WASHINGTON—For President Barack Obama, many of his victories have been tempered by a harsh reality: what he’s built up, the next president or a future Congress could one day tear down. Obama is counting on the global climate accord to be the exception that allows him to leave a lasting imprint on the planet, even as his opponents are working to whittle the deal away.
Getting nearly 200 countries to sign a carbon-cutting pact seemed a remote possibility just a few years ago, and the agreement reached in Paris marks one of Obama’s most significant diplomatic achievements. A capstone to Obama’s efforts to curb emissions at home, the pact sets up a permanent system for ratcheting down pollution that Obama hopes will finally put the world on a path toward averting the doomsday scenario of unchecked global warming.
Yet the response may be giving the president a bit of whiplash: Just as he’s being collectively cheered by environmental groups and foreign leaders, he’s derided by opponents at home who say the accord should be summarily thrown out despite its support from nearly every country on the planet.
The climate deal was painstakingly constructed to avoid the need for Congress to approve it. In a bit of irony, while Obama was pressuring other countries to go bolder, his negotiators were pushing back on other nations that wanted to strengthen the deal by making it legally enforceable. Such a deal, Obama knew, would face certain death in the Republican-run Congress.
In fact, the talks almost fell apart at the 11th hour when a final draft used the word “shall” to describe emission-cutting obligations, rather than “should.” Secretary of State John Kerry said he told his French counterpart the U.S. would be forced to pull out of the deal Obama has been pushing for years, but a last-minute revision spared that outcome.
“We met the moment,” Obama said once the deal was sealed, having advanced a priority he has made central to his presidency. He continued the victory lap Monday with celebratory phone calls with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and French President Francois Hollande.
The revelry at the White House was a marked departure from the last major global climate summit, in 2009, when talks in Copenhagen failed to yield the sweeping agreement that Obama had been seeking. Absent any major U.S. steps to curb emissions, Obama had little leverage or credibility to argue that other countries—particularly poorer ones—should cough up their own commitments. Negotiators left those talks unsure whether global negotiations would ever yield the type of deal scientists said was needed.
Heather Zichal, Obama’s top energy and climate adviser until 2013, said Obama deliberately set out to spend the next few years taking concrete steps to cut U.S. emissions, even though doing so required side-stepping Congress. His administration rolled out strict new rules for vehicles and power plants while targeting emissions of methane, hydrofluorocarbons and other pollutants.
“He went to Paris with a completely different game,” Zichal said. “He was able to go and say, ‘Look at all of the things we’ve done.’ Bringing that to the table, the president was able to drive up commitments and ambition from other countries.”
Reaching a deal that was muscular enough to achieve its goals but soft enough to spare a U.S. vote required a delicate balance. Although there are no consequences if countries fail to deliver on their pledges, the deal relies on previous Senate-approved pacts to force countries to disclose what they’re polluting and review their goals every five years with an eye toward ratcheting up.
So far, even Republicans and Obama’s opponents in the energy industry aren’t challenging the notion that the Paris deal requires no vote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reminded Obama that the deal “is subject to being shredded in 13 months,” referring to the end of Obama’s presidency. But the Republicans running to replace Obama—some of whom question the science of climate change—have been mostly silent. Since the deal was unveiled, none has taken to the campaign trail to vow to tear it up.
The key question is whether, by undermining the U.S. contribution, opponents can stir enough doubt about America’s commitment so as to scuttle the whole deal. Gutting the steps Obama has taken at home would leave him unable to deliver on his pledge to cut U.S. emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2030.
Republicans in Congress are working to roll back Obama’s power plant rules, critical to meeting the 2030 goal, and a series of legal challenges from U.S. states could also scuttle those rules. Other elements of Obama’s domestic climate agenda have survived legal challenges, but still face an uncertain future if Republicans win the White House and keep control of Congress in next year’s elections.
Nigel Purvis, a climate negotiator on the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, said if the U.S. fails to meet its goal, other countries would notice. But he said the broader deal would survive unless the U.S. took the extraordinary step of formally backing out.
“If the U.S. were to do less, others would probably do less as well,” Purvis said. “But it wouldn’t threaten the agreement, it would threaten the ambition.”