How New Climate Agreements Deal With Crazy Republicans

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How the world managed to make an important new climate agreement this weekend.Photo: Cyril Ndegeya/AFP/Getty Images

This weekend, negotiators from 170 countries ratified an agreement to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a gas used in refrigerators and air conditioners that is also a powerful heat-trapping gas. The pact will reduce global warming by almost one degree Fahrenheit, a very large change to bring about in a single stroke. The most interesting detail in the story might not be the result of the treaty but the method it uses. The negotiators ratified it as an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which was ratified by the Senate in 1988 — before the Republican Party went completely insane.

There used to be a time when Republicans took the findings on climate science seriously. The Clean Air Act passed Congress in 1970 with only a single vote against. The Montreal Protocol passed the Senate by an 88–0 vote. The Montreal Protocol banned the use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. Those gasses created a hole in the ozone, which is a different problem from climate change. At the time, the widening ozone hole posed a dire threat to the climate. But the Montreal Protocol was an unambiguous success, prompting companies to develop affordable alternatives to CFCs and which caused the ozone hole to stop growing and then to shrink.

It’s notable that the success of the Montreal Protocol defied predictions among conservatives, who insisted that the science connecting CFCs to the ozone hole was fake. Indeed, the conservative-movement line holds that the Montreal Protocol had nothing to do with the shrinking of the ozone hole. In today’s environment, it would not be possible for something like the Montreal Protocol or any effective new environmental treaty to pass a Republican-controlled Senate. And so, in order to phase out HFCs, the Obama administration had to negotiate an amendment to an existing treaty. Likewise, its regulation of power plants and other domestic greenhouse-gas-emissions sources leans on using the Clean Air Act.

All these moves are adaptation to a political environment in which the Republican Party has become a science-rejecting ideological madhouse. Republican-controlled institutions can no longer handle environmental policy. And so the only option is to rely on laws that were written before the GOP lost its mind.