In response to President Joe Biden’s reentry to the Paris Agreement, Republicans have launched a bill, sponsored by the ranking members of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Foreign Affairs Committee. In effect, the bill would require President Biden to submit a plan to Congress for his intended contributions under the Paris Agreement, and explain how they would be met. The substance of the bill includes considerable messaging with pointed comments about the failures of international climate efforts thus far, but it does include a very valid concern: if Biden intends to formulate policy under the Paris Agreement, he should not sidestep the role of Congress.

Aside from the constitutional concern and constraint of executive overreach that Republicans are concerned with, serious environmentalists should pursue a role for Congress in the Paris Agreement for an entirely separate reason: Nobody will take Biden’s promised contributions seriously if a future president can simply withdraw them.

Everyone in their daily lives understands and appreciates the importance of good faith negotiations. You can negotiate a mortgage with a bank because they have faith that you are bound by contractual law to repay them, and they have faith in your ability to follow through on your promise to repay. Imagine if, for a moment, you could only promise the bank that you could repay the loan for four years, and then at the end of that four years they would learn if the decision still stood. Nobody would loan you anything.

International relations are similar. Negotiations and international treaties prevail only when there is confidence in continued compliance. South Korea continues to comply with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty despite their aggressive neighbors because they have confidence that the United States will be true to its intent of including South Korea under its security umbrella. If the United States can’t be taken at its word in negotiations, or when foreign parties expect that commitments only last for the current presidency, the ability of the United States to secure concessions in negotiations becomes weakened.

It was because of concern for future international credibility that I was one of the few policy experts from a right-leaning institution in 2017 to recommend that President Donald Trump stay in the Paris Agreement. I argued that it was a small price to pay to avoid a damaging blow to U.S. credibility that would undermine any of Trump’s own attempts for international collaboration. President Barack Obama’s approach to partisan diplomacy created more problems than it solved, turning what should have been bipartisan foreign policy issues into divisive political ones that were campaigned on. Past presidents have respected the well-defined role of the Senate in international treaties, because even though it is a high bar to attain Senate approval, the permanence it offers is well worth the effort.

Now with a reentry to the Paris Agreement, and doing so without any congressional consideration, President Biden is faced with two interconnected problems that seriously undermine his ability to negotiate climate concessions from foreign states.

A Promise in Name Only

The first is that by circumventing Congress, any promise he makes under the Paris Agreement—such as the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)—cannot be legally implemented as domestic policy. The Senate, not the president, determines what international treaties can be adopted as having the full weight of domestic law, so any new regulations that President Biden may attempt to promulgate under the Paris Agreement would face a swift and uphill court battle. Even President Obama’s regulations under clearly defined statute, such as the Clean Power Plan, suffered losses under an even less conservative Supreme Court of the period. Without Senate approval, any promise Biden makes will be purely aspirational, and he cannot promise any quid-pro-quo with foreign states to secure concessions.

Pinky Promise—Maybe

The second problem is that by sidestepping Congress, Biden has put the authority of participation in the Paris Agreement squarely in the executive branch. Any promises Biden makes can last only as long as his presidency, which doesn’t make a convincing argument for foreign states to reciprocate. It also creates an incentive for negotiating parties to demand up-front concessions, meaning Biden may have to promise quite a lot and very quickly to get even modest concessions from other nations.

Despite the politics surrounding the Paris Agreement, there is a central point that is still as true now under Biden as it was under Trump, and indeed even under Obama: Bipartisanship is important for convincing foreign actors that the United States can be taken at its word at any time, under any presidency and under any condition. A promise to provide will be kept, and a threat to intervene will be kept. When the United States’ communications are taken seriously, it can save a lot of headaches and expended resources that stem from ambiguity.

We should be learning from the contrasting history of the Montreal Protocol and the Kyoto Protocol. The Montreal Protocol, an international agreement on ozone-depleting substances, had durability because of broad congressional support, with a Senate approval vote of 100-0. By contrast, President Bill Clinton largely negotiated the Kyoto Protocol without addressing congressional concerns, making ratification an impossibility. Ultimately, the entire Kyoto Protocol has failed when even President Obama did not support it.

President Obama never should have attempted to negotiate the Paris Agreement as a “non-binding” treaty that circumvented any role for Congress, and just as President Trump had an opportunity to rectify this strategic mistake, now the issue passes to President Biden. If Biden fails to create a role for Congress in the Paris Agreement, he may simply be sowing the seeds for yet another breakdown of the accord, as it will surely be a sticking point for opponents who will campaign against it.

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