Throughout President Barack Obama’s participation in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties, known as COP21, international partners should be aware that his commitments stand on hollow ground. The President not only lacks support from his own country, but he has no way to follow through on any of his promises.
In the President’s efforts to finalize domestic plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases, he has deliberately ignored concerns of environmentalists, states, job creators, U.S. courts and Congress.
On March 31, Obama submitted an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to the United Nations that would commit the United States to reaching a 26% to 28% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. This goal is problematic, however, as it is largely based on carbon dioxide reductions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s so-called Clean Power Plan — an unachievable plan for reducing emissions from power plants.
In addition to implementation uncertainties, the power plan faces lawsuits from 27 states, 24 national trade associations, 37 rural electric cooperatives, 10 major companies and labor unions representing 878,000 members. But this is no surprise to the administration.
In early 2015, buried in the administration’s budget request for the EPA, was a request for $3.5 million to hire at least 20 new attorneys within EPA. The request was literally to help defend against anticipated lawsuits concerning the agency’s Clean Power Plan.
The Clean Power Plan faces opposition in Congress as well. In November, a bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate voted to disapprove of the administration’s carbon dioxide regulations, which included the Clean Power Plan. The U.S. House is scheduled to follow suit this week. The EPA administrator has even testified before Congress that the Clean Power Plan will have negligible environmental benefits and that it is less about pollution control and more about sending a signal to the world that the U.S. is serious about addressing climate concerns.
The administration has repeatedly refused to explain what constitutes the 26% to 28% reduction in greenhouse gases, leaving stakeholders, Congress and the American people to speculate about what its intentions are.
Even environmentalists are skeptical. In testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, David Bookbinder, the former chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club, concluded that such a reduction in emissions is not achievable. At the same hearing, the World Resources Institute admitted that additional actions will have to occur to meet the targets.
And yet none of these concerns has deterred the administration from trying to commit the United States to an agreement at the COP21. Obama has been candid that these environmental regulations are just an extension of his personal climate legacy.
Other countries have submitted their own hollow commitments to the U.N. as well. Russia based its emissions reduction goals on outdated numbers that allow the country to increase its emissions over the next decade. China, the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter, which accounts for 30% of the world’s emissions now and 50% of estimated growth by 2030, will only commit to emissions peaking about 15 years from now — and won’t even say what that peak will be. India’s willingness to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is contingent on developed countries’ funding. According to India, all it needs is about $2.5 trillion for its plan, with an off-ramp in the event it interferes with economic growth.
Basic requirements, such as measuring, verifying, and reporting a country’s emissions, are also a problem. The Chinese government was recently exposed as having underreported the amount of coal it burns and failing to account for more than a billion tons of carbon dioxide.
These realities are a mere reflection of the fact that — diplomatic rhetoric aside — no nation will ever prioritize emission reduction promises over poverty eradication and economic growth. Why should the United States be any different? The American people do not support the President’s climate agenda, which would make everyday life exceptionally challenging and more expensive.
As the courts and Congress dismantle Obama’s domestic plan, he will be limited in producing anything substantive internationally. Some foreign leaders are strongly urging Obama to keep Congress out of considering any commitment reached at the COP21. However, should he heed that advice, he will be left with a nonbinding political commitment and no means of enforcement, accountability or longevity.
As concerns of legitimate international security threats increase, it is emphatically frivolous for the President and other world leaders to spend their time making hollow promises they do not intend to keep.
Note: This first posted on CNN.com here.