Funds for United Nations climate efforts are likely to be on the chopping block if Republicans take control of the Senate, a symbolic move that would undercut President Obama's ambition of positioning the United States as the leader for a global treaty.
The United States gives just $10 million to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body that hosts international climate talks. But the U.S. contribution accounts for a large share of both budgets — nearly 40 percent in the IPCC's case.
With Obama pledging to show that the United States is taking climate negotiations seriously in an effort to bring more recalcitrant nations in line heading into next year's Paris talks, Republicans see an opportunity to hobble the president's credibility by underscoring how contentious the issue is at home. And they don't envision a funding cut being harmful heading into a pivotal 2016 election season that will include a presidential race and a clutch of senators who rode the 2010 Tea Party wave running for re-election.
"If Republicans take back the Senate I don't see there being a lot of willingness to allow the administration to cede any authority to the U.N. on climate policies or elsewhere and I don't really think that kind of a position will hurt us politically going into 2016," a Senate GOP aide told the Washington Examiner in an email.
Politically, the funds are significant targets for conservatives who oppose U.N. authority in general and are wary of the United States committing to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions if other countries don't.
Ryan Bernstein, chief of staff for Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he was "sure" the funding would be on the agenda if the GOP takes control of the upper chamber in the Nov. 4 midterm elections.
Donelle Harder, a spokeswoman for Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said her boss would support slashing funding for U.N. climate programs.
"Inhofe has no interest in allowing taxpayer dollars be used to fund the careers of unelected international bureaucrats," Harder said in an email.
The House for the past several years has voted to block funding for U.N. climate programs in its State Department appropriations bill. For conservatives, the move is appealing on several fronts.
Many oppose the U.N. as an institution. Some are skeptical that humans contribute to global warming by burning fossil fuels. They also say that the independent scientists who make up the IPCC are politically motivated and have attempted to influence the panel's findings to support action to address climate change, although outside scientists have agreed with its finding that human activity contributes to climate change.
"There's nothing wrong with funding basic research, and climate science discovery can be a part of that basic research. The problem exists because of the politicization of funding and through politically preferred outcomes from government-funded research," said Nick Loris, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation who focuses on energy, environment and regulatory issues.
Republicans likely would need some Democrats to go along with a plan to cut the $10 million out of the State Department's budget. That's because, as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a recent interview, the balance between the parties will be close enough that one "won't be able to run roughshod" over the other.
Some Democrats from energy-producing states have opposed Obama administration efforts to slash emissions, but they are not philosophically opposed to the U.N.
One senior GOP Senate aide said one option for Republicans could be to pass a resolution that requires the White House to make any U.N. treaty subject to Senate ratification. The move would require 60 votes to attach it to a spending bill, but it would need just 51 votes to pass on the floor. The idea is that attaching such a measure to must-pass spending bills could corral support from Democrats. If that doesn't work, the aide said Senate Republicans could try to block funding for U.N. and other climate programs.
The White House is seeking an international pact that would create a legally binding framework to create emissions targets and to hold nations responsible for meeting them. But the actual amount of emissions to be cut wouldn't be binding under a system laid out earlier this month by Todd Stern, the State Department's chief climate negotiator.
That would allow the White House to reach some sort of climate treaty without having to put specific cuts in front of the Senate. That would be ideal for Obama, because the Senate would likely never reach the 67 votes needed for full ratification — a prospect Stern hinted at in a speech at Yale University.
"Sometimes binding rules will work best. Sometimes expectations and norms will be more effective, either because an overall group of parties won't be able to agree to a particular rule or because a legally binding rule could have unintended consequences, such as actually depressing ambition," Stern said.