Law Prof.: Obama’s Climate Agenda Is about Changing the Constitution


President Barack Obama's push to unilaterally commit the United States to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions in the coming years is about changing the constitutional system that similarly hampered former President Bill Clinton's global warming goals, according to a law professor.

In a congressional hearing Thursday, George Mason University law professor Jeremy Rabkin told lawmakers that Obama's argument that he unilaterally commit the U.S. to a United Nations agreement without Senate ratification was "a real change in our Constitution."

"So, now we're going to have some body, in some entity, in some foreign country that's going to be directing us?" Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions asked Rabkin during Thursday's hearing on Obama's emissions-reduction promise to the United Nations.

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"We have certain background assumptions about how our government is supposed to work, that's why we have a Constitution," Rabkin responded.

"And what this is fundamentally about is saying, 'ah, that's old-fashioned, forget that, that didn't work for [President Bill] Clinton– we're moving forward with something different which the president gets to commit us,'" Rabkin added. "That's a real change in our Constitution."

Late last year, Obama committed the U.S. to cut CO2 emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025. Obama made the pledge in conjunction with China's government, which promised to merely peak its CO2 emissions by 2030. Republicans immediately came out against Obama's pledge, saying it was unworkable and they wouldn't ratify it.

The threat of Senate opposition successfully scared Clinton into abandoning his plan to get lawmakers to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in the 1990s, but the Obama administration is arguing its international climate pledge doesn't even need congressional approval.

The U.S. submitted a document to the UN last year that suggested a "bifurcated approach" to a deal on global warming. The president says it is not a treaty the Senate needs to ratify, as it requires every country to submit individual CO2-reduction promises they will use domestic policies to achieve.

Obama wants to make signing a global climate deal part of his presidential legacy, but knows such an agreement would never be ratified by a Republican-controlled Senate. Therefore, the administration is doing everything it can to argue a UN deal would not need lawmakers' approval.

Here's the problem, though: Any promise made by Obama to the international community on this scale would likely need to be ratified by the Senate in order to be considered a treaty, according to Rabkin.

"The word treaty is usually reserved for things that are ratified by the Senate," he told lawmakers.

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