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Obama can’t get a global climate treaty ratified, so what should he do instead? Part 1

By Joe Romm  

"Obama can’t get a global climate treaty ratified, so what should he do instead? Part 1"

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It is all but inconceivable that Obama can deliver the 67 votes in the Senate needed to ratify a global climate treaty — no matter what happens in the 12 months between PoznaÅ„ and Copenhagen. And the only thing worse than no global climate treaty in 2009 is a treaty that Obama can’t get ratified.

Yes, Democrats have expanded their majority in the Senate, edging closer and closer to the magical 60 votes needed to stop filibusters. But the conservatives in Congress are stuck in 1985 (1885?), unwilling or unable to acknowledge the now painfully obvious reality of global warming or the remarkable advances that have been made in clean technologies.

Conservative Senators lined up as a solid block against the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner climate bill (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us“). Worse, the GOP seems to think that among all the losing issues they pushed in their historic drubbing at the polls, their “drill baby drill” message was actually a winner. As one post-election story put it

But several prominent party officials said they believe the GOP’s message is fundamentally sound when it comes to energy policy, pointing to that issue as one of the few political bright spots in recent years.

Again, that was not from an article by The Onion.

The GOP has apparently borrowed their motto from Talleyrand’s comment on the dying French aristocracy, “They have learned nothing, and they have forgotten nothing.” As I noted in my new multi-series, Notes from the conservative stagnation, Part 10: Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, “suggested that some calls to update conservatism — by taking global warming more seriously, for instance — were essentially disguised calls to move the party to the left.” He added, “They will be cheerfully ignored.” Denial is bliss.

Every major conservative think tank remains fervently blind to reality (see, for instance, “The intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism: Heritage even opposes energy efficiency” and “The American Enterprise Institute: Still crazy with denial and delay after all these years“). The major conservative pundits are equally blinkered (see “Krauthammer, Part 2: The real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science” and “George Will nails the difference between conservatives and progressives“).

So we can expect the vast majority of GOP Senators to keep beating the drums that any cap-and-trade bill — domestic or international — will raise energy prices and ruin the economy. We can expect repetitions of lines from the Senate debate last summer:

  • Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.: “The vast majority of scientists do not believe that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are a major contributor to climate change.”
  • Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.: This bill means “people must turn off air-conditioning in the summer.”
  • Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.: “This bill will attack citizens at the pump” and “increase job losses.”
  • Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.: This bill will “leave us less competitive in the world marketplace.”
  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.: This bill “could bankrupt U.S. air carriers.”
  • Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.: “Nobody in their right mind” believes we can get half our power from wind and solar or drive a “fleet of golf carts.”
  • Note that these attacks can be trotted out whether we are in a recession and energy prices are low or if we have recovered economically and energy prices are rising again.

    So even if there are 60 Senate votes to override a right-wing filibuster against a strong domestic climate bill, there aren’t 67 votes for a new climate treaty. And that means the UNFCCC process as we now know it is essentially a Dead Man Walking, even if nobody knows it yet.

    Obama needs to think very hard about whether he is making promises he can’t keep. International negotiators are now in Poland to figure out how to create a follow on to the Kyoto protocol in Copengagen next December (see “Will PoznaÅ„ be a good COP, a bad COP or just another COP out?“).

    Last month, Obama gave a surprise post-election climate address in which he directly said to delegates around the world headed to Poland that “your work is vital to the planet”:

    And once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change.

    We do need a new era of global cooperation on climate change. But Obama will need all of his eloquence and smarts — and that of his new exceptional Secretary of State — to figure out how to replace the UNFCCC process with something more viable. And he needs to think hard about the value of “engaging vigorously” in the negotiations of a global treaty he can’t ratify.

    The prize we must keep our eyes on, however, is not any particular process but a particular outcome — keeping total planetary warming to under 2°C warming from preindustrial levels. How Obama might pursue that Herculean challenge on the international stage outside of the UNFCCC process will be the focus of Part Two.

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    19 Responses to Obama can’t get a global climate treaty ratified, so what should he do instead? Part 1

    1. Steve Bloom says:

      I agree that a treaty can’t be passed given the present Senate composition, but fortunately a treaty is just symbolism. None is required for the needed programs to be passed and funded. Similarly, the existence of a treaty doesn’t obligate Congress to approve any programs or appropriate one thin dime, now or in the future.

      I don’t see this situation as presenting even a slight political problem for Obama so long as he has the 60 votes (under the absurdly undemocratic Senate rules) and doesn’t err by making any of the substance contingent on passage of a treaty. The only reason I can think of to bring a treaty to the Senate would be if it could be used to embarrass the Repugs.

    2. Marshall says:

      True, Obama needs 67 votes to get the US to formally sign the treaty. Ratifying a treaty gives it the force of law. But he only needs 60 votes to pass a regular bill *with the exact wording* of the treaty, which would have the same end result, namely the requirements of the treaty having force of law. I suppose it is a somewhat of an end run around the intent of the constitution, but it’s been done before (see NAFTA). Problem solved.

    3. Marshall says:

      (Of course, whether meaningful action can come out of a process where any one of 186 members has veto power is another story, which I assume will be the subject of future posts. But the “the Senate won’t/can’t pass the treaty anyway” argument doesn’t seem to hold water.)

    4. Joe says:

      [JR: Sorry -- deleted this by accident.]

      Linda S

      There seems to be an assumption here that Democrats will all vote in favor of legislation and/or a treaty that addresses climate change. Unfortunately, that may not be the case. Some of them don’t get it, either.

      Dec 2, 7:30 AM

    5. Tan Copsey says:

      It is fine to point out the problems with the UNFCCC process (there are many), but where else would you house global negotiations? How else would you involve China? Surely Obama should partake in the process – supporting those countries within the EU that are serious at a time when they face severe pressure and making sure countries like Canada and Japan shape up.

      Much as I’m tired of lofty rhetoric about American leadership, your example matters and an agreement must be global. Otherwise you risk another G8 or AP6 debacle.

    6. john says:

      The US signed the Rio Accords which require us to avoid dangerous anthropogenic warming or words to that effect.

      That treaty was also ratified, giving it the force of law.

      Given that the science clearly shows we are NOT avoiding dangerous anthropogenic warming, aren’t there significant actions we can take domestically — through executive orders and legislation needing “only” 60 votes — to mitigate our contribution to global warming?

      If we go into negotiations with a serious and far reaching domestic agenda, we can still exercise a leadership role and help move the world forward.

    7. rob says:

      No treaty is even needed.
      Obama could make the necessary commitments in the form of an international executive agreement. As far as implementation, the Clean Air Act already provides the necessary
      Authority. Industry is, of course, currently objecting to the application of parts of the CAA to GHGs, so let Congress open up the act and “fix” it, but condition those “fixes” on meaningful progress. We can put the delayers and deniers in a position where they need the votes to override a veto.

    8. jcwinnie says:

      Bring about a course change with federal administration such that there is support rather than resistance to what states are doing.
      Exercise transparency.
      Look for economic leverage in states where Congress critters have catered to special interests to the detriment of their constituency (and life as we know it on the planet).
      Eat his vegetables. Drink lots of water. Bicycle more. Listen to what his daughters learned in school. et cetera

    9. Tim R says:

      Mr. Romm,

      As much as I love, regularly check, and learn from this page, I believe what you have written in this post is both incorrect and irresponsible. These negotiations are far from dead and critical to global emissions reductions.

      First, the treaty does not, as you seem to imply, have to garner 67 votes in the next year. It is quite conceivable that this treaty will still be available for ratification one year after Copenhagen. That is, after the 2010 elections. Think back two years and you’ll agree that no one has a political crystal ball clear enough to know what the Senate composition will be by then.

      Likewise, no one can estimate Obama’s future political power. If he makes energy and climate central issues, it might be political suicide in some states to obstruct the President’s most-pressed for programs. Even world opinion on this issue might start to matter more to Americans rediscovering an international role other than military.

      Most importantly, Copenhagen need not result in a demand for national cap and trade legislation. The treaty will likely provide wide latitude to countries as to the manner they chose to implement treaty requirements. A nation must only meet a national cap after four year in Kyoto. How they get there is their business.

      Leading to further unpredictability is the actual state of the climate system two years from now. If we get the US equivalent of a Europe ’98 heat wave, for example, there is no telling where public opinion will be.

      Finally, as the climate system continues to degenerate, other nations may take action against climate non-actors. My understanding of recent WTO rulings (see, for example, Brazil-Tyres) leads me to believe that a system of climate tariffs imposed against Copenhagen non-signatories would pass muster with the WTO Appellate Body. If the EU (or all Copenhagen signatories as a bloc) starts imposing tariffs on non-signatories equivalent to the cost savings of using dirty energy (or even threatens such in the next year), US businesses may force Republicans to move on climate issues.

      So while you are pretty good at looking to the future and helping your readers understand what is coming. On this issue, you have gotten a bit ahead of yourself. Because so much is riding on an international agreement, I hope you reconsider before you create the very energy that itself helps make a treaty impossible.

    10. Jim Bullis says:

      Joe, you are being very practical. It is not necessary to decide whether an unsigned treaty or no treaty is the right outcome. Both are failures of US policy.

      However, to get climate progress we should recognize what we are up against in getting a ratified treaty. A rule of combative situations such as this is “Give the devil his due.” And it is not just Bush that is the devil in this. The mostly level headed Economist magazine suggested that serious measures to combat CO2 might be a “fools errand” since our actions look to be dwarfed by actions of China and India, where they are determined to be part of the industrialized world that we established as an example. When Senators actually see a treaty and seriously do the cost analysis, and then consider the potential ineffectiveness of the actions, I can see that it might be very hard to get the needed votes.

      However, there might be some constructive progress possible if the national security issue is brought into the debate. Energy independence is the point of view that can partly coincide with the goal of reducing CO2.

      The stumbling point is that we can become energy independent quite easily by simply converting to electric powered transportation where the immediate and affordable fuel to make the electricity will be coal. We can read the GM plan to do exactly this at http://fastlane.gmblogs.com/PDF/presentation-sm.pdf . Though coal is worse than petroleum, btu for btu, there are some efficiency gains that will make us come out about even on CO2 as a result of this conversion.

      So how do we get climate progress out of this. There is obviously something more that has to be in the plan that would have to accompany ratification. I have to agree with the prudent thinkers who would not sign a treaty on the basis of only trust that real solutions would be forthcoming.

      It might be possible to get some kinds of mandates in this plan, but if they involve huge costs the whole thing will bog down again.

      So the task seems to be to find solutions and put forward technical descriptions and analyses and financial analyses. This analysis has to be with the status quo in the background, which involves coal as the basic fuel source. Where we can show the costs and benefits to compete with coal, we have something to go on. I insist that rebates and such have no place in the discussion, since they are only cost shifting stratagems that are meaningless on the large scale that we are dealing with here. In fact, they get in the way of rational decision making.

      We simply can not seem to get real about this. I continue to look for hour by hour electricity production data for US or California power plants without successs.

    11. Bill Woods says:

      JR: “So we can expect the vast majority of GOP Senators to keep beating the drums that any cap-and-trade bill — domestic or international — will raise energy prices and ruin the economy.”

      I don’t know about “ruin the economy” but it will certainly raise energy prices unless the cap is so high that it has no effect on emissions.

      —-
      Jim Bullis: “I continue to look for hour by hour electricity production data for US or California power plants without successs.”

      For California: http://www.caiso.com/outlook/outlook.html

    12. Do we really need 67 votes? says:

      Wouldn’t a majority congressional-executive agreement be enough for action?

    13. Sam says:

      Joe, re your comment: “There seems to be an assumption here that Democrats will all vote in favor of legislation and/or a treaty that addresses climate change. Unfortunately, that may not be the case. Some of them don’t get it, either.”
      It isn’t just that they “don’t get it.” Someone like Mary Landrieu may “get it” personally, but if she wants to be reelected, she has to vote the interests of voters in her state (note that I am not saying that this is the actual interests of the citizens of LA–it obviously isn’t, being in hurricane alley and having eroding shorelines). Nate Silver has a nice piece in 538.com today on swing senators of both parties, the electoral pressures they face as well as their individual predilections: http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2008/12/who-are-swing-senators.html (not that I agree with all of his assessments, but it’s a reasonable beginning overview).

      We still need a good deal of public relations work, especially in southern states which are incredibly stubborn even to the extent of self destruction (nothing new of course: see today’s article on the unhealthiest states in the US– http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20081204/us_nm/us_rankings_usa what a shock that the top ten are LA, MS, SC, TN, TX, FL, OK, AS, NV, and GA). How that PR work gets done in the South is an important question, one that I can’t claim to know the answer to. The campaign has to be specifically geared to the southern states to be effective. Senators like Snowe, Collins and Spectre may well be susceptible to pressure, though, to partially offset the Red State Democrats.

    14. Sam says:

      Whoops, I meant “AR” not “AS” for the abbreviation of Arkansas, sorry.

    15. well majority never counts in this.

    16. msn nickleri says:

      Whoops, I meant “AR” not “AS” for the abbreviation of Arkansas, sorry.

    17. Truth says:

      If Co2 is a pollutant, please do us all a favor and kill yourselves. After all you are a polluter when you breathe….. idiots.

      [JR: Normally, I'd delete this. But occasionally it's useful to see.]

    18. Leif says:

      I continue to believe that once we get started on conservation and sustainability we will find out that the change will not be as expensive as the anti- Science folks are trying to make us believe. I have found numerous advantages that are not easily quantified or even explained in the transition. In addition Many costs that might be involved have a pay back time of a year or three. Where can you invest your money this day in age where you can get a return on your investment like that? Not only that, those same investments continue to lay those golden eggs time and time again. As energy prices increase, as they will do no matter what, return on investment even improves. In contrast the dollar has depreciated about 20% in the last year alone. Largely due to GOP installed financial policies I might add. One final thing to remind ourselves is that there WILL be technological break troughs that will be game changers. Weather those are made in America or we have to buy them from China or others depends on how we respond now. Remember: If you are one in a million in America, there are a thousand others just like you in China!

    19. Cynthia says:

      WHERE’S PART 2?