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Senators Say Busy Capitol Agenda Makes UN Summit a No-Fly Zone

Nov. 26, 2019, 11:00 AM

Senate Democrats in the past have jetted to U.N. climate summits to assure the world U.S. support for action is still alive in the Trump era. But this year, nearly all of them will be stuck in the Capitol.

Talks at this year’s Madrid summit Dec. 2-13 will just be getting underway as Congress resumes after a weeklong Thanksgiving recess. Most of the 10 or so Democratic senators who flew to Paris in 2015 to back President Barack Obama’s pursuit of a global climate deal told Bloomberg Environment they’ll stay home.

That’s also the case for a smaller group who have gone to the talks more recently, as assurance that the U.S. still backs action on climate change even as President Donald Trump pulls out of the accord.

Those lawmakers include Sen. Jeff Merkley, one of the few senators who had scheduled a trip to the climate summit before its location was switched about a month ago from Santiago to Madrid. Merkley has led an uphill battle in Congress to restore U.S. funding of international climate aid zeroed out by Trump. The Oregon Democrat said he would have been in Chile for this year’s talks, the 25th United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP25, had it not been for the last-minute venue change.

“The flights didn’t work out,” Merkley said about going to Madrid, adding he had a commitment in the U.S.

Lawmakers have traveled to previous summits when Congress was in session—but the Senate has more unfinished business now than it did in past years. Not only have lawmakers not yet agreed on a defense authorization bill, but no fiscal 2020 spending bills have been signed into law, meaning another short-term extension will be needed.

U.S. Formal Withdrawal

The climate summit will open in Madrid a month after Trump formally notified the U.N. of his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, a formality given he first announced his decision to pull out in June 2017. But the U.S. won’t technically exit the deal until Nov. 4—one day after the presidential election.

Others who have previously made the overseas trips say they’ll likely be grounded this year, including Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who was tapped by Senate Democrats in March to chair their new Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. Shaheen said an overseas trip isn’t likely given she’ll go before voters in the 2020 election.

A few Republicans have also gone to the international climate talks over the years to oppose a global climate deal.

Among them is Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the former Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman who traveled to the 2003 Milan talks and 2009 Copenhagen talks. Inhofe said he had no plans to go to Madrid, but said his past trips were decided at the last minute.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), one of the few Republicans who urged Trump to stay in the climate deal, said he hadn’t considered going. He is still mulling what action Congress could take, he said.

“Getting the kind of national support, bipartisan support to actually do something is going to be a challenge. But it’s an important priority,” he said.

Next Year Key

There are modest expectations for this year’s U.N. climate talks, sandwiched between the 2018 summit focused on rules for implementing the global climate deal and a November 2020 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where nations are supposed to begin strengthening the actions they put on the table in Paris in 2015.

Senate Democrats will still send aides to Madrid, who will report back, said Cardin, a senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We’re in session so I’m not going to be able to go, but it’s important that we be represented, and we will be represented,” Cardin said.

The Senate during that that time will take up spending and other bills that need passage by year’s end.

The 2019 climate talks were originally planned for Brazil before it pulled out due to budgetary constraints, sending the summit to Chile. Then riots there forced another move. Spain stepped in to host, though Chile will still chair the two-week conference.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who’s known for making almost 260 speeches urging the Senate to “wake up” to the climate challenge, said he doubts he could make the Madrid summit, though an aide said Nov. 21 that his plans “are still up in the air.”

“If we had a break, I would think about going, especially if there were other senators. We could send a strong message together like we did in Paris,” Whitehouse said. “A lot of us were really there to show that we cared deeply about climate change and that the Paris agreement was a good thing, and that this deal would continue past the Obama presidency—that there was a constituency in America for this.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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