GOP warns U.N. Obama's climate actions can be undone

President Obama is about to commit the United States to meet greenhouse gas emission targets in an international agreement without consulting Congress, the agencies, or the states.

Republicans are warning other countries that the president's executive orders can be overturned and that any negotiations should take that into account.


The White House is seeking to enshrine its pledge in a global climate agreement to be negotiated Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris. It calls for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by close to 28 percent from 2005 levels within a decade, using a host of existing laws and executive actions targeting power plants, vehicles, oil and gas production and buildings.

But Republican critics say the administration lacks the political and legal backing to commit the United States to an international agreement.

"Considering that two-thirds of the U.S. federal government hasn't even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it, our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

U.S. officials stressed that their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, U.N. lingo for its official submission, stands on sound legal footing, with the measures drawing authority from legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Energy Independence and Security Act.

Todd Stern, the lead U.S. climate change negotiator, said he frequently tells foreign counterparts that "undoing the kind of regulation we are putting in place is very tough to do."

But elements of the administration's climate policy already face legal challenges. On April 16, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. will hear arguments from 13 states opposed to as-yet-unfinalized regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that target emissions in existing power plants.

And McConnell's warnings echoed the tone of a March 9 "open letter" from 47 Republican senators to Iran, in which they warned a Republican president would not be bound to honor a nuclear agreement struck by Democrat Obama without congressional approval, calling it a "mere executive agreement."

Some observers said that resistance to the administration's climate policies leaves foreign governments questioning whether Obama's commitments can last.

“By strenuously invoking EPA regulations, the Administration is trying to convince skeptical international audiences that the U.S. can actually deliver on its new climate goals, despite Republican resistance,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House official who is now with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“But major capitals are likely to remain nervous.”

The emissions targets themselves are economic growth-killers.  Reduced emissions means slower growth, although some reductions are possible as natural gas replaces coal in some instances.  Since the administration is determined to kill the coal industry, it's possible that a small percentage of the president's planned emission targets can be achieved as more natural gas is used for power plants.  (There is a limit to the use of natural gas in power plants, which means there will be a net loss in electricity production.)

But that doesn't affect the real issue: another executive power-grab by Obama.  The administration is partly correct that a some of the president's policy can be based on existing law.  Courts have given the executive broad powers to enfoce the Clean Air Act.  But any climate treaty would have to be approved by the Senate, and I can't imagine even many Democrats committing the U.S. to a ruinous reduction in emissions when China – the world's #1 emitter of greenhouse gases – is bypassed.

The U.N. would do well to heed the Republican warning.

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