Climate of Fear XXII.

            The Paris Climate Accords, which the Obama administration helped negotiate in 2016, contained flaws as well as virtues.[1]  The virtues have been sufficiently broadcast, so it is worth looking at two flaws. 

First, the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions promised by other countries were purely voluntary.  No one except Morocco and Gambia has met their commitments.  This lack of enthusiasm about compliance with even voluntary targets provides ammunition to critics of the Accords.  If the threat is real, it could be argued, then counties would drive ahead regardless of American participation.  If the threat isn’t real, then is the climate crisis being over-hyped?  Is the United States being beset by a warming planet or by a combination of ivory tower zealots with rival foreign economies seeking a competitive advantage?[2] 

            Second, it is not a treaty.  It is an executive agreement.  Never ratified by the Senate, it never became legally binding on the United States.  Furthermore, it could be—and was—abandoned by the United States as soon as a president hostile to the agreement waved good-bye to the moving van that deposited his stuff in the White House.  In this sense, the Paris Accords resemble the Versailles Treaty ending the First World War with Germany.  Even if the Accords could be converted to a real treaty, it is unlikely that it could get the two-thirds vote needed for ratification.  In short, the Democrats need to win more than a simple majority in the Senate to get a legally-binding treaty in place.  Even passing the legislation to implement a revived executive agreement could be tricky.  This will leave the Biden administration with the same slog through executive orders and rule-writing in which the Obama administration engaged so much energy. 

            One possible lever on the economy for the Biden administration would be to define climate change as not just an “environmental threat” or as a “national security threat,” but also as a “financial stability threat.”  Both the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Bank offer means to impose government policies without new legislation.  Both possess robust regulatory powers that can lever corporate policies and investor behavior in new directions. 

            The Obama-Trump-Biden pattern of rule writing followed by re-writing followed by re-re-writing is dangerous.  It turns what should be a predictable framework for decision-making into a quadrennial football.  On the one hand, the financial services industry is a vital part of America’s domestic economy and of its international trade.  Is it a good idea to build-in systemic uncertainty? 

On the other hand, the whole enterprise of governing through rule-writing and executive orders is deeply undemocratic.  It further exalts the executive branch; it further diminishes the legislative branch; and it further politicizes the judicial branch. 

No matter how much they are loved by their beneficiaries, rapid globalization and the growth of the “administrative state” have not received a unanimous warm welcome.  “Brexit” is best understood as a revolt against the European Union.  Donald Trump’s election is best understood as a revolt against the dominant policy strand of recent decades.  There is no guarantee that the revolt will end if Biden goes back to the same old policies. 


[1] Walter Russell Mead, “Climate Finance May Foul the Economy,” WSJ, 8 December 2020. 

[2] That’s not what I believe (although both things could be true).  It may well make sense in coal country or the oil patch or the “Rust Belt.”    

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