The Climate Action Now Act just passed in the House with a 231-190 majority vote.
Among other things, the bill is intended to prevent President Donald Trump from carrying out his promise to remove the U.S. from the Paris Agreement — an international commitment to keep well below a 2 degree Celsius increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels, while aiming for a cap of 1.5 degrees.
Basav Sen, director of the Climate Justice Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, joined FAIR’s CounterSpin program to discuss the Paris Agreement, and why it’s not enough. Sen also addresses the U.S.’ outsized role in the climate crisis and how international trade agreements prevent global climate action.
“The Paris Agreement is flawed,” said Sen. Some of its inadequacy stems from the fact it is a completely voluntary commitment — meaning countries are not technically bound to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Additionally, the Paris Agreement’s stated goal of keeping rising temperatures within 2 degrees Celsius, with 1.5 degrees listed as an aspirational goal, is lacking.
According to Sen, “1.5 degrees is an absolute upper limit of tolerable global temperature rise” if we want to avoid disastrous impacts worldwide.
Setting aside the goals of the Paris Agreement being too modest, the issue of voluntary participation in the agreement is a massive problem.
“The United States,” said Sen, “was… instrumental in ensuring that the pledges in Paris were voluntary.”
The reason for this, according to the Obama administration, was because a binding agreement would need Republican-led Congressional approval — something then-President Obama understood to be functionally impossible.
Obama wasn’t wrong in that assumption. But he was wrong, according to Sen, for allowing the politics of the United States to deter him from pursuing the sort of agreement that could have set the stage for a global commitment to address the perils of climate change.
Said Sen: “A real political leader would do what is needed. Namely… build the political case for [a binding global agreement] at home instead of subjecting the safety of the entire planet to the domestic political compulsions and calculations of the United States, which is what ended up happening.”
There’s also the issue of the U.S.’ disproportionate role in the global climate discussion.
“The United States has one of the largest global emissions of any country in the world — second highest in aggregate after China.”
It’s also one of the highest emitters per capita, excluding some wealthy oil-producing countries. Cumulatively, the United States has by far the highest emissions of any country ever, accounting for about 25% of global emissions since 1870.
Cumulative emissions matter because carbon dioxide, in particular, could potentially last for thousands of years in the atmosphere.
According to Sen, “the warming effects we are experiencing today are attributable, to some extent, to greenhouse gases that have been emitted since the start of the industrial revolution — not just today’s emissions.”
And given our outsized role, we obviously have an outsized responsibility to fix the problem.
“This isn’t charity. Rather, it is fixing what we have broken.”
Based on that simple principle of justice, the United States owes the world funding for climate mitigation and climate adaptation.
Sen describes climate mitigation as transitioning the world away from a destructive fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy regenerative economy.
As for climate adaptation, Sen says that means “making our economy and our societies more resilient to the effects of climate change.”
It’s inevitable that we’ll keep experiencing these effects even after we go through this transition “because of… greenhouse gases lasting in the atmosphere for a long time, and therefore, warming effects persisting for a long time even after we cut back on our emissions.”
Part of the United States’ responsibility in regard to global climate policy includes providing aid and technology to countries impacted by climate change. Trade agreements, however, can stand in the way of that.
Sen highlights two elements of trade agreements that are particularly obstructive of global climate action.
“One of them,” said Sen, is intellectual property provisions that a lot of these agreements have that could be an obstacle to the kind of technology transfer that needs to happen.”
Thin film solar panels or lithium batteries are a few examples.
“The Second element is investor-state dispute settlement, which is where companies can sue the government — never the other way around — in secret trade tribunals where a group of unelected so-called trade experts judge whether a countries regulations, be it for environmental protection, worker protection, or community safety, interfere with the profits of private companies. If the policies enacted by these countries are found to impact the profits of foreign private investors, then the tribunal could order the country to pay compensation to the corporation.”
What Sen describes above is actually more common than you might think. Our new report details just how exploitative these investor-state disputes can be, looking specifically at mining companies and their multi-million dollar lawsuits against Latin American countries.
As Sen put it, this is a “profound and end-run around basic self-determination and democracy. And yet, that is enshrined into any number of international trade agreements.”
The notion that the United States leads the world in climate action, or even that the United States should lead the world in climate action is based on arrogance.
The question we should be asking, argues Sen, is “how [can] the United States compensate the rest of the world for the damage it has historically done in terms of emitting greenhouse gases.”