U.S. Can Still Implement Strong International Climate Actions

A lot of policymakers and commentators are speculating about what this week’s elections will mean for U.S. efforts to address climate change at home and abroad. The shift in control of the U.S. Senate means that GOP leaders will likely try block President Obama’s actions under laws like the Clean Air Act to curb the carbon pollution that is driving dangerous climate change (as NRDC’s President outlined).  But their efforts are not likely to succeed, and the election outcome doesn’t radically change the landscape for what the U.S. can deliver next year in international negotiations.

Despite these off-year election results in more conservative regions of the country, there is stronger public opinion polling evidence than ever that the public supports U.S. climate action.   A growing chorus of leading American businesses has been calling for urgent action. So, President Obama has the backing to deeply engage in international efforts to combat climate change – it is what the American public and businesses want, it is achievable, and it is what our children and grandchildren need.

Domestic opponents of strong U.S. climate action have always complained that if the U.S. acted “unilaterally,” that no one else would act (almost two decades ago they used the catch phrase “It’s not global and it won’t work”). They claimed to support a global response to climate change that requires strong actions by all key countries. Luckily for them this is exactly what the U.S. and other countries are preparing to agree next year. The agreement to be reached next December will have strong commitments from key countries to continue to implement actions to address their climate pollution and to take even bolder steps by 2025. As I discussed recently you can see strong evidence that this is emerging as China will be prepared for bold climate targets next year and Europe has already outlined its next round of climate targets. Similar signs are emerging in other key countries around the world such as India, Mexico, and South Korea.

At the same time, international action on climate change is dependent on the actions that countries take at home. When President Obama articulated the Climate Action Plan he boosted U.S. international credibility on climate change as countries have always craved strong U.S. domestic action. As one of the world’s largest economies and major emitter, the actions of the U.S. matter a lot. Following the election we will have to fight back efforts to undermine President Obama’s domestic climate change actions, but what the President is implementing is based upon the laws that Congress has already passed. And as President Obama said: “Congress will pass some bills I cannot sign.” We expect him to veto bills to gut his efforts on climate change (as reported in The Hill). And the new Congress lacks the votes to override him.

On the international level, the story is essentially the same. What the U.S. commits to next year as a part of the new international agreement will clearly be based upon the laws enshrined in the U.S. The President has implemented or set in motion strong actions for key sectors of the U.S. economy including the electricity sector, transportation, and hydrofluorocarbons that put the U.S. on a trajectory to meet their current climate target. Through existing law the U.S. can make strong commitments to cut carbon pollution in 2025 that are ambitious, economically achievable, and legally achievable. We expect that the U.S. will lay out an ambitious climate target early next year.

U.S. action helps to spur international action on climate change. By acting aggressively at-home the U.S. is in a stronger position to achieve strong commitments from other countries. This creates a positive dynamic where U.S. action helps to solidify even more action.

We expect challenges to these efforts from those that want to deny that climate change exists or entities that want to continue to dump unlimited carbon pollution in to the air. But those efforts go against what the American public wants. A recent ABC/Washington Post survey, for instance, found that 7 in 10 Americans view climate change as a serious problem and support federal action to reduce carbon pollution. And a growing group of businesses understand that failure to act on climate change hurts their bottom-line and that taking bold action is achievable (for example see these leading companies).

Strong U.S. domestic and international action on climate change is what the American public and businesses want. It is enshrined in the U.S. domestic law. It is what our children and grandchildren need.

President Obama can continue to lead on this effort by fully implementing the steps in the Climate Action Plan and helping to secure a strong international agreement next year.

About the Authors

Jake Schmidt

Director, International program

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