America Is the ‘X-Variable’ in the Climate Conference Agreement

The parties attending the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris aim to issue a complete plan for how to respond to climate change by 2020. Today, in accordance with the U.N.’s request, more than 160 countries have already submitted to the conference independent plans for emissions reduction – a key condition for the successful development of the final agreement. However, according to relevant institutions’ analyses of the commitments suggested in the independent reports submitted thus far, the extent of the proposed emissions reductions is still far from the desired target, and available funding contributions are still far from the amount required to support these reductions. Because of this, there will be intense debate at the Paris conference, and it is yet to be seen what sort of final agreement will be decided.

Europe, China and many developing countries hope that by the end of the Paris conference, they will be able to sign a legally enforceable agreement. America, however, opposes this. Among developed nations, America is the greatest source of carbon emissions and is also the greatest potential funding source. Because of this, America’s attitude will directly influence the final outcome of the Paris conference.

To a large extent, the position the American government adopts is restricted by the U.S.’s internal political struggle. Responding to climate change has always been the subject of intense debate within the United States, and competition between America’s political parties has seriously hindered the Obama administration’s ability to operate. Although the Democratic Party supports a relatively proactive approach, the Republican Party, which represents America’s big capital and corporate interests, is strongly opposed to emissions reductions.

On Nov. 12, 2014, the U.S. and China published a joint declaration on climate change. At the Paris conference, both sides can negotiate their positions and issue a concrete plan that outlines their commitments to emissions reductions. In order to implement this, on Aug. 3 of this year, the American Environmental Protection Agency signed the “Clean Power Plan.” Obama has stated he hopes this regulation will be regarded as the core political legacy of his presidential career, and yet as soon as the plan was officially launched, it was met with intense criticism and opposition from America’s conservative powerhouse. On Nov. 18, the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee voted 28 to 21 to pass two resolutions in opposition to the Clean Power Plan. Although Obama can exercise his veto power to overcome these obstacles, the strong voice of domestic opposition within America will, at the very least, have a negative impact on the American government’s positions in negotiations.

I believe when it comes to reaching a final agreement, the biggest unknown variable is America’s 2016 presidential election. The GOP believes Obama launched the Clean Power Plan at the end of his presidency to make it more difficult for them to take power. With so many candidates loudly contending for the Republican candidacy, the GOP’s opposition to emissions reduction policies is a huge factor in the negotiations at the Paris climate conference.

The Obama administration is currently faced with a difficult choice: If the U.S. signs a non-legally binding agreement, it will likely be intensely criticized in the international community, and America’s national image will be seriously damaged. At the same time, if the U.S. signs a legally binding agreement, it could also be viewed as showing weakness and kowtowing to the GOP, since the agreement would then likely be overruled by Congress, just like what occurred with the tragedy of the Kyoto Protocol. From the perspective of political tactics, it is more likely the Obama administration will choose the latter option. Smearing the GOP with the negative publicity that comes with the hot-button issue of pollution certainly seems like it would be the sensible choice for the Democrats.

The form of the agreement will depend upon the content, but the content will also be restricted by the form of the agreement. The international community wants the U.S. to make a greater commitment to both emissions reduction targets and aid funding. At the same time, Obama feels ever-increasing domestic pressures, and so it is entirely possible that the U.S. will continue to remain somewhat disengaged. But if we make too many concessions to the U.S., the entire value of the agreement will be greatly diminished, and it could become a weak, “toothless” law. Therefore, the Paris conference will also present a difficult choice for the other countries in attendance. I can only hope that the Paris negotiations, which concern all of humanity and the future of our entire natural ecology, will not be hijacked by America’s partisan politics.

The author is an associate professor of international relations at Renmin University of China.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply