Presidents Xi Jingping and Barack Obama recently reached a bilateral agreement to reduce carbon emissions. The landmark agreement, jointly announced in Beijing, includes new targets for carbon emissions reductions of 26 to 28% from the United States by 2025, and a first-ever commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030.
Since China and the United States are the two biggest national emitters of carbon, this could have a major impact on the world’s ability to cope with the carbon threat. It is considered essential to concluding a new global accord, because unless Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences, few other countries will agree to mandatory cuts in emissions.
So this was an important accomplishment, but time will tell if both countries are able to fulfill this new commitment. In the aftermath of the agreement, much has been written that China’s promises are still too vague and lack a credible plan. But what about the United States? Will the Obama administration – and whatever President succeeds him in 2016 – be able to deliver on its new commitment?
The recent elections, which saw the opposition Republican Party overwhelm the Democrats, taking over the U.S. Senate and increasing its majority in the U.S. House, does not make one optimistic.
For starters, the new Senate is set to be packed with a brand new crop of Republican climate change deniers and big boosters of fossil fuels who don't agree with the mainstream scientific consensus on global warming. Colorado’s new Republican senator, Cory Gardner, has said the Obama administration is waging "a war on the kind of energy we use every day—fossil fuels… because they want to tell us how we live our lives." George’s new senator David Perdue has slammed the Obama administration for waging a "war on coal" and has called the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules to regulate carbon emissions "shortsighted." Montana’s new senator Steven Daines believes global warming, to the extent that it exists at all, is probably caused by solar cycles. West Virginia’s new senator Shelley Capito is a founding member of the Congressional Coal Caucus.
These and other new Republican senators will join the current crop of top Congressional Republican leaders who have long been prominent climate change deniers, and who quickly criticized the U.S.-China climate change pact.
Senator Mitch McConnell, who in January will become the Senate majority leader, House Speaker John Boehner and Senator Jim Inhofe, who is expected to chair the all-important Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, slammed the agreement in statements released shortly after the deal was announced.
Senator McConnell, who hails from the coal state of Kentucky, said "I read the agreement – it requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states around the country."
Senator Inhofe criticized the deal as unfair and knocked the Chinese pledge t as "hollow and not believable…The United States will be required to more steeply reduce our carbon emissions while China won't have to reduce anything.”
Senators McConnell and Inhofe made a pledge of their own, vowing to rein in regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a common target for Republicans. Inhofe told climate skeptic think tank, the Heartland Institute, “I will be replacing Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, so we can go back and start using CRAs—that’s Congressional Review Acts—to repeal or to stop some of the onerous regulations that are taking place.”
Americans strongly side with President Obama, but Republican voters do not. Recent exit polls from the midterm elections showed that more than half of voters (57%) considered climate change or global warming a serious problem, but only 29% of Republican voters feel that way. So Republican leaders can proceed to obstruct Obama’s regulations, confident that they have the support of their base of voters.
The hope of the Obama administration is that the agreement with President Xi does not require congressional ratification. They believe that the president can cleverly use his executive branch powers over regulation and administration to implement certain changes.
But with the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, they will have significant powers to obstruct and slow things down. For example, Republicans can attempt to block Obama's plan to use the EPA to slash carbon emissions. Senator McConnell already has announced that his top priority is "to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in."
Specifically, what Republicans want to target is the EPA’s new power plant regulations, known as the Clean Power Plan. In the last decade the EPA has won a series of Supreme Court battles allowing it to use the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
William Antholis, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, says the Republicans could go after the EPA’s funding, trying to reduce its staffing levels and abilities to monitor and regulate various carbon polluters and industries. Republicans also could launch “more intrusive and time-consuming hearings on the EPA and the nature of climate regulations… House and Senate Republicans could make another attempt to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases.”
Many are viewing the fate of Obama's EPA rules as a litmus test – it will show whether the US can credibly commit to climate action. And if the US can't make the grade, it’s China, India and Brazil won’t have much incentive to do so.
Additionally, Republicans could block appropriations for the US's contribution to the Green Climate Fund, a UN-administered account for climate adaptation in developing countries. Germany and France have each pledged a billion dollars, but the U.S. has yet to make a pledge. Failing to do so, or pledging a stingy amount, would also send a signal that the US is not as committed to climate action as it is asking other big emitters to be.
Senate Republicans also are virtually certain to try and push through the Keystone XL pipeline, which is at the top of their priority list. That pipeline, running from Canada’s tar sands down to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, requires special approval from the White House and from the State Department. The Republican majorities in both the House and Senate will be strategizing ways to get the president to approve that pipeline, particularly by attaching it to other bills wanted by the president, or to a budget bill.
If Republicans are successful in their all-out war on Obama's climate policies, it will not only undermine America’s ability to live up to its agreement with President Xi and the rest of the world, but it will further erode international confidence in the US’s ability to be a leader on this issue.
Will President Obama be able to deliver on his agreement with President Xi? Or will any future US presidents even want to, especially if a Republican is elected in 2016? The outcome of this battle is by no means certain. Stay tuned.