US: political agreement, not a legally binding treaty

The New York Times reported yesterday that President Obama is seeking an international agreement that would be based on voluntary pledges that would not be legally binding (Obama seeking climate accord in lieu of treaty, Aug 26, 2014). This is a critical question for the UN climate negotiations that we will attend in Lima in December, and one that we will discuss during the semester. Many Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) take the view that, for international efforts to be effective at preventing ‘dangerous’ climate change, nations must make commitments to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that are legally binding — similar to the approach embodied in the Kyoto Protocol, but with more stringent commitments that would apply to all major emitters of GHGs, if not all nations. Other Parties have promoted a different approach in which nations make pledges to take action on climate change. The US is an important proponent of this approach, and has been for some time. Under this alternative approach, each Party would, within some agreed parameters, decide the form and stringency of its pledge. This approach is embodied in the Copenhagen Accord and Cancun Agreements of the UNFCCC. Enforcement would not be through international legal channels, but through political pressure brought to bear by other nations, and a desire on a national government to create or maintain a reputation of being true to its word. The Obama administration has referred to this as “name and shame.”

Later this semester we will read a paper by Daniel Bodansky of the University of Arizona that compares these two approaches, and recommends that Parties to the UNFCCC draw on both in seeking a way forward. See his paper The Durban Platform: Issues and Options for a 2015 Agreement, from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

When you read the NY Times article, also read some of the comments. You’ll see that the ‘Merchants of Doubt’ have been effective at seeding confusion and misinformation about climate science.

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