By Tamara Slater, J.D., Harris Institute Fellow, Washington University
In the finals weeks of 2015 under the auspices of the UNFCCC, 195 nations adopted a global climate change agreement in Paris, France that has the potential to save humanity from the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change. The so-called Paris Agreement and accompanying decision is a complicated and highly political and politicized text. Whether the Agreement should be seen as historic, or even a simple success, is certainly up for debate. The consequences of a strong agreement, however, cannot be understated. (For additional discussion of the Agreement, see e.g., Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute climate change posts and C2ES Paris Summary.)
One major challenge to achieving an agreement in Paris was a sense that the United States, the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), was not willing or (politically) able to take the kind of action on climate change needed to make an agreement meaningful. President Obama’s ambitious Climate Action Plan was thus significant not only for the potential decrease in emissions, but also for its ability to signal to the world that the United States did in fact intend to take serious action. The success, therefore, of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the flagship domestic climate change law, is of great international import.
As I watched the negotiations via live-stream in St. Louis, Missouri during the two weeks of negotiations, messaging with friends in Paris or fellow live-stream watchers, I could not help but think about how these negotiations provide a potent example of how deeply intertwined international and domestic law and politics can be. While the whole world will be (or already is) severely impacted by climate change, the Midwest is particularly vulnerable when it comes to agriculture and public health due to “increased heat stress, flooding, drought, and late spring freezes,” as well as risks for the economy and industry more broadly.
In many ways, Missouri is typical of American public opinion on climate change. As of 2014, public opinion in Missouri was almost identical to the national average regarding climate change: 61% believe that global warming will harm future generations; 76% believe the government should fund research into renewable energy sources (77% nationally); 74% support government regulation CO2 as a pollutant. And yet, Missouri is one of 29 states and state agencies challenging the CPP, which seeks to regulate CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants. The primary question for Americans in general, and Missourians in particular, is whether and how the Paris Agreement will influence our country and state.
Currently, over 80% of Missouri’s electricity is generated by burning coal. The state consistently ranks near the bottom of energy efficiency achievements. The Missouri General Assembly seems unphased by the Paris Agreement. Even though the EPA assigned Missouri one of the “least stringent” goals, and one that is doable using existing policies and infrastructure (such as the Renewable Energy Standard passed in 2008), the legislature is moving forward with legislation to stop all work on state compliance efforts with the CPP.
On February 9, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed implementation of the CPP until the 29 states’ challenge can be heard on the merits. It is on an expedited schedule, to be argued in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals this June. The move is unprecedented and, along with the subsequent death of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, potentially has massive implications for the climate, particularly in this presidential election year. This article is not about the CPP, but the future of the Paris Agreement and Missouri’s climate actions will be deeply impacted by the result of this litigation.
The Paris Agreement may actually prove equally important for the CPP, or other similar domestic climate regulation, as the CPP was for it. The Paris Agreement potentially requires the U.S. to take some action to decrease GHG emissions, but unfortunately its power to compel emissions reductions (or adaptation or financing) is still very much up for debate. It has also been argued that the Paris Agreement actually authorizes new EPA authority to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act § 115 entitled “International Air Pollution.” At the very least, the Paris Agreement provides a framework for moving forward.
The international community has agreed that climate change is real, it is dangerous, and every nation must do what it can to prevent the worst impacts. And, despite the rhetoric and higher-than-average denial of climate change, most Americans agree. The impact of the Paris Agreement may be more like “soft law,” seeking to influence actors based on an indication of the direction the world is heading in. Either way, it is essential that jurisdictions like Missouri, with huge potential for decreasing reliance on fossil duels and renewable energy production, be a leader on its own terms.
Tamara is a guest writer for the Alert and a volunteer with MCE. As the Harris Institute Fellow, she works on research and programming related to a wide-range of international legal issues. She is also a regular contributor and co-moderator for the Institute’s blog, Lex lata, lex ferenda. During law school, Tamara explored the intersection of international, environmental, and human rights law. She published a student note about trade and the environment and attended two UN Framework on Climate Change conferences, made possible by Washington University’s Environmental Studies Department, I-CARES, and the Harris Institute.