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The Climate 202

Will the Senate ratify a landmark treaty to protect ocean life?

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! If you named your cat or dog Willow like the Bidens, we’re sorry.

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In today’s edition, we’ll cover yesterday’s key developments at the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston, including White House climate adviser John Podesta’s comments about permitting. But first:

Nations agreed on a deal to protect ocean life. What will the Senate do?

Over the weekend, negotiators from more than 190 countries reached a landmark deal for protecting the biodiversity of the world’s oceans, which face growing threats from climate change, overfishing and pollution.

But it’s unclear whether the Senate will ratify the final text of the treaty, which would also need to be approved by the United Nations. And without Senate ratification, the United States cannot formally participate in the historic deal to safeguard the high seas, which lie beyond national boundaries and make up two-thirds of Earth’s ocean surface.

Senate ratification would give America “a seat at quite an important decision-making table,” said Nichola Clark, an ocean expert at the Pew Charitable Trusts who attended the U.N. talks.

In particular, it would ensure that U.S. officials could join international discussions about ocean protection, and it would encourage other nations to consult U.S. companies on activities that might interfere with their interests, such as fishing and deep-sea mining.

But when asked about the ocean treaty on Monday, several senators in both parties said they were unaware of the development. 

  • “I saw coverage of this, but I have not read it,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
  • “I have no idea what the details are on that,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
  • Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said he would need to check with his staff.

Among a handful of Democratic senators who were familiar with the treaty, some voiced optimism that it could garner the two-thirds majority needed for ratification.

  • “My hope is that enough Republicans will realize that this is a historic agreement that can make a fundamental difference in terms of how we treat our oceans,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) told The Climate 202. “So that would be my hope. But getting inside the internal workings of the cerebral mechanisms of Republicans is difficult.”
  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) was also cautiously optimistic. “I don’t have anything resembling a whip count, but I think … we’ve seen a new appreciation of the danger for American fisheries when international predators are at work in the high seas — particularly Chinese vessels,” he said.

But Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) was more pessimistic about the prospects of attracting GOP support.

  • “I don’t know that we have the votes for it,” Schatz told The Climate 202. “Republicans are allergic to anything that mentions the United Nations.”
What will Republicans do?

It’s true that Donald Trump was critical of the United Nations during his presidency and withdrew the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Paris climate accord.

But there is recent precedent for Republicans backing a major climate treaty. The Senate last year voted to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which requires countries to phase out the use of potent planet-warming gases known as hydrofluorocarbons, with broad bipartisan support.

  • Whitehouse said the Kigali vote proved that it’s possible for the Senate to ratify treaties like the ocean deal.
  • But Schatz called the Kigali vote “an exception,” saying the Senate has “had great difficulty with treaties” in general.

Asked about the ocean treaty, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he hadn’t seen the document yet and “it depends on what’s in it.”

Collins, a moderate Republican who sometimes votes with Democrats, said that while she didn’t know the specifics, “obviously coming from a coastal state, I care a great deal about the quality of our ocean waters.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that would improve international cooperation on cleaning up plastic debris in the ocean, was at the CERAWeek conference on Monday, and his office did not respond to a request for comment.

What can the U.S. do?

Even if the Senate doesn’t ratify the ocean deal, the United States could still take steps to ensure its success, according to experts who have tracked the U.N. negotiations.

  • Clark said American scientists could help inform decisions about where to establish new protected areas in international waters.
  • Cymie Payne, an associate professor at Rutgers Law School who focuses on ocean protection, said President Biden could also use his executive authority to designate new national marine sanctuaries.

“If the U.S. doesn’t ratify it, there’s still a lot that the U.S. can do to support implementation,” Payne said.

A State Department spokesman said in an email that the agency could not comment on "measures pending — or that could pend — before the Senate.”

In a statement, Monica Medina, the assistant secretary for ocean, environment and science who helped negotiate the ocean deal on behalf of the United States, said that “we look forward to working together as we take the next steps to implement an agreement — the work is not over, but just beginning!”

Pressure points

Podesta says permitting overhaul is top White House priority

John Podesta, a top White House climate adviser, pledged Monday that President Biden will work to speed up the permitting process for major energy projects, including new action this week to fast-track transmission lines.

“Right now it’s often more difficult to permit clean energy infrastructure than fossil fuel infrastructure,” Podesta told a packed room at the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston. “Permitting has never been a top priority for administrations in the past. Now, thanks to President Biden, it is.”

His remarks came as the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Council on Environmental Quality on Monday released a memo for federal agencies on the administration’s strategies for accelerating the permitting process.

Podesta said the White House is invoking the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to encourage federal agencies to use their authority to overcome obstacles, such as state resistance and red tape, that often stall new transmission development.

The issue is vital to Biden as he seeks to ensure wind, solar and other clean-energy projects funded by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act can connect to the grid quickly and efficiently, Podesta said. He cited figures from outside studies that suggest the country may miss out on 80 percent of the potential climate and energy benefits of the law if it does not speed up permitting.

Whether the White House can follow through, however, depends on overcoming many obstacles. Oil interests will be reluctant to support changes to the permitting process that don’t include help for oil and gas pipelines, which Podesta avoided in his speech Monday.

“He only talked about renewables,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said later while onstage at the conference. “Permitting reform needs to cover every element of the U.S. economy, especially oil and gas.”

Using the portion of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that Podesta described will put the administration in uncharted territory, said Mark W. Menezes, who was deputy energy secretary under President Donald Trump. It will give federal agencies the authority to expedite permits and give the president authority to override them if they don’t — if the order is backed up by analysis, Menezes said. But other elements of the law that attempted to empower Washington to override delays from state governments were ultimately gutted in federal courts, and Biden will probably face resistance if he tries something like that.

Many thanks to our colleague Timothy Puko, who is attending CERAWeek in person, for writing this item.

International climate

COP28 chief calls on Big Oil to help combat climate change

Sultan al-Jaber, who will preside over the United Nations climate talks in the United Arab Emirates later this year, urged the oil and gas industry to make real progress in reaching net-zero targets during a speech at the CERAWeek conference on Monday, Reuters reports.  

“I know that some of you might have felt excluded from the climate dialogue in the past, while others may have felt this isn’t their problem to fix,” said Jaber, who is also the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil, the UAE’s state-run oil company. 

“This industry must take responsibility and lead the way,” he added. “Let’s remember that progress is made through partnership, not polarization.”

Jaber’s call for cooperation comes as his own position has faced criticism from climate activists, some of whom have argued that his appointment is akin to “putting the head of a tobacco company in charge of negotiating an anti-smoking treaty.” 

Pressure points

The viral #StopWillow campaign shows how TikTokers are tackling climate change

In recent days, young people have used TikTok to sound the alarm over the ConocoPhillips Willow project, a proposed multibillion-dollar oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope that the Biden administration could issue a final decision on as soon as this week, The Washington Post’s Allyson Chiu reports.

The flurry of posts, amounting to more than 145 million views on the app by Monday evening, shows how the influential voting bloc is taking a stand on climate issues, signaling to lawmakers and politicians that they won’t budge. Experts say young activists might actually have some sway. 

“The Biden administration has been acutely aware of young people, youth opinions, and they seem to be wooing influencers in ways I’ve never seen an administration woo before,” said Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who studies protest movements. 

In the atmosphere


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