Obama’s Climate Diplomacy: Bilateralism in the Service of Multilateralism

President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday issued a joint statement pledging that the United States and China will sign the Paris Agreement on April 22 (the first day nations can sign it), “take their respective domestic steps in order to join the Agreement as early as possible this year,” and “encourage other Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to do the same, with a view to bringing the Paris Agreement into force as early as possible.”

The joint statement does not discuss what subsequent “domestic steps” Obama plans to take to “join the Agreement.” All we know for certain is what he will not do: submit the treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent as required by Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

According to the New York Times, the joint announcement by Obama and Xi “is intended to push other countries to sign on, particularly since diplomats say the Supreme Court order [to suspend EPA’s so-called Clean Power Plan] has caused some countries to question American climate policy and might cause them to refuse or hesitate to sign the accord.”

The joint announcement was Obama’s third bilateral initiative last month to shore up confidence in the Paris Agreement. On March 10, Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced joint efforts to curb emissions of methane from North American oil and gas operations, vowing that their two countries would “join and sign the Agreement as soon as feasible” and “play a leadership role internationally in the low-carbon global economy over the coming decades.” On March 23, Obama and newly elected Argentine President Mauricio Macri “committed to signing and joining the Paris Agreement as soon as feasible and will work together to support efforts toward early entry-into-force of the Agreement.”

Call it bilateral diplomacy in the service of multilateral diplomacy. The question is whether such PR exercises can overcome other countries’ doubts about the seriousness of Obama’s Paris treaty pledge to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

In a recent column, Cato Institute scientist Paul C. “Chip” Knappenberger identifies three “harsh realities” that render Obama’s pledge “infeasible if not impossible.”

  • The administration’s signature climate policy, EPA’s power plant rule, is fraught with legal vulnerabilities. If courts overturn it, the gap between Obama’s emission-reduction pledge and the administration’s current and proposed climate policies becomes a chasm.
  • New scientific data indicate EPA has significantly underestimated U.S. methane emissions over the past decade. Correcting that error increases the absolute amount by which U.S. emissions must be cut to meet Obama’s target.
  • Obama’s target is partly based on a State Department projection that U.S. forest carbon dioxide sinks will expand by more than 33% in just 10 years. “This seems highly implausible, considering the over the past 10 years, the U.S. carbon sink has actually declined a small amount,” says Knappenberger.

Put those three factors together, toss in “cheap gas (more driving) and a growing economy . . . and you are left with the stark realization that we are not going to come close to meeting the pledges Obama made to the international community in Paris last year.”

Would failure to meet Obama’s target doom the Paris Agreement? Unlikely. The vast majority of countries participating in the Agreement care little about U.S. emissions and much about American boodle. They want up to $450 billion annually in foreign aid, rebranded “climate finance.” Whether or not U.S. taxpayers foot any part of the bill will chiefly depend on which party wins the 2016 elections.