On November 12, 1998, President Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, which required dramatic cuts to carbon dioxide emissions. It was an empty gesture, for a year earlier the Senate had voted 95-0 on a resolution stating that it would not ratify the treaty. And of course, it never did, and Americans would not have supported it.
Over the weekend, President Obama concluded the Paris climate talks with a similar empty gesture. Obama has no intention of sending this agreement up for ratification, as he should. Instead, he hopes to avoid calling it a treaty.
As Secretary of State John Kerry argued Sunday, negotiators at the Paris summit deliberately avoided including any enforcement provisions in the final version of their agreement. The reason was simple: Any binding agreement would constitute a treaty, and treaties require two-thirds approval by the U.S. Senate. So in order to circumvent the Senate, Obama signed on to a toothless agreement that is not binding on U.S. policy and contains no external punishments for failure to comply.
One way to view this is a sneaky attempt to expand executive power along the lines of the Iranian nuclear deal. By doing less, Obama can hope to do more on his own without Congress.
Then again, if you take his own word for it, Obama hasn't actually done anything, let alone anything "historic." Unlike the Iran deal, this one will have no consequences one way or the other. Lawmakers can (and probably will) ignore it, and it doesn't bind the U.S. to make any concessions to a hostile country. It's just a non-binding climate agreement.
Kerry suggested that the climate agreement sends "a very powerful message to the marketplace" about investments in low and no-carbon sources of energy. But wishful thinking and non-binding goals don't prompt markets to action. He also mentioned that the "mandatory reporting" in the agreement would "be used by one country to measure against another." If Kerry believes he can create a societal guilt-trip in Third World countries over carbon emissions, he should probably think again — he won't even manage to create one in the U.S.
These periodic climate agreements, especially the non-binding ones, should be viewed as a source of personal entertainment for self-important politicians and bureaucrats, not as events that cause the oceans to stop rising.
One thing about Kyoto that few people noticed was that by 2013, without even having ratified the treaty or taken any major climate mitigation measures pursuant to it, the U.S. economy had improved its carbon efficiency to the point that it inadvertently met the Kyoto standards anyway. U.S. carbon emissions in 2012 were actually lower than they were in 1995, and fell off every year except one between 2007 and 2012. Emissions per capita have fallen back to the same level they were at in 1965, despite dramatic increases in energy use, wealth and national production since that time.
With U.S. emissions falling already thanks to cheap and abundant natural gas, and with cheap, safe, relatively waste-free and completely Ocarbon-free Thorium-powered nuclear reactors being developed in key economies like China and India, history is likely to repeat itself in this regard. Like other climate agreements, this one will be forgotten soon enough.