The pretend climate treaty.
In related news, the New York Times reports that "the Obama administration is working to forge a sweeping international climate change agreement to compel nations to cut their planet-warming fossil fuel emissions, but without ratification from Congress."
How? Even the Times knows that "under the Constitution, a president may enter into a legally binding treaty only if it is approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate." It would be more accurate to say "the country" rather than "a president," but hey, close enough for government work.
Anyway, Senate ratification is no more in the cards now than it was in 1997, when the world's greatest deliberative body voted 95-0 in favor of a nonbinding resolution "expressing the sense of the Senate" that the now-expired Kyoto Protocol was unacceptable. The Clinton administration signed that treaty the following year anyway but never submitted it to the Senate. Incidentally, the 1997 measure was called the Byrd-Hagel Resolution; its top Republican sponsor is now Obama's defense secretary.
Today, as the Times reports, "lawmakers in both parties on Capitol Hill say there is no chance that the currently gridlocked Senate will ratify a climate change treaty in the near future, especially in a political environment where many Republican lawmakers remain skeptical of the established science of human-caused global warming."
We're skeptical of the Times's claim that "lawmakers in both parties" said that "Republican lawmakers remain skeptical of the established science." That sounds to us like editorializing on the Democratic side of the argument--although come to think of it, one also doubts there has been a unanimous change in the Democratic position since 1997. But anyway, neither party has had a two-thirds Senate majority since 1967, and neither is likely to achieve one anytime soon. Thus no treaty can be ratified without bipartisan support.
In order to "sidestep" the constitutional requirement that laws be made by lawmakers, the Times continues, "President Obama's climate negotiators are devising what they call a 'politically binding' deal that would 'name and shame' countries into cutting their emissions."
The story notes that Obama has already "bypassed Congress and used his executive authority to order a far-reaching regulation forcing American coal-fired power plants to curb their carbon emissions." That reg has to go through the standard approval process, which won't be complete until next year, and it is also being challenged in court. Even if it holds up, a future president could modify it. But if Obama gets his pretend treaty, a successor who undid his policies would risk subjecting America not only to naming but to shaming as well.
Would it work? Let's consider two examples. First Australia, whose government, then controlled by the Labor Party, in 2012 imposed a "carbon tax." As The Wall Street Journalreported last month, this year Tony Abbott, the aspiring prime minister from the opposition Liberal Party, "made a pre-election 'pledge in blood' to voters and business to prioritize growth above climate shift. The Liberals (who would be considered the conservatives in American parlance) were elected, and Abbott kept his promise.
"Today the tax that you voted to get rid of is finally gone, a useless destructive tax which damaged jobs, which hurt families' cost of living and which didn't actually help the environment is finally gone," a jubilant Mr. Abbott told voters in a news conference after the Senate's decision.
His opponents tried the name-and-shame technique: "Labor and Green opponents of the government said the repeal would make the country an international 'pariah' on efforts to combat climate change." Not very fearsome a threat, is it?
Putin's carbon footprint in Novoazovsk, Ukraine. Associated Press
The second example is Ukraine. In 1994, the U.S., U.K. and Russia signed a document known as the Budapest Memorandum, offering assurances in exchange for which Kiev gave up the nuclear weapons it had inherited owing to the Soviet Union's dissolution. The memorandum purports to bind the three signatories "to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine."
But it isn't a treaty, and thus has no legal force. Boris Yeltsin, Russia's president at the time it was signed, acted in accord with the agreement, but Vladimir Putin obviously does not feel bound by it.
And how have the other signatories responded? There have been some economic sanctions, but mostly it's been naming and shaming. "It's really 19th-century behavior in the 21st century," Secretary of State John Kerry in March. "You just don't invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests."
Almost six months later, Putin is unbowed. But maybe Kerry is just the wrong man for the job. In the era of naming and shaming, we need a top diplomat whose insults carry a punch. But who? Don Rickles is probably too old.