November 7, 2017
By Dean Scott
Syria’s announcement that the war-torn nation is formally joining the Paris climate pact highlighted concern among the agreement’s backers that worsening climate impacts will aggravate global security and weaken U.S. diplomatic clout.
A Senate Republican and key skeptic about human contributions to climate change, however, said Syria’s decision is no big deal. But another Senate Republican expressed hope a U.S. renegotiation of the Paris pact remains possible.
Syria broke the news at the Bonn climate summit that it recently passed domestic legislation to formally join the 2015 Paris Agreement to address climate change, leaving the U.S. as the sole outlier to the global pact if it withdraws—as President Donald Trump has pledged to do.
Negotiators on Nov. 6 began two weeks of technical work in Bonn to implement the Paris deal.
War-ravaged Syria has been a poster child for fears that drought and other weather impacts are worsening refugee migration and contributing to civil strife.
The U.S. Defense Department and other national security agencies have warned that climate change will pose a significant future security threat for the U.S., from destabilizing regimes to causing sea level rise to fueling more severe weather that could impact U.S. bases both at home and overseas.
Democratic senators who are headed to the Bonn talks this weekend to undercut President Trump’s efforts to withdraw from the climate deal said Syria’s decision further isolates the U.S. as the world’s only nation seeking to leave the pact. Only a few senators predict Trump—who complained the deal disadvantaged the U.S.—may yet to decide to stay in it.
But one of those is Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“My sense is that [the Trump administration] will, at some point, try to negotiate something that’s a little different than the benchmarks we agreed to” when the Obama administration signed on to the 2015 deal, Corker told Bloomberg Environment. Asked if that suggests Trump will find a way to stay in, Corker said: “My guess is they will attempt to do so, yes.”
Democrats said Syria joining the deal as the U.S. is moving out hurts American credibility.
“It’s embarrassing,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told Bloomberg Environment.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) noted that the news means the last two holdouts—Nicaragua and Syria—have now joined the deal.
“This is a pretty strong marker that [what] we’re doing is very unique, and very wrong,” Whitehouse told Bloomberg Environment. “And this certainly gives us less clout in other matters because it makes us look ridiculous” on the world stage, he said.
But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who backs Trump’s effort to withdraw from the Paris deal, said the Syria announcement will have little impact. Inhofe has argued that developing nations aren’t required to take actions to address climate change, so their participation in the pact doesn’t mean much.
“Syria has no intentions of doing anything,” Inhofe told Bloomberg Environment.
The Obama administration, which had signed the U.S. on to the Paris pact, saw Syria as perhaps the most worrisome example of how climate change is impacting the security of nations, Andrew Light, a State Department climate negotiator for President Barack Obama, told Bloomberg Environment.
The Obama administration was particularly unnerved, Light said, by a 2015 National Academies report that concluded that just before the 2011 Syrian uprising “the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record.”
For a nation “marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest,” the study said.
“That suggested not that climate change caused the civil war but played an important role, and that the resulting drought meant they stopped producing food, and then people moved to the cities—and that became a powder keg,” Light said.
The Syrian representative in Bonn cautioned that the nation—which has been embroiled in civil war since 2011—isn’t ready to pledge what actions it can take to address climate change or its emissions, according to several people attending the announcement in Bonn. Syria will need to focus on rebuilding at home and other priorities as a postwar country, said one delegate from the U.N. talks, which run until Nov. 17.
Syria must still deposit instruments of ratification with the U.N. before it can formally be a party to the Paris deal and has yet to do so, according to a U.N. spokesman.
While Syria can’t technically have a formal role in implementing the Paris deal until its paperwork goes to the U.N., it already has a seat at the table to the broader U.N. climate talks as a party to the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the parent treaty to the Paris pact. The U.S. retains such a seat as well.
—With assistance from Abby Smith.