(3) The United States is not a party to a treaty until and unless the Senate ratifies it.

(4) The President cannot unilaterally adopt U.S. emission-reduction targets and timetables as part of an international climate agreement without violating the terms on which the Senate ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

(5) The treaty will make executive agencies less accountable to Congress and the American people and more beholden to foreign leaders, U.N. bureaucrats, and unaccountable NGOs. The people’s representatives must act quickly to foil this threat to American self-government.


Gerard December 27, 2015 at 3:32 pm

The Paris treaty is a bureaucratic triumph. UN and EU bureaucrats are skilled at getting around democratically elected leaders. By playing word games they get exactly what they want out of a particular situation.

The best example of bureaucratic power is the EU where the parliament cannot initiate any law – it can only rubber stamp directives prepared by the bureaucracy – and those directives are binding on individual EU member states – overriding their own legal systems!

A prime example is the mess created by the EU directive on river systems enacted in 2000 which aims to return all rivers to their ‘natural state’. This directive prohibits the dredging of rivers and the building of embankments to prevent flooding (rivers have a right to inhabit their flood plains!).

Hence the severe flooding being experienced in the UK currently – a result of no dredging for 15 years.

Becky Walkden December 29, 2015 at 2:53 am

Your article was well written and I wish I could agree with it but I cannot. He is the problem that to me make Paris an irrelevancy.
1. The promises which you mentioned are NON-ENFORCEABLE are way too little and too late to handle the crises. What we do now effects the climate 50 years from now and with triggers starting to be hit, this non-binding agreement will never solve the issue in time and in truth far too many countries (China, India, USA) will be lucky to hit half their stated goals. Some feel good pathway to future progress will not do the trick.
2. The scientists are all of a sudden becoming very scared and no longer taking a non-emotional measured attitude towards it. They are starting to admit that they are understating the seriousness of the situation in order not to rock the political and economic world too much. If the scientists are scared, so am I.
3. Politicians do not want to make the serious decisions that are required because they will lose their positions. People demand magic finger solutions. Snap your magic fingers and the problems go away. The politicians are terrified of rocking the boat over something they think will affect things 50 years down the road.
4. In short, this was a feel-good public relations treaty made by people who understand that the problem is serious but for political and other reasons had no chance of getting together to forge an effective agreement. They tried at least and at least NOW they understand the seriousness of the situation. But the wheels are progress is too slow and too late. (sigh)

Glen Haas December 30, 2015 at 3:44 pm

The above arguments are very weak. However, it is correct that if Congress does not do its job and vote to NOT FUND this Political Agreement, then there is danger. The President MUST be accountable to both Congress and the American People.

Andres Valencia December 30, 2015 at 7:32 pm

Thanks, Dr. Lewis. This is an excellent analysis of the dire situation we carbon-based creatures face in these interesting times.
I agree this is a real tiger; a political commitment, but if voters have a real fire they can fend off the tiger, maybe even fence it off, if we have the fuel (not from solar panels or wind, we need 100% up-time).

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