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President Obama Wants Parts of the Climate Deal to Be Legally Binding

Despite opposition in the US Congress to any effort at joining an international agreement on climate change, the president is pushing ahead with a call to hold nations accountable for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

by Hannah K. Gold
Dec 1 2015, 10:25pm

Photo by Eric Feferberg/pool/EPA

US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that certain parts of any agreement emerging from the Paris climate talks should be legally binding.

"Although the targets themselves may not have the force of treaties, the process, the procedures that ensure transparency and periodic reviews, that needs to be legally binding," Obama said, according to the Associated Press. "And that's going to be critical in us having high ambitions and holding each other accountable."

In other words: Targets for cutting emissions shouldn't be binding, but keeping track of nations' progress on their commitments should be. 

Obama appears to be maneuvering between international demands and domestic political constraints. On one hand, European countries and low-lying Pacific island nations threatened by climate change have called for a legally binding treaty. On the other hand, the Republican-controlled Congress has actively sought to undermine any effort on the part of the administration to become party to an international climate pact.

Alex Hanafi, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, said the president's comments "should not come as a surprise," adding that there is ample precedent, dating back to George Washington, for the US joining international agreements without Senate review.  

"In the end, it depends on what the agreement says: As long as the transparency provisions and procedural requirements that the president referred to are consistent with current US law, the pathway to US participation in a legally binding agreement is open, and does not need to include a stop in the Senate," he said.

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

Both the Senate and House of Representatives have passed motions aimed at blocking Obama's Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of the administration's efforts at reining in US greenhouse gas emissions. And GOP leaders have vowed to scuttle any international agreement on addressing climate change or allowing financing to the UN's Green Climate Fund, which is designated to help poorer countries respond to climate change.

"The international community needs to be aware that the US Congress and the American people do not support President Obama's international climate agenda," said Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

In the face of this opposition, the administration has sought to avoid the need for a stamp of approval from Congress.

US Secretary of State John Kerry told the Financial Times last month that any agreement reached at the end of the two-week conference in Paris would not be a treaty, which would require Senate approval.

David Goldston, director of government affairs at the NRDC Action Fund, said Congress was doing whatever it could to undermine the Paris talks.

"Driven by ideology and by friends in the fossil fuel industry, the leaders of the Republican party have barreled along with their 'just say no' climate approach despite poll after poll showing how out of step they are with public opinion," he said in a blog post.

A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in November found that two-thirds of people polled supported the United States joining an international climate treaty aimed at addressing global warming.  

Follow Hannah K. Gold on Twitter: @togglecoat

Watch Who Cares About Climate Change? here: