As part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) effort in Paris this coming December, to reach an international agreement to fight global warming, each nation is supposed to submit its plans for emissions reductions. These frameworks—called intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) in UN-speak—were scheduled to be turned in today. Taken together, it is hoped that these plans will reduce emissions to the point where the worst effects of climate change are avoided.
Following in the footsteps of the European Union, which submitted an ambitious INDC early in March, the United States handed in its plan just ahead of today’s “deadline” (not every nation will end up sending one in today). The top-line figure is that the Obama administration pledges to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26–28 percent below the 2005 baseline by 2025. In introducing the INDC, senior White House adviser Brian Deese touted U.S. leadership on the climate change issue.
If those numbers sound familiar, they should: this INDC is a reiteration of the landmark U.S.-China bilateral agreement on climate change, in which China matched the U.S. pledge with its own commitment to peak its emissions in 2030 and dramatically increase the amount of electricity it generates from non-fossil fuel sources. While the ultimate goal thus is nothing new, its presentation highlights several key factors that still underline the tricky path ahead in hitting this deadline.
As The New Republic’s Rebecca Leber points out, the INDC focuses a lot of attention on how much action President Obama has taken without specific congressional approval. Executive actions and orders, which find their legal foundation in older pieces of legislation such as the Clean Air Act, are at the center of the U.S. contribution to combating climate change. This should come as no surprise, given Congress’s failure to pass any significant legislation (the Waxman-Markey bill, also known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act, would have established a national cap-and-trade program, but it was defeated in the Senate in 2009). The Obama administration shifted focus in 2013, rolling out its initial plans for the EPA to regulate carbon emissions, instead of relying on Congress to push through the necessary legislation.
Those EPA regulations are the subject of intense congressional opposition, and lawsuits challenging the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions in the way its Clean Power Plan envisions. Managing these threats to his signature climate initiative is a crucial test of the inside-out game that Obama must play for the remainder of his term. U.S. credibility on the international stage, which has been strengthened by these executive actions, will mean less if they cannot withstand domestic scrutiny, and may encourage other nations to reduce their ambitions (on this point, see especially Senator McConnell’s statements on congressional resistance, warning that “our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal”). Likewise, domestic support for climate action must be buttressed by concerted international action—many activists and analysts were excited by the U.S.-China agreement, which occurred in no small part because the Chinese knew the United States was committed to serious action.
As the international community gets closer to final negotiations in Paris, these cross-cutting factors will take on even more prominence. The success of Obama (and his successor) in reconciling them is crucial for future U.S. leadership on climate change.