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CLIMATE COUNTDOWN: When’s a warming treaty not a treaty?

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It’s the elephant in the negotiating room that few officials want to acknowledge: Whatever international deal comes out of Paris climate talks, it likely won’t be a treaty that needs ratification by a reluctant Republican U.S. Congress.

That’s not the only complication in Paris. China, the U.S. and India don’t want the international community dictating their carbon dioxide emissions, but they do want to do something about ever escalating greenhouse gas levels and the rising temperatures they cause. So they have to come up with an agreement that doesn’t dictate binding, internationally set targets or require U.S. Senate approval — and yet gets the job done. At least partly.

Nigel Purvis, an international lawyer who was a top environmental diplomat and international negotiator for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It’s an issue of definitions and the way an agreement is framed, said Purvis, who is president of the non-governmental organization Climate Advisers.

The U.S. Constitution and the rest of the world have different definitions of the word “treaty,” Purvis said. Elsewhere, a treaty is a binding agreement. But in the U.S., there are several types of international agreements and only 6 percent of them end up being formal treaties that require Senate approval, he said. The last international, Senate-approved treaty was in 2010.

The climate treaty, Purvis said, is likely to end up as an “executive agreement” like the 1945 Yalta Accord at the end of World War II. This requires only presidential approval.

“If you can end World War II, I think you can do a climate agreement where the only obligation is to inform the international community what you are doing and demonstrate to them that you are doing it,” Purvis said.

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