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In Case You Forgot: Republicans Remain a Huge Obstacle to Serious Action on Climate Change

Congressional Republicans attacked this week President Barack Obama's plan for reining in US greenhouse gas emissions and financing a UN climate change fund.
(Photo by Susan Walsh/AP)

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With less than two weeks before the Paris climate talks, President Barack Obama's opponents in the US Congress are making sure the world knows what they think of any deal that cuts American emissions.

In the past few days, the Republican-led Senate has passed resolutions vowing the Obama administration's new regulations on carbon emissions — a key part of the cuts the United States has put on the table in Paris — and leading lawmakers have said they won't approve a dime to support any pact.


"Several of us have had different ideas about what is to be accomplished there. My idea is nothing," climate change conspiracy theorist and snowball aficionado Sen. James Inhofe said Wednesday.

Inhofe, a Republican from oil-rich Oklahoma, is the chairman of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. He told the committee Wednesday that President Barack Obama's pledge of $3 billion to an international global-warming damage-control fund "is not going to happen, either."

GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, from coal state West Virginia, boasted in the same hearing that Obama "is going to go into this negotiation with no money in a Green Climate Fund that's been appropriated by the Congress." And West Virginia's other senator, Joe Manchin, has joined Inhofe to co-sponsor a resolution demanding any climate agreement that involves spending money or regulating industry be submitted to the Senate for ratification.

"The energy-producing states in our country, especially West Virginia, and American consumers will be significantly affected by any deal made by this president," said Manchin, a conservative Democrat who has often criticized Obama. "This administration should not be able to unilaterally put American businesses at a disadvantage in the global economy by enacting unattainable and unproven mandates."

Related: Stop Talking About Climate Change House Republicans Tell the Pentagon and CIA


Heading into Paris, the administration has laid out a goal of cutting US emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide and other gases by 26 to percent over 2005 levels by 2025. But it has to insist that target shouldn't be legally binding — which would mean it would have to be sent to a hostile Senate for ratification.

That has irked the conference's hosts, since France insists any pact should have the force of law. But since the Kyoto Protocol was pronounced dead on arrival in the late 1990s, the assumption has been that no climate pact could survive the Senate, said Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

"That's news that we've had for the last 20 years or so," Stavins said. So any deal coming out of Paris will be wired in such a way that it won't have to be exposed to that harsh environment. And most of what the administration is counting on to meet its planned emissions cuts is already in place: improved auto mileage rules, appliance efficiency, and state and regional emissions-control policies in California and the Northeast, he said. The speeches of Inhofe and others "are really to their home crowd," Stavins said.

"It's just throwing some red meat to their political constituencies, that they're fighting the good fight against the Obama administration and the climate policies and the international negotiations," he said. Meanwhile, Stavins said Obama's decision to kill the controversial Keystone XL pipeline boosted Washington's credibility with its negotiating partners, particularly in Europe.


But the opposition has left the administration trying to make sure the language of any agreement will fit within existing US law. It has one advantage to start with: The Senate already ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the Paris talks are aimed at implementing.

"It's really taking the agreement forward in a lot of ways," said David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the US-based World Resources Institute. "It's an important step in terms of all counties having emissions actions that they'll be taking, but it's nonetheless based on an existing agreement that the Senate ratified by voice vote in 1992."

'The momentum is on the side of action in general.'

Congress could still try to attack the Clean Power Plan, which seeks to cut carbon emissions from electrical generation by a third by 2030, Stavins said. A large portion of that would come from cutting the use of coal, which still powers nearly 40 percent of US power plants, and the slumping industry's political allies are rallying to save it.

Senators who voted to pull the plug on the Clean Power Plan this week received an average of 17 times more money from the coal industry than the senators who voted against those resolutions, the political money analysts MapLight reported Thursday. And of the 13 senators who received more than $100,000 from the industry over the last six years, all voted to declare the rule "shall have no force or effect."


But despite the heated opposition and court challenges by more than two-dozen states, Stavins said the regulations are unlikely to be rolled back.

"Even in those states where the attorney general or the governor has taken a very strong stance against it, the people that actually have to do the compliance are actually developing plans," he said. If a future Republican administration decides to undo the rules, "There would be a lot of pressure form the electricity companies not to do that, because that would create stranded costs. They're already making investments."

The administration will still have to fight Congress for money for the climate fund. But Waskow, who appeared before Wednesday's hearing, said putting up the money was in US interests.

"The cost of not providing it can include impacts on our development efforts that we've built up over the years, increased humanitarian threats, and increased security risks, if you don't deal with the question of water scarcity, food impacts and so forth," he said.

And besides, he added, "The momentum is on the side of action in general. You look at the prices of renewables, you look at businesses engaging, you look at states … all of that together makes it unlikely that the gears would get thrown it the opposite direction."

Related: It's Pretty Obvious Not Enough Is Being Done Ahead of the Paris Climate Talks

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl