China climate deal sets stage for US political warfare

By Anthony Zurcher
Editor, Echo Chambers

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US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang shake hands on 12 November, 2014.Image source, AP

It is a historic climate change agreement between the world's two largest economies.

At least, that's the way US Secretary of State John Kerry is describing the plan to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and halt the growth of Chinese emissions by 2030.

"Our announcement can inject momentum into the global climate negotiations, which resume in less than three weeks in Lima, Peru, and culminate next year in Paris," he writes in a New York Times opinion piece on Wednesday. "The commitment of both presidents to take ambitious action in our own countries, and work closely to remove obstacles on the road to Paris, sends an important signal that we must get this agreement done, that we can get it done, and that we will get it done."

What Mr Kerry leaves unsaid - but which casts a long shadow over the news in the US - are the domestic political implications of the agreement.

Republicans scored a sweeping victory in last week's mid-term elections, and they are firmly opposed to any new efforts to use government regulation to address climate change.

Soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly settled any doubt about what he sees as his electoral mandate on environmental issues.

"This unrealistic plan, that the president would dump on his successor, would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs," he said in a press release. "The president said his policies were on the ballot, and the American people spoke up against them."

According to James West of Mother Jones, however, Mr Obama's deal helps disarm an ongoing criticism Republicans like Mr McConnell have had that any climate deal reached without China would hamstring the US at the expense of its Asian rival.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
McConnell says he views greenhouse gas regulations as part of a "war on coal"

"The announcement between the two biggest emitters deals a blow to the oft-stated rhetoric that the US must wait for China before bringing domestic climate legislation," he writes. "And vice-versa: China has long used US inaction as an excuse, too. Not any more."

Washington Post's Philip Bump agrees that the deal "may represent one of the first big shifts back toward action on the climate".

Critics will still argue against any climate deal, he says, likely by claiming that China is making empty promises and other major players - like India and Indonesia - are left out.

"This agreement will at best slightly shift the American political landscape over the short term," he writes.

Cue Hot Air's Jazz Shaw, who says he is relieved to hear that the deal is "largely symbolic", since a Republican-controlled Congress will prevent Mr Obama from implementing anything major.

"The problem is, Obama probably means it, while China is almost certainly just yanking the world's collective chain yet again with a bit of lip service as they seek better trade arrangements," he writes.

Congress is also on the mind of the Grist's Ben Adler, who foresees a high-stakes confrontation between the president and Congress on the horizon over a variety of climate-change issues. The latest action, he says, will likely raise the stakes for both sides.

"The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has voted to repeal the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act," he writes. "The new Republican Senate will now do so as well. While that will be met with a presidential veto - if it even gets past a Democratic filibuster - it could set up a showdown, and government shutdown, if Republicans tie it to the budget.

It's not just the current fractious political climate that jeopardises any climate agreement, however. While China may be able to make commitments a decade into the future, the US political calculus can change so quickly that even if Mr Obama successfully prevents Republican attempts to derail the agreement, it's just one step down a long road.

As the Atlantic's James Fallows notes, the US could have two or even three different presidents between today and the 2025 target for greenhouse gas reductions.

"It's quaint to think back on an America that could set ambitious long-term goals - creating Land-Grant universities, developing the Interstate Highway System, going to the moon - even though the president who proposed them realized that they could not be completed on his watch," he writes. "But let's not waste time on nostalgia."

This latest climate-change deal could be the historic agreement Mr Kerry envisions - but only if it's backed up by Chinese action and US proponents successfully navigate a treacherous political landscape not just in the next few months but for years and even decades to come.