Kerry Argues UN Global Warming Treaty Will Be Legally Binding — But Won’t Need Senate Approval

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Secretary of State John Kerry walked back remarks that a future United Nations global warming treaty would not be legally binding. Now Kerry says a climate treaty would, in fact, be legally binding and not require Senate approval.

Our position has not changed: the U.S. is pressing for an agreement that contains provisions both legally binding and non-legally binding,” the State Department told Politico regarding Kerry’s Thursday remarks.

Kerry told The Financial Times Thursday that a U.N. treaty to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions is “definitively not going to be a treaty.” At the same time, European officials were arguing the treaty would be legally binding — contradicting Kerry.

“The FT interview with Secretary Kerry may have been read to suggest that the U.S. supports a completely non-binding approach,” the State Department spokesperson said. “That is not the case and that is not Secretary Kerry’s position.”

“It’s a disagreement on terminology, not substance,” an anonymous “advocate” for a climate treaty told Politico. “Kerry was using domestic U.S. terminology, indicating that the agreement would not need to go to the Senate; while … EU diplomats were indicating that the treaty would be binding under international law.”

Kerry’s confusing remarks come as U.S. diplomats are preparing to head to Paris this month for the 21st U.N. climate summit. Delegates are expected to hash out a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, and there are high expectations for any such agreement.

President Barack Obama himself will travel to Paris Nov. 30 for the opening of the U.N. summit, showing just how important getting countries to cut carbon dioxide emissions is to the president in his last term in office.

Obama’s drive to get countries like China to join the U.S. in cutting emissions faces little opposition on the international stage, but could be derailed by a Republican-controlled Senate. That’s why the administration has stressed the “non-binding” aspect of the treaty.

In fact, the Obama administration is specifically avoiding use of the word “treaty” to describe any potential deal made in Paris. Calling it a “treaty” would imply Senate approval, and that’s not going to happen with Republicans in control of Congress.

“This news, so close to the December negotiations, highlights both the reckless approach that the Obama administration has taken going into Paris and the discord which has ensued,” Oklahoma Republican Sen. [crscore]Jim Inhofe[/crscore] said of Kerry’s recent remarks.

Inhofe and other lawmakers have vowed to block any treaty signed in Paris. The Senate is set to vote Wednesday on resolutions opposing the Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants — the lynchpin of Obama’s domestic climate agenda.

“As he remains concerned with nothing but his legacy, the president is attempting to steamroll ahead with an emissions reduction target that he continues to fail to articulate and that the U.S. can neither reasonably achieve nor afford,” Inhofe said.

But for years, the White House has been working to get a U.N. treaty that’s enforceable but requires no Senate approval. The U.S. Constitution requires any treaties have the “advice and consent of the Senate … provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”

What Obama plans is to make a U.N. treaty only politically binding, meaning countries are essentially making voluntary pledges to cut emissions. Somehow, the president also wants these commitments to be enforceable on an international level as well.

“The theory is that, so long as the emission-reduction targets are only politically binding, the president would be under no obligation to submit them to the Senate,” Utah Republican Sen. [crscore]Mike Lee[/crscore] said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Obama knows his chances of getting countries to sign onto a deal will be diminished if everyone knows the U.S. Senate won’t approve it. The White House has taken great pains to thread the needle carefully on this issue, hoping they aren’t beaten by Republicans.

The hybrid-agreement theory is clever, to be sure,” Lee said. “But it flatly contradicts the understanding of the Framework Convention that has been universally accepted since its ratification in 1992.”

“Targets and timetables of any legal character have always been understood to require the Senate’s advice and consent,” Lee said.

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