The carbon elephant in the room

The carbon elephant in the room

The carbon elephant in the room

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Unwilling to debate opponents like Senator Elizabeth Warren on the substance of trade deals, President Obama has reduced his push to get trade promotion authority to morally righteous declarations and to flying members of Congress around on Air Force One. Critics, he laments, are quite simply “wrong.”

When explaining his rationale, the president resorts to platitudes about negotiating the “most progressive trade deals in history.” These “21st century trade deals,” the president insists, have strong, enforceable environmental protections. This is part of a larger campaign of misinformation that his administration is using to assuage the American public about the impacts of these deals. As part of this effort, the Office of the United States Trade Representative recently put out a report touting the environmental gains from trade agreements that the U.S. has already entered into. The report is misleadingly sanguine.

If there were truly strong environmental protections to be won by entering into these trade deals, perhaps the administration wouldn’t feel the need to conduct the negotiations in such an archaically secretive manner. Still, environmentalists have two sources at their disposal to inform them: analyses about the impacts of past trade agreements, and leaked negotiating texts of pending agreements. These both raise concerns about the compatibility of Obama’s trade paradigm and environmental stewardship.

A briefing paper released by the Environmental Investigation Agency this week illustrates how the effectiveness of environmental provisions in past trade deals has been deplorable, finding in the case of the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement that “while the U.S.-Peru FTA included laudable and innovative new provisions to address environmental impacts in trade agreements, the complete failure to enforce these obligations fundamentally undermines the effectiveness of these measures.” The EIA report shows that even when trade deals have strong and enforceable provisions, the resulting protection is only as strong as the willingness of the White House to use them, and President Obama has failed that test.

Debates about environmental protections in trade agreements have been limited to improving conservation measures, which, while important, reflects a myopic understanding of environmentalism. It is alarming that in a debate over “21st century trade deals,” the most significant issue facing our civilization in the 21st century has been lost in the maelstrom: climate change.

President Obama has acknowledged the link between climate change and trade. “If we want to solve something like climate change, which is one of my highest priorities, then I’ve got to be able to get into places like Malaysia, and say to them, this is in your interest. What leverage do I have to get them to stop deforestation? Well part of the leverage is, if I’m in a trade relationship with them, that allows me to raise standards, now they have to start thinking about how quick they’re chopping down their forests and what kinds of standards they need to apply to environmental conservation.”

The administration’s actions contradict President Obama’s rhetoric entirely when it comes to including climate change in its trade agenda. USTR’s report on trade and environment did not even include the phrase climate change. A leaked text of the U.S. counterproposal to the Consolidated Text of the TPP Environment Chapter shows that USTR tried to eliminate a mere reference to climate change and the UNFCCC regime. The administration’s erasure of climate change from these trade deals is cynically contradictory at best, and climate denial at worst. To make matters worse, the USTR has used trade as a means of pushing the European Union to weaken their Fuel Quality Directive to make room for Canadian tar sands refined in the U.S.

The most meaningful indicator of whether these trade deals are environmentally “progressive” is whether they are aligned with the science telling us that 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate disruption. Inasmuch as the trade model being promoted by President Obama is premised on encouraging free trade of fossil fuels, President Obama is, in fact, tragically wrong.


Coal being mined in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

The TPP and TTIP are designed to protect “free trade” in polluting energy products — including tar sands oil, Powder River basin coal and liquefied natural gas. As a result, these deals would roll back government restrictions on fossil fuel exports, and subject a wide array of our climate-forward policies to potential challenge by corporations in private investment tribunals outside domestic courts, including restrictions on fracking and conceivably any decision to stop the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline.

The deals would create a bill of rights for corporate polluters like Exxon and Shell. These are the same corporations that have profited from our climate crisis. They are also the same corporations that control much of the fossil fuel reserves that need to be kept in the ground. Anything that gives these polluting corporations new rights is a hindrance to climate action.

President Obama’s climate-blind push of the TPP and TTIP is not only wrong — it undermines all his work to address climate change. It is reflective of the contradiction inherent in his “all of the above” energy policy, which absurdly supports addressing climate change while continuing to promote fracking and drilling in the U.S. While President Obama releases rules to curb carbon emissions from power plants, he is opening the Arctic Ocean and the Atlantic coast to new drilling. While President Obama works to reduce vehicle emissions, he negotiates trade deals that would lead to more LNG exports, and therefore more fracking. We challenge President Obama to explain how his trade agenda and climate commitments are compatible.

A 21st century trade deal that does not explicitly address climate change is wrong. Any invocation of commitment to social justice demands that trade deals be compatible with science. As President Obama continues his relentless push to fast tract these fundamentally flawed trade deals, he needs to acknowledge the carbon elephant in the room.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons,

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