Fr. Bud Grant
Back to the Garden
Climate change is the most immediate and grave threat to the future of life on our planet. Because President Obama can’t garner the two-thirds majority of the Senate to ratify the Paris Agreement to address climate change, he is strategically moving to ratify it as an Executive Agreement, which doesn’t require Senate approval. I am inclined to tolerate this move as necessary, but I wonder…is he right to pursue this “end run” tactic?
A few details: The Paris Accord was approved by 195 countries on Dec. 14, 2015. Implementation begins 90 days after it is ratified by at least 55 nations accountable for 55 percent of emissions. No signatory can back out for three years. The Paris “Agreement” is never referred to as a treaty. The signing ceremony was on April 22, 2016; Secretary of State John Kerry signed and Obama said that he would ratify it “this year” (Washington Post, June 7, 2016).
Executive agreements are only valid for the duration of the presidential term whereas treaties are legally binding on future administrations. This means the Climate Change Executive Agreement expires with the inauguration of the next president. Donald Trump has said he will scuttle it. Hillary Clinton said she will retain it.
So, is the action moral on its own merits or is it illegitimate because of the way it is achieved? Put more dramatically: is it ethical for the president to by-pass the Senate in order to ratify the most important international agreement of all time?
There are several considerations. First, although there is a debate as to whether or not the agreement is, in fact, a treaty, Obama’s strategy has not been legally challenged. That fact alone does not make it the ethical choice: just because we can do something does not mean that we should. Secondly, 71 percent of Americans think it should be ratified, including majorities from both major political parties: 85 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Republicans (c.f. Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, April 21, 2016). On the other hand, only 5 Republican senators agreed to a non-binding resolution that admitted the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Obama could not have gotten the Paris Agreement past the Senate as a treaty.
The Catholic Church assumes that legislating on moral issues is appropriate. A glance at a recent report from the Iowa Catholic Conference’s Legislative Network includes advocacy for tax credits for adoptive parents, defunding abortion, refugee assistance and drug courts. The church regularly asks governments to intervene on Climate Change. Does the church approve of Obama’s strategy, though? An Interfaith Statement on Climate Change signed by several Catholic cardinals (April 18, 2016) urges “all Heads of State to promptly sign and ratify the Paris Agreement” (thinkprogress.org), but it does not intentionally address the American situation.
Legislated morality must be in service of the common good with respect for the informed consciences of dissenting individuals.
Here’s one opinion: morality should be taught more effectively in our schools and churches so that it has to be legislated less frequently. Legislated morality must be in service of the common good with respect for the informed consciences of dissenting individuals. It must be based on commonly held values enshrined in ‘the hearts of all’ and not on narrow sectarian religious truth claims (Catholic Catechism #1956). It should be inclusive and non-partisan, rather than dictated paternalistically. Unilateral executive action, such as President Obama’s, should be executed within the law — rare, employed only after every other mean has failed, and it should not be used to create a sweeping mandate or set a broad precedent for other actions. It should always aim for consensus. It is, in short, a Promethean fire to be used with prudence and temperance.
Fraught with pitfalls, given the political climate, the president is doing the right thing in this most serious of issues. Yet for all that moral hand wringing, it is not enough: the next president and Senate should ratify it as a treaty.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)