Western senators angle to influence Paris climate talks

Wyoming's Barrasso is undermining the treaty, while New Mexico's Udall flew to Paris to support it.


Americans from Western states are striving to influence the international climate talks in Paris that finish this week. The negotiations aim to create a new climate change pact among more than 180 nations. The Western Americans fall into two groups: one trying to subvert the climate deal and the other shoring it up. The proponents are compelled by disruptive climate change impacts already felt in the region, such as intensified forest fires and drought. Opponents worry that by curtailing fossil fuels, the deal will cut into jobs and revenue from coal, oil and natural gas.

The most prominent Western opponent, Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso, released a report at the mid-point of the two-week-long Paris conference, challenging President Obama’s authority to negotiate for the United States. “President Obama is so desperate for a climate deal in Paris that he will do anything he can to get one. This includes undermining U.S. sovereignty and misusing American taxpayer dollars to grease the wheels,” said Barrasso, who chairs the Senate foreign relations subcommittee on multilateral international development, multilateral institutions, and international economic, energy, and environmental Policy. Barrasso, whose state is the biggest coal producer, opposes an international climate agreement, arguing it would commit Americans to targets and timetables for greenhouse gas reductions that threaten jobs, industries and communities. By bypassing Congress, Barrasso says the deal will cut out the American people too.

Senator John Barrasso
Gage Skidmore, CC/Flickr

Congress has long been hostile to international climate negotiations. President Bill Clinton never submitted the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification because Senators had voted 95 to 0 in a nonbinding resolution against that climate agreement even before participating nations signed it. The biggest sticking point was that the Kyoto Protocol obliged developed countries, including the U.S., to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but not developing countries, including China. Any deal that comes out of Paris will not require the Senate’s consent, in part because the nations already anticipate hold-ups with the U.S. Congress.

Leading up to the Paris talks, 184 countries — developing and developed — decided on their own pledges to curtail emissions. The U.S. and China led by example, announcing in March that the U.S. would reduce emissions by at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and that China’s emissions would peak by 2030, and in the meantime it would increase to 20 percent the share of its energy from sources other than fossil fuels.

Congressional Republicans, none more than Barrasso, have tried to cast doubts about whether the U.S. could live up to its pledge, since a crucial component, Obama’s Clean Power Plan, lacks support in Congress and is being challenged in the courts by industry and many states. (The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the plan will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector 28 percent by 2025 and 32 percent by 2030 compared to 2005.) The House last week approved two Senate resolutions designed to block the Clean Power Plan and another EPA rule restricting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. Although a presidential veto is expected, Republicans hoped to make Obama’s policies appear weak to international negotiators.

Another tactic of Barrasso and other Republicans has been to raise questions in developing countries about the ability of President Obama to deliver on his $3 billion pledge to help poorer nations transition to cleaner energy and protect themselves from climate impacts. Barrasso was a leader of 37 Republican senators who sent a letter about the Green Climate Fund to the president warning that: “Congress will not be forthcoming with these funds in the future without a vote in the Senate on any final agreement” from the Paris climate conference.

Observers of the Paris talks say that Republican objections were well understood by other nations, so no one was taken by surprise. “It’s barely caused a ripple here in Paris,” Elliot Diringer, vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and a longtime expert on international climate change treaties, said in an interview from Paris.

Still, a high-ranking group of Obama’s cabinet and 10 Democratic senators went to Paris to assure other nations that the U.S. would abide by its commitments. Among them were Western Senators Tom Udall from New Mexico and Jeff Merkley from Oregon. They assured negotiators that the Clean Power Plan and other Obama climate change initiatives are not “fragile” but rooted in law and backed up by regulations that cannot easily be dismissed, even if a Republican who opposes them becomes president, Merely told reporters Tuesday in a conference call after returning from Paris.

Senator Jeff Merkley
Interior Department, CC/Flickr
“Once regulations are in place, they have tremendous momentum; it’s very hard to change them,” Merkley said. A new president would have to write new regulations to undo Obama’s rules, and that would take years. Senators also made the case that a determined group in Congress would defend these rules after Obama leaves office.

Udall told international negotiators that he would use his positions on the Foreign Relations and Appropriations committees to keep U.S. climate goals on track. “We will stop efforts that would turn back progress on global warming,” Udall told High Country News that he told negotiators in Paris.

Merkley said he believes the president’s commitment to the Green Climate Fund will be safe as well. This summer, Merkley sponsored an amendment, which passed in committee with some Republican support, to enable the State Department to invest in the Green Climate Fund. Republicans have suggested that funding is in jeopardy in negotiations ongoing in Washington this week for an omnibus spending bill. Still Merkley told reporters he believes “that language will be sustained in anything the president signs” because Obama is “absolutely determined” to honor his commitment.

Senator Tom Udall speaks up for climate policies at Senate press conference.

An important component of the Paris pact is that the joint contributions will not reduce emissions enough to avoid the catastrophic consequences scientists predict from human induced global warming greater than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit). So countries would have to come back together every five years to improve on their pledges.

Udall and Merkley have sponsored legislation that suggests where U.S. climate policy may be headed. Udall has been pushing a legislation to require 30 percent of electricity nationwide come from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2030. As HCN reported, Merkley introduced legislation last month to ban new leases of federal fossil fuels from public land and offshore. Although neither measure is likely to pass, given the current composition in Congress, they could gain traction if Democrats win back Congress and retain the White House in the next election.

But climate policy would look very different if Republicans hold Congress and take over the White House. Although Obama’s power plant rules may not be quickly overturned, contributions to the Green Climate Fund may dry up, efforts by Barrasso and others to protect the fossil fuel industry would be much likelier to succeed, and the U.S. likely would not renegotiate a tougher international climate treaty five years down the road. 

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.

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