The International and Domestic Law of Climate Change: A Binding International Agreement Without the Senate or Congress?

By David A. Wirth

The perception of the United States as a laggard or malingerer on climate change is widespread. The current reality, however, is largely underappreciated and considerably more nuanced, both in terms of the substance of U.S. domestic action and its engagement with international processes. Unusual if not unique attributes of the United States’ domestic political, legal, and constitutional structure have come together on the climate issue in a revealing manner—one that thrusts into sharp relief the United States’ difficulties in managing foreign affairs while maintaining the domestic rule of law on heavily regulatory issues such as the environment.

This Article asserts that neither Senate advice and consent nor new congressional legislation are necessarily conditions precedent to the United States becoming a party to an agreement containing binding emission-reduction (mitigation) commitments adopted at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, to be held in Paris in December 2015. Depending on the form of such an agreement, which is presently under negotiation, portions of the President’s Climate Action Plan could provide sufficient domestic legal authority for the conclusion of all or part of such a binding international instrument as an executive agreement, as well as for its domestic implementation, overcoming the legal necessity for interaction with Congress either before or after its conclusion.

In making this argument, the Article disaggregates U.S. international and domestic climate policy as it has developed to the present from a structural point of view. Among the subjects analyzed are (1) the extent of the Executive’s powers in foreign relations on climate and related issues; (2) the strengths and limitations of existing federal legislation as domestic legal authority for an international agreement; (3) options available under existing legislation, both those that have already been put in place and those in the process of implementation; (4) the extent, if any, of the need for additional legislation, and the international and domestic implications of the absence of additional legislative authority; and (5) the role of the courts.

Cite as: David A. Wirth, The International and Domestic Law of Climate Change: A Binding International Agreement Without the Senate or Congress?, 39 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 515 (2015).

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