Recapping COP-21: Treaty Ratification & Other Fun Facts

Last year COP-21 in Paris brought a lot excitement, as the world in a historic effort, negotiated a treaty to address climate change. The Paris Agreement will be open for signature by parties to the treaty this Earth Day (April 22, 2016) at the United Nation’s headquarters in New York. The question now is will the United States sign the Paris Agreement?  The answer to this question will largely depend upon domestic politics, and in a year with a contentious presidential race underway and what seems like no consensus in Congress, the onus falls on the American public to ensure the Paris Agreement becomes law.

The COPs & the Paris Agreement

The Climate Conferences of Parties, or colloquially known as the COPs, are the formal meetings structured under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC). The long-term objective of the COPs is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.” Notably, there is near universal attendance at the COPs by United Nation’s countries. Since 1995, the UNFCCC has hosted an annual COP to assess the progress of climate change but has not seen real accord in years until the Paris Agreement.

The overall goal of the Paris Agreement is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by maintaining the global average temperature so that it will not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial temperatures. To meet this goal, countries are required to submit their plans to reduce emissions and constantly monitor their output. The Agreement has also built in a funding component that would provide at least $100 billion in aid per year to the developing world. Although the Agreement is in no way completely comprehensive, many climate policy experts and politicians agree that this Agreement is a step in the right direction.  By recognizing climate change, the Paris Agreement creates a framework to expand upon.


Interestingly enough, the Paris Agreement does not provide for a penalty provision or detailed enforcement proceedings, which many believed would incentivize the United States Senate into passing the Treaty. Despite such a belief, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Majority Staff released a White Paper (i.e. a Senate Report) shortly after COP-21 that outlined certain Senator’s vehement disapproval of the Paris Agreement including an outright rejection of any sort of “agreement, legislation and regulations targeting [the reduction of] greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” As of today, the exact fate of the Paris Agreement remains indeterminate. 

How Will The Paris Agreement Become Law?

A treaty is a type of international agreement between different countries. Once a party ratifies a treaty, the other parties can hold that party accountable for any treaty violations. Common remedies for treaty violations include bringing an enforcement proceeding in one of the international courts or arbitration bodies and seeking injunctive relief, sanctions, damages or restitutions.

Signing Versus Ratifying

Signing a treaty qualifies the country to eventually ratify the agreement.  Once the Agreement is ratified by a country, then that country is legal bound by that treaty. As a signatory, the country is obligated to refrain from any conduct that would “defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.” However, until ratification, the country is not bound and cannot be subject to enforcement proceedings for violating the treaty’s explicit terms.

The purpose of the two-step system is to give countries the necessary time to approve the treaty on a domestic level and pass legislation that will effectuate the treaty. Although there are multiple ways for the United States to enter into an international agreement, becoming a party to a treaty usually requires compliance with the Treaty Clause of the Constitution. This Clause defines how international agreements may be domestically passed: “…by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, …provided two thirds of the Senators present concur…” When there is a divided Whitehouse and Congress, treaty ratification can be quite difficult to achieve. This is why it is so critical that two thirds of the Senate vote to approve the Paris Treaty. Since the current Senate has expressed its discontent with will likely not be until a new Senate is elected in the fall and seated next January before the United States will even have a chance at ratifying the Paris Agreement.

Our Track Record Is Not So Great…

Given the profound effect that the Paris Agreement could have on our environment and global perspective on climate change, one might think that the United States Senate could not reject such an important and mutually-beneficial agreement. However, the United States has a history of signing but not ratifying a number of prolific international treaties, including:

  • The Kyoto Protocol: One of the most influential treaties to come out of the COPs for its stance on reducing greenhouse gases and emissions, this agreement was signed by President Clinton in 1997 but ultimately rejected by the senate and successor President Bush. 193 other countries have consent to be bound.
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Considered by human rights experts to be the bedrock of sound governance, the United States signed the treaty in 1977 but has not ratified it. 159 other countries have consent to be bound.
  •  Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Inspired by the United States’ recognition of the rights of people with disabilities, the United States signed this treaty in 2009 but failed to get the Senate super-majority (by just 5 votes) to ratify the treaty.  160 other countries have consent to be bound.
  • Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court: The Rome Statute is a jurisdictional statute and basically ensures that all of the ratified countries consent to be subject to the International Criminal Court. The United States signed this treaty in 2000 but has expressed no intentions of ratifying it since its signing. 123 other countries have consent to be bound.

Other examples of treaties that the United States has signed but failed to ratify include the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; the Convention on Biological Diversity; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and Protocol I and Protocol II of the the Geneva Conventions.

What Can You Do?

Contact your Senators and encourage them to support COP-21. Your influence is more powerful than you might think. A full list of the contact information for all 100 Senators can be found here. You can also join pre-existing campaigns by signing online petitions like Climate Reality and 350. And, finally – vote!  Elect senators who are committed to doing something about Climate Change and who have said that they would vote to ratify the Paris Agreement.

While the Paris Agreement may not completely solve the climate crisis, it represents a powerful catalyst that will get the world to take action. It’s important that we not take this opportunity for granted, voice our opinion and take responsibility for our planet.

Sustainable Lawyer