U.S. Official Questioned on Legality of Climate Deal

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By Andrea Vittorio

Oct. 20 — The top U.S. official working toward a global deal to fight climate change faced questions from a congressional subcommittee chairman Oct. 20 on whether administration officials would bring the agreement, set to be signed at a United Nations summit in Paris in December, back to the Senate for approval.

While there is “no question that Congress should be consulted,” as it has been through regular briefings leading up to the summit, Todd Stern, the State Department’s special envoy for climate change, said it is not clear yet what parts of the climate accord—the text of which is being edited this week—will be legally binding.

U.S. negotiators favor a hybrid approach that includes national targets that are not legally binding within the deal but are still backed by domestic policies or laws.

Stern was grilled by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that held the hearing and the only Republican to attend. Barrasso called that approach “a calculated end-run around Congress.” A binding international deal would be dead-on-arrival at the Republican-controlled Senate, where members are already looking for ways to undermine the climate talks.

Existing Authority 

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)—and half-a-dozen other Senate Democrats on the subcommittee—came to Stern’s defense, pointing out that the U.S. does have the authority to negotiate deals under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the Senate ratified in 1992.

“So there is an existing treaty. You’re negotiating under that treaty, which is an authority which Congress gave to you,” Markey said at the hearing. “I just think we should make that clear.”

Barrasso also questioned whether the U.S. will be able to meet the pledge it made toward the global deal to cut its national greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, over a 2005 baseline. The centerpiece of that pledge, the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to cut carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants, has already been challenged in court by a group of coal-reliant states and companies who say it is illegal.

Asked what would happen to the U.S. emissions pledge if the agency's plan was overturned by the courts, Stern said he was confident that it “is very solidly grounded in law.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com