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Clock Winds Down on Climate Talks

Heather Goldstone

Delegates have been working behind closed doors all day and a new draft agreement is not due until tomorrow morning. In the meantime, there's fair bit of confusion because the talks have entered murky scientific territory. 

The current text sets a goal of limiting warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius." That has been a long-standing goal, but this draft of the agreement also includes language that says warming should be kept closer to 1.5C above pre-industrial revolution temperatures.

That could make a huge difference in what’s required to meet the goal.

The problem is, it’s not entirely clear what it will take. This is a new target and researchers say they haven’t really considered it. But they agree that it means much more rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Another question is whether any agreement will be legally binding in the United States. The answer depends on what’s in the agreement.

We typically think of international treaties needing to be ratified by Congress. It turns out the president can enter into legally binding international agreements without congressional approval, as long as any actions required by the agreement are already authorized by U.S. law. In this case, regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are authorized by the Clean Air Act. That still faces challenges but has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

In addition, the U.S. did ratify the UN Convention Framework on Climate Change in 1992. That’s the whole basis for the annual meetings. But it also authorizes monitoring, reporting, and verification. So, as long as the Paris agreement doesn’t require more than can be delivered under the Clean Air Act, the president doesn’t need congressional approval.