A massive trade agreement between the United States and several Asian nations has been held up while President Obama waits for Congress to start the approval process. But in a bid to get more Republican support, Congress could throw away a U.S. tool for addressing international climate change goals.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) introduced an amendment to a customs bill this week that would “ensure that trade agreements do not require changes to U.S. law or obligate the United States with respect to global warming or climate change.” The customs bill would be part of a package that would make approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) a straight up-and-down vote in Congress, the so-called “fast-track” option.
Environmental groups have already taken a strong stand against the TPP. Under the proposed agreement, corporations will likely be able to sue governments that interfere with their business — even if the interference comes from enforcement of carbon reduction goals and passing environmental legislation.
The most recent move from Rep. Ryan is largely symbolic, according to economists familiar with the deal. There is nothing in the TPP that addresses climate change regulations, so there is nothing this language would affect. But Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for the environmental organization 350.org, disagrees with this assessment.
“We’re worried that this language will effectively tie the hands of the U.S. Trade [Representative],” he told ThinkProgress. “We’re really nervous about a provision that binds the hands of negotiators and prevents them from doing anything on climate change.” He also pointed out that including climate change language in a bid to secure the votes needed to pass the fast-track might backfire, alienating Democrats.
“The strategy from the GOP leadership seems designed to win over votes on the far right, bit I think it will lose far more votes from the left and the center who care about climate change,” Ganapathy said.
The TPP has been a political morass for Obama, who views the deal as part of his presidential legacy. He is pushing for the bill to fast-track the deal — which would allow it to go to Congress as a straight up-and-down vote — but he has been broadly criticized for the deal’s lack of transparency. Specific details of the TPP remain largely unknown and unpublished, although WikiLeaks has posted some chapters, including one dealing with environmental regulations.
If the TPP goes to an up-and-down vote, it is expected to pass, but Obama has had trouble corralling the votes. After the Senate voted against fast-track in May, the president called Democratic leadership to the White House.
“Members in attendance reiterated their support for TPA legislation that will pave the way for high-standard trade agreements that support good American jobs, protect our workers and environment, and ensure that the United States, and not countries like China, write the rules for the global economy,” the White House reported.
It’s unclear, though, whether that support could withstand an assault on U.S. tools to address climate change, and support from Democrats will be needed to pass the fast-track bill.
“We have the votes that we hope to have. We are where we want to be… but some Democrats are going to have to support this to get this over the finish line,” Ryan told Fox News on Thursday.
Other environmental groups responded by saying that even as a symbolic gesture to garner Republican support, the language sends the wrong message at a time when addressing climate change is more critical than ever.
“Our organizations have already expressed our strong opposition to fast track because of its implications for our global climate,” The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in a letter to legislators. “Twenty-first century trade agreements must ensure that climate policies not be undermined by trade rules and must address trade-related climate issues like fossil fuel subsidy elimination. These bills take us in the exact wrong direction.”
But Obama has said the TPP will help advance climate change goals. He told NPR’s Marketplace in June that the deal will allow the United States to put pressure on burgeoning economies that are engaging in risky climate activity, such as clear-cutting and coal-fired power.
Still, many see the TPP as a direct challenge to Obama’s environmental legacy.
“[The TPP] just contradicts the president’s climate policy,” Bill Waren, a trade analyst with Friends of the Earth, told ThinkProgress in May. “One hand takes away from the other.”