The U.N. climate change conference opens in Paris on Nov. 30. But while there will be a lot of hot air expended in the City of Light, Washington lawmakers complain they're being kept in the dark.
Critics of Obama's climate change agenda say the administration's strategy in Paris will be to sideline Congress. Republicans vow they'll fight to prevent that from happening.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, says President Obama wants a global climate deal framed so that it can be imposed by executive authority without approval from Capitol Hill.
"Pursuing a deal in Paris as an executive agreement, instead of as a treaty, would not only violate the plain meaning of the United Nations convention, it would also defy the historical understanding of the constitutional limits that the president is subject to in connection with foreign affairs," Lee said this month at the Heritage Foundation.
Constitutional limits safeguard citizens' sovereignty, Lee said.
But when asked if the president has the right to approve a deal in Paris without congressional approval, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: "It's hard to take seriously from some members of Congress who deny the fact that climate change exists, that they should have some opportunity to render judgment about a climate change agreement." That answer essentially claimed a right for the executive to ignore the legislature if he or she had substantive policy disagreements — which might surprise the framers of the Constitution.
Climate negotiations in Paris will be under the auspices of the United Nations' 21st Conference of the Parties on climate change, often referred to as COP-21. The overarching goal is to agree on reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and thus keep Earth's temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by mid-century.
Countries list actions they'll take to cut emissions by 2030, but the U.N. admits that those commitments won't achieve their goal. China and other countries need to make much bigger commitments before the 2-degrees target is possible.
Of the 195 countries represented in Paris, 157 have so far submitted plans.
"We have to be able to admit publicly, privately ... that those 157 national climate change plans do not constitute enough emissions reductions to put us onto the path of 2 degrees," U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres said, although they go beyond "business as usual," she added.
U.N. officials say there will be "no backtracking" from commitments, and increased commitments should be expected in Paris.
Many scientists say greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, are causing Earth's temperature to rise. Some of these scientists say a rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius in the next few decades would harm the environment catastrophically, bringing floods, drought, food shortages and disease.
Resolutions of disapproval
Obama has included various regulations as part of Washington's commitment to the Paris deal. Many, including the Clean Power Plan, are under attack by Republicans, who passed two resolutions, 52-46, in the Senate to roll back the rules. The resolutions aren't expected to survive a veto by Obama.
This will be "a way to talk about the negative consequences on the domestic side," as well as the role of the regulations in the international arena, said a Republican aide on the Environment and Public Works Committee.
One of the bipartisan "resolutions of disapproval" came from Sens. Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and aimed to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which obliges states to cut emissions by a third by 2030.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Joe Manchin, from the coal states of Kentucky and West Virginia, introduced a resolution, which also passed, to repeal climate rules that critics say essentially ban the construction of new coal-fired power plants. Similar resolutions in the House are expected to come to the floor of Congress after Thanksgiving.
Republicans say proposed emissions reductions are tiny and don't justify their costs, which will hit all consumers, especially the poor and elderly. Twenty-seven states are suing the Environmental Protection Agency over the Clean Power Plan.
The plan is the centerpiece of Obama's climate change agenda, which states argue arrogates power unconstitutionally to the EPA. "We feel very confident that the EPA won't prevail" in court, the Republican committee aide said. The administration faces "major obstacles," and "we don't see them getting past them."
Before the Thanksgiving recess, senators also introduced a separate nonbinding resolution, asserting that Congress must have the final say on any climate deal agreed to in Paris.
Lee said the Senate must ratify or reject any international agreement that could affect America. The resolution is intended to signal to foreign leaders that Obama does not have the last word.
If the administration were serious about a deal in Paris, "they would try to engage the Senate," the aide said. But it hasn't. "If they try to do an agreement that doesn't involve the Senate, it's going to be very limited" and won't offer any of the accountability safeguards they would need to make it work.
Lawmakers expect a vote on the resolution as soon as this week.
Obama's end-run around Congress
Lee said a draft deal released ahead of the conference was a "hybrid" with legally and politically binding measures. The White House believes this mix gives the administration wiggle room to sign without Senate ratification.
There's a "very strong argument to make that although they call those a hybrid agreement, it is much more than a political agreement," which brings several areas of the agreement into the purview of the Senate, a GOP staff member said.
"They are doing the hybrid approach because it's their only legal approach forward," said Steve Groves, senior research fellow at Heritage. The White House knows it doesn't have the votes to ratify a Paris deal, "so they came up with the hybrid idea," in which they "don't even need to submit the new legally binding parts to the Senate." Groves said the "mitigation targets and timetables will not be considered legally binding" under the proposed deal.
Secretary of State John Kerry stepped into hot water in the last few weeks for saying the climate accord wouldn't be legally binding. That sparked European leaders to contradict him by saying it would, Republicans say.
Congress holds the purse strings
Obama is in a state of denial, experts say, because the U.N. deal will rely on money that only Congress can appropriate. A key aspect on which the administration should expect pushback is the proposed deal's "green climate fund."
This is designed to move money from rich nations to poorer ones to mitigate the effects of global warming. The goal is to provide $100 billion annually for climate change programs beginning in 2020.
"The inconvenient truth here is there is no support for this stuff," said Tom Pyle, president of the conservative think tank Institute for Energy Research and its political arm American Energy Alliance, which opposes Obama's climate rules. "Clearly, Obama is all-in on this as a legacy item."
But in the end, it will come down to "how much developed nations will pony up," and "Congress is not going to give Obama any of that" money for the green fund, he said.
"The teeth here [are] in the president's regulation," said Pyle, and they will be working with the states to protect ratepayers from the Clean Power Plan. "It won't do anything to protect the environment ... and it's largely illegal.
"We hope it will look vastly different ... or nullified" by the time the courts are done with it, he said. But it would come down to who becomes the next president. Most GOP candidates would roll back the rules.
The only hope for keeping the Clean Power Plan intact, along with the green fund obligations worked out in Paris, is if Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton makes it to the White House, Pyle said.
Ahead of Thanksgiving, 37 senators sent a letter to Obama stating that no money for the green fund will be appropriated unless Congress ratifies the Paris deal.
Emission reductions in the Paris deal would, in any case, be nearly impossible to meet by 2030, say experts.
Margo Thorning, president and chief economist with the conservative American Council for Capital Formation, said power plant rules, the Clean Power Plan and other emission rules will not be enough to meet the 26-28 percent in emission reductions to which the U.S. has committed.
It will therefore take even broader cuts across every industry, which Thorning doubts any president could achieve, and no Republican would attempt.
"We are not going to meet the 26-28 percent" target, she said. It's all political, "strictly legacy building on the part of the administration," with very little of substance on addressing a number of key concerns.
For instance, the U.S. emission-reduction plan does not address such massive things as India's development goals and the need for continued use of coal, she said. Instead of emission-reduction targets, America should export more natural gas to Asia to displace the dirtier fuels used there, and also export clean coal technology to boost power plant efficiency abroad.
The American Petroleum Institute, representing the oil and gas industry, will go to Paris to push for increased natural gas use to lower emissions, while helping countries meet their economic growth targets.
Thorning's point is underscored by China's recent disclosure that it underestimated its coal use by 17 percent, roughly equivalent to the amount used by Germany, the fourth biggest economy in the world. Relying on China to provide accurate information about its emissions and fossil fuel use is unwise, she said.
Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, said the coal industry will have a focused presence at the Paris meeting to drive home the point about burgeoning coal use in the developing world.
It's a fact that the administration continues to ignore, Popovich said. Coal use will grow "whether the French or the Brussels bureaucrats like it or not."
"Coal is going to be the backbone" for India and China, "even if you begin with the standpoint of the administration and the U.N. ... that are pushing for this reduction," Popovich said. It's "not going to get you to the reduction that they think necessary to forestall the problem" of climate change.
Under an agreement between Washington and Beijing last year, China said its emissions will peak in 2030, which prompts critics to say the deal therefore simply allows business-as-usual and no real commitment from the Chinese. Popovich said the 2030 goal is tied to China's urbanization goals, and it's going to use coal and fossil fuels to reach its growth agenda. "It's what they need."
The "Paris conference has deepened the partisan divide" in America, with lawmakers saying "we don't have a stake in the game" and "we weren't asked" to provide feedback on the particulars of the deal.
Popovich said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Republican chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, "may be going there as he did before to say that." Inhofe ushered in the demise of the last attempt to codify a global climate deal in 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
A committee aide said Inhofe would like to attend, but has not yet decided on it.
Popovich and others say many of the conference's goals have been rolled back in recent weeks, after the U.N. disclosed it will miss it's 2-degree target by almost a whole degree. Groves said the administration and the U.N. are "already lowering expectations" to fit the lack of progress.
United Nations and European leaders have also been saying that commitments to the green fund may also fall short of the $100 billion annual goal.
Groves said the green fund is the linchpin for the deal because developing countries won't sign on to a deal unless they get it.