The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House passes bill to force U.S. to stay in Paris climate agreement

The Democratic measure is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled Senate. But House leaders hope to use it to paint Trump and other Republicans as backward on climate change.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) turns her party's attention to climate change as she leads an event to introduce the Climate Action Now Act. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday designed to force the United States to stay in the Paris accord, in a rebuke to President Trump, who has promised to withdraw from the landmark climate agreement inked under his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The Democratic bill, which passed 231 to 190 in a vote largely along party lines, stands little chance of approval in the GOP-controlled Senate.

But House Democrats seized on the measure to portray Republicans as obstacles to progress on climate change — and make a case ahead of the 2020 election that Trump is undermining the nation’s commitment to rein in heat-trapping pollution. Democrats also hope to signal to other countries party to the Paris agreement inked in 2015 that, if the next president is a Democrat, he or she is likely to keep the U.S. in the climate agreement.

“Passing this bill is an important signal to our allies, and my expectation is that when we act, we’ll see increased ambition from them, too,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), lead sponsor of the legislation, told reporters a day before the vote.

Though Trump announced his intent to pull out of the Paris accord after only a few months in office, the earliest he could go forward with the withdrawal is November 2020.

“That’s an interesting date, isn’t it?” Castor said.

The approval of the Climate Action Now Act also constitutes the first time in nearly a decade that a major piece of legislation focused on addressing climate change has passed the lower chamber. That’s despite the warnings from climate scientists over that period about the perils of inaction when it comes to reducing climate-warming emissions.

Three Republicans — Reps. Vern Buchanan (Fla.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) — crossed over to vote with Democrats to pass the bill.

The bill would defund any effort by the federal government to withdraw from the agreement and would compel Trump to come up with a plan for meeting the United States’ Paris targets.

Under the Paris accord, more than 190 nations voluntarily vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of keeping the globe under 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

But each nation sets its own emissions-reduction targets under the agreement. Developing countries such as China gave themselves nonbinding goals that still allowed them to increase greenhouse gas emissions for years to come as the poor in those nations rise out of poverty and increase their energy use.

The differing standards for the United States and its chief economic rival became a bone of contention for Republicans, who raised this issue again ahead of the passage of the bill.

“Climate change is real,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said on the House floor ahead of the vote. “But addressing climate change should not involve binding ourselves to international agreements that put United States workers and jobs at a disadvantage to our main competitors around the world.”

Since losing the House in November, Republicans such as Walden have instead emphasized investment in new technologies, like advanced nuclear reactors, over regulation and international agreements to reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases.

“We really don’t need a Paris climate agreement” to reduce emissions, Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.), the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on climate change and the environment, said during floor debate.

While many Republicans described the Paris deal as a weight dragging down the U.S. economy, its supporters, including Florida Republican Vern Buchanan, argued “environmental protection and economic growth are not mutually exclusive.”

“We should be doing everything possible to accomplish both,” Buchanan said in a statement after the vote.

Castor, who is an ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, introduced the measure as part of a Democratic effort to reset the climate debate in Congress after the defeat in the Senate of the Green New Deal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in March forced a vote on the Green New Deal in an effort to divide Democrats on the bill, which would rapidly reduce carbon emissions over the next decade, all while improving access to jobs and health care.

The Climate Action Now Act is much narrower in its ambitions, but with more than 200 co-sponsors, it affords Democrats an opportunity to show a unified front on the issue of climate change.

And unlike Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, Pelosi and other House leaders backed it.

“This clearly is one of the most, if not the most, important issue confronting our global community,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) told reporters Wednesday.

But Republicans have shown little sign of letting up on their focus on the Green New Deal specifically, with Rep. Jody Hice (Ga.) filing a discharge petition Wednesday that would force a vote on the resolution.

Though the Green New Deal resolution itself is short on details about how exactly to reduce emissions from the power, agricultural and transportation sectors, Republicans across the Capitol decided to fill in the gaps themselves and suggested it would result in bans on hamburgers and air travel.