Will Obama Surrender U.S. Rights in UN Climate Talks?

Any UN agreement will impose high costs on the American economy which will reverse the slow recovery from the 2008 Great Recession and lower the standard of living of most citizens. The public needs to watch what happens in Paris, alert to any threat to America’s right to set its own “national development priorities” with no outside interference. There is always the hope that the next president will have a pro-growth agenda.


By William R. Hawkins | November 10, 2015


President Obama’s doomsday climate speech in Alaska at the Glacier Conference in September – Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama raised eyebrows during his recent “60 Minutes” interview when he claimed the upcoming UN climate talks in Paris would be a better venue for showcasing U.S. global leadership than meeting the threat of regional war and Great Power rivalry in the Middle East. Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed this priority in a major speech at Indiana University on October 15. Of the four examples he claimed showed how the world is “actually increasingly coming together,” the second was climate change (just after the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and ahead of the Iran nuclear agreement and the war on terrorism). He stressed the importance of the UN meeting set for November 30 – December 11.

Representatives from around the world will gather in Paris to approve what I hope will be by far the most ambitious agreement on global climate ever reached.  And hopefully, it will send a signal to the marketplace.

Now, there are still many issues to be resolved, but the momentum is building….it’s going to elicit extraordinary buy-in at the grassroots level around the world.

By “grassroots” he means the Green activist movement which has become the center of left-wing politics across the Western world. According to Green Left Weekly, “Grassroots climate groups are calling for large protests in cities around the world to coincide with the United Nations climate talks held in Paris.”

The last time there was such a major push for a “legally binding agreement” that would mandate signatory nations cut back their energy use – and thus slow their economies, was in 2009 at Copenhagen. There was a massive grassroots effort then as well with mobs in the streets. The goal was a new treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that expired in 2012. The plan was to impose on the “rich” developed countries a requirement that green house gas (GHG) emissions be cut by 25-to-40 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels. Such a drastic measure would have locked the developed countries into a permanent recession. Meanwhile, the developing countries, led by the BASIC (Brazil,South Africa,IndiaandChina) coalition, would not have had any mandated restrictions on their GHG emissions because they refuse to have any limits placed on their “right” to economic growth.

The two-track formula, where the developed countries (listed in Annex I) would have to do everything and the emerging powers (Annex II) would not have to do anything, is called in UN-speak “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities [CBDR].” It is why the United States under President George W. Bush refused to participate. It was expected that newly elected President Obama would break with his predecessor, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on this basis.

Yet, the Obama administration held to the U.S. position that there should only be one track; everyone should play by the same rules. American negotiators spent 2009 trying to persuade China to accept mandated targets. The BASIC coalition insisted on the Kyoto precedent exempting them from targets, since they have never accepted the bizarre Green notion that human progress is a bad thing. The conference collapsed over this fundamental conflict. President Obama walked into a BASIC meeting in Copenhagen and demanded equal treatment. The result was that no country would have mandates imposed on it. Each country would be free to pursue its own policies in its own interests.

All countries need only list with the UN their voluntary targets for limiting GHG emissions and they will monitor their own implementation as a matter of sovereign right. The 25-to-40 percent GHG reduction target is now only a “recommendation” for the developed countries. The developing countries still have a lower “recommendation,” a 15-to-30 percent cut; but it is the lack of mandates that is crucial – a world of freedom which the new push for a treaty seeks to end.

And, dangerously, President Obama may be willing to surrender his earlier triumph and join the Greens in placing the United States under “binding” UN authority. After all, he has already ordered extreme measures against the domestic energy sector unilaterally, from his “war on coal” to cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline. Obama is clearly not interested in shielding the American economy from the Green onslaught. And as he showed with the Iran nuclear deal, he is willing to seek support at the UN for policies he can’t sell at home.

The UN just held a preliminary meeting in Bonn (Oct. 19-23) where a draft agreement was discussed. Article 2 includes this long -winded statement,

This Agreement shall be implemented on the basis of equity and science, in [full] accordance with the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities[, in light of national circumstances] [the principles and provisions of the Convention], while ensuring the integrity and resilience of natural ecosystems, [the integrity of Mother Earth, protection of health, a just transition of the workforce and creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities] and the respect, protection, promotion and fulfillment of human rights for all, including the right to health and sustainable development, [including the right of people under occupation] and to ensure gender equality and the full and equal participation of women, [and intergenerational equity].

The key parts are the references to “national circumstance” and “nationally defined development priorities.” This language maintains sovereign authority over domestic economies, as it should be. However, the Annex II countries (now led by the G77+ China) want this right reserved to themselves as in the past, while mandating burdens on Annex I states as under Kyoto. To its credit, the U.S. as co-hair of the proceedings, did try to move away from CBDR, but the G77 + China rejected the change.

Though Secretary Kerry did not attend the Bonn meeting, he did give a speech on climate change in Washington during it. He said the Paris meeting was “an absolutely critical step and a major priority of President Obama, myself, and the rest of the Administration.”  Kerry also noted that for the last two years, he had been talking with the Chinese “to try to change what prompted the failure in Copenhagen, which was this great divergence between developed and developing countries – since then we have made, actually, enormous progress.” Then added, “We have to reach an agreement in Paris.” Given that there actually has been no change in Beijing’s position on CBDR, the need for Obama to get a Paris accord as part of his legacy risks placing America at a very large and dangerous disadvantage in competition with China (and other rising powers).

Any UN agreement will impose high costs on the American economy which will reverse the slow recovery from the 2008 Great Recession and lower the standard of living of most citizens. The public needs to watch what happens in Paris, alert to any threat to America’s right to set its own “national development priorities” with no outside interference. There is always the hope that the next president will have a pro-growth agenda.


William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.