Is the Climate Change Agreement adopted in Paris by the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) a treaty? In other words, is it the type of international agreement to which the United States is a party only if the U.S. Senate ratifies it?
It is indeed, as this post will show.
Are the treaty’s emission-reduction and climate-finance “commitments” binding on the United States as a matter of international law? No.
From day one, Obama administration negotiators pushed to make the treaty’s core elements non-binding to encourage “participation” and “ambition.” That is, nations are more likely to participate, and promise more than they can deliver, if there are no legal consequences for broken promises.
The treaty’s emission-reduction and climate finance “commitments” might be compared to a non-binding Sense of Congress resolution, but for the fact that all Members of Congress can legitimately claim to represent people who elected them. In stark contrast, the 25,000 official delegates at COP21 do not represent peoples but rather “government, intergovernmental organisations, UN agencies, NGOs and civil society” (i.e., environmental pressure groups). Only a small minority of participating governments are full democracies.
Also from day one, the Obama administration envisioned the treaty to be “politically binding.” That’s simply an obfuscatory way of saying that once adopted at COP21, the treaty will put political pressure on governments — first and foremost U.S. leaders after 2016 — to honor the treaty’s non-binding promises.
As President Obama opined in Paris, his successor, regardless of party affiliation, will have to abide by the agreement because COP21 demonstrates that “99% of world leaders think this is really important.”
Nice try. COP21 demonstrates that political elites in developing countries want U.S. and other First World taxpayers to fork over $100 billion to $450 billion annually in wealth transfers, dubbed the “Green Climate Fund.”
COP 21 also demonstrates that political elites everywhere want to expand their power to rig energy markets and control trillions of dollars in energy-infrastructure investments — from now until 2050 and beyond.
Those are not honorable motivations, and Obama’s successor should promptly submit the treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent.
The real reason Obama insists the Paris agreement is not a treaty is obvious. Under the U.S. Constitution, the United States does not become a party to a treaty until “two thirds of Senators present” vote to ratify it (Article II, Section 2, Clause 2). There was no prospect of that happening even when Democrats held a majority of Senate seats.
What should GOP leaders do? They should pass resolutions explaining why the Paris agreement is a treaty, why the President must therefore submit the agreement to the Senate for its advice and consent, and why until ratified the treaty is no more politically-binding on the people and Congress of the United States than the long lists of never-to-be-enacted proposals in presidential state of the union speeches. The concurrent resolution introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Penn.) is exactly the kind of action needed to frame the debate.
House and Senate leaders should also use the power of the purse to block agency expenditures for activities related to the Paris treaty as long as the President works to circumvent the Constitution.
Finally, congressional leaders should continue their efforts to overturn EPA’s so-called Clean Power Plan, which constitutes the largest part of the U.S. COP21 emission-reduction pledge (known in bureaucratic parlance as our Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, or INDC).
Let’s now examine why, contrary to President Obama, the Paris climate agreement is a treaty.