Like Obamacare, Climate Gives President Huge But Fragile Win

Updated on
  • Republican lawmakers howl; deal doesn't need Congress nod
  • Obama spent political capital around globe to secure accord

For Barack Obama, the landmark climate-change deal in Paris should leave a familiar -- and familiarly fragile -- sense of victory.

As with the health care overhaul of his first term, the U.S. president secured a policy win that has eluded predecessors for decades. The climate accord reached by almost 200 countries on Saturday seeks to fundamentally alter the world’s energy system, moving the globe away from reliance on fossil fuels to avoid what scientists say would be catastrophic changes to the environment.

Barack Obama makes a statement on the climate agreement
Barack Obama makes a statement on the climate agreement
Photographer: Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images

The U.S. got much of what it had sought in the final agreement -- in particular, commitments by developing nations to shoulder more of the pollution reductions. That followed years of personal diplomacy by Obama with other world leaders and a string of new regulations at home to cut greenhouse gases.

“Obama played a huge role in this deal,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a participant in two decades of what until now had been mostly fruitless international talks. “This is a tremendous testament to his concern on the issue, his persistence and his willingness to spend political capital.”

Shaky Ground

But as with Obamacare, the president’s signature health care reform, the victory rests on shaky ground. Even supporters say the new deal won’t go far enough on its own to stop global warming. Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, many of whom question whether human activity is affecting the climate, are vowing to kill Obama’s domestic regulations, which they paint as a job killer, an economic disaster, and a “war on coal.”

The Paris accord also rests on scores of nations following through on voluntary pollution pledges and technological innovations in energy production that may take years to emerge.

“I can’t say whether or not Paris will ultimately be successful, none of us can,” said Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program. “It will be 5, 10, 20 years before we can look back and say what were the actual effects.”

Enforcement Debate

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama’s top negotiator in Paris, defended the agreement on a round of Sunday morning talk shows. While the deal includes no mechanism that would force countries to cut pollution, it will make every nation report emissions, upping the pressure on governments to act, he said.

“There is a uniform standard of transparency and therefore, we will know what everybody is doing,” Kerry said on ABC News’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” “The result will be a very clear signal to the marketplace of the world that people are moving into low-carbon, no-carbon, alternative, renewable energy.”

The Republican-controlled Congress already voted this month to block the centerpiece of Obama’s climate agenda, rules that would cut emissions by one third from the U.S. fleet of power plants. While Obama can veto the measure, Republicans vying to succeed him in the 2016 election have promised to undo the policies if they win the White House.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released in November suggested Republican candidates are in tune with their constituents’ wishes on the topic. Nearly 6 in 10 Republicans surveyed said global warming was not a serious problem. A little less than half of those polled, regardless of political affiliation, thought the federal government should do more to deal with global warming.

Hold the Champagne

“Before his international partners pop the champagne, they should remember that this is an unattainable deal based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal, that half the states have sued to halt, and that Congress has already voted to reject,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement Saturday night.

The Paris deal was “more of the same —- lots of promises and lots of issues still left unresolved,” said Stephen Eule, vice president for climate and technology with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The White House’s overall domestic strategy of making energy more expensive and less abundant to satisfy international constituencies, many of whom compete against the United States, should worry the business community, American workers, and consumers.”

Still, as with health care, opponents may find it hard to undo Obama’s environmental legacy. The power-plant rules will probably end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, where the administration has a strong track record on pollution cases. And in the private sector the tide has, arguably, been turning. Utilities have already shuttered dozens of coal-fired power plants in recent years. Last week, Ford Motor Co. said it plans to invest $4.5 billion in electric vehicles to meet ambitious new auto emissions standards put in place by the Obama administration.

‘Sticking It To Them’

Obama, in other words, is creating facts on the ground.

“People in the Republican party I speak with know they’re on the wrong side of history on this issue, like with gay marriage,” said Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And Obama is sticking it to them. He’s saying, do you really want to be the party that’s against science and against what people want?”

The Obama administration lobbied hard to structure the Paris agreement so that it wouldn’t require approval from a hostile Congress. The result was a collection of dozens of pledges by individual countries whose pollution-cutting targets aren’t legally binding.

That helped nations finally draft a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but it also produced a pact that many environmentalists call a weak start, at best, to avoiding catastrophic warming of global temperatures linked to more instances of extreme weather. Some of those critics were quick to pounce.

‘Turning Point’

“The Paris agreement is not a fair, just or science-based deal,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth U.S. “The United States has hindered ambition. The result is an agreement that could see low-lying islands and coastlines swallowed up by the sea, and many African lands ravaged by drought.”

Obama, in a seven-minute speech on Saturday at the White House, said the pact had “met the moment” and could be “a turning point for the world,” though one that he said was only the beginning.

“The targets we’ve set are bold,” Obama said. “And by empowering businesses, scientists, engineers, workers and the private sector -- investors -- to work together, this agreement represents the best chance we’ve had to save the one planet that we’ve got.”

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