US Presidents and the Ratification Conundrum

By Guri Bang, Jon Hovi and Detlef L. Sprinz

Since 1990, there has been a build up of 13 MEAS that successive US Presidents have signed, but which have still not been been ratified.  Four of these,  famously including the Kyoto Protocol,  have never even been submitted to the Senate at all.

Why this tendency for US Presidents to sign treaties, which then languish unratified and unimplemented? Why is US ratification of MEAs apparently so hard to achieve? 

And there are implications, of course, as we embark on negotiations on a new legal instrument under the Durban Platform.  What if the Durban outcome  suffers the same fate as the Kyoto Protocol: Presidential approval, followed by Senate rejection?  Should US ratifiability be a key objective of the Durban Platform negotiations?   Or should negotiators assume that the US will never ratify a meaningful climate change treaty, and plough on regardless?

These questions, and more, are addressed by Guri Bang, Jon Hovi and Detlef Sprinz in their article “US presidents and the failure to ratify multilateral environmental agreements”, published in the Climate Policy Journal (Vol. 12, no.6,  p.755-763)


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2 thoughts on “US Presidents and the Ratification Conundrum

  1. I am rather surprised that the article does not discuss the legal effect of the executive signature even when the treaty is not subsequently ratified by the government. Under the Vienna Convention, a signature alone represents a government’s agreement with the treaty goals and obligates the government not to take any action to undermine or interfere with the treaty regime in question. This legal consequence is not without significance. In this regard, the article might also have mentioned the steps taken by President G.W. Bush to “unsign” the Kyoto Protocol. The Bush Administration felt constrained to go through this procedure in order to pursue its diplomatic intiative involving major countries to reach a separate arrangement outside of, and as a potential substitute for, the KP without thereby arguably putting the US in violation of international law. So signatures are not just empty gestures for domestic political purposes, but a sign of commitment by the executive branch, which has some independent authority to advance the treary goals. The signature also gives poltical space for sub-national governments–the states in the US–to adopt their own initiatives in support of the international regime, which is happening with the UNFCCC. These aspects are even more important when the government remains fully committed to the international regime and is prevented from ratifying only by domestic political fights that have prevented the necessary some minor amendments to US legislation to implement treaty obligations–the case with the US and the Basel Convention (hazardous waste).

  2. In view of the valid and generally pessimistic outlook offered by this paper serious consideration should be given to another alternative. Move ahead with the negotiation of a new “deep” and effective climate treaty now, without any expectation that it would be ratified in the United States. The terms of the treaty would be as strong as all the Parties (excluding the US and no doubt some other Parties who essentially follow the US position) can agree on. Does it make sense to try to resolve the tragedy of the global commons in this way while giving one or a few countries the “right” to go on exploiting the common atmosphere as a sink? In principle perhaps not. But pragmatically it is perhaps the only way to go that offers some prospects of avoiding the catastrophic consequences of unmitigated climate change. Would not this simply give the US (and a few others) a free ride to exploit the atmosphere to its own advantage while putting the rest at risk? In the immediate and short term the answer is yes. But if the larger part of the global economy, science and technology, moves strongly in one direction then those who are not part of the movement will be left behind – first in science and technology and then in economics.

    This is possible in part because the geopolitical balance has changed and continues to change. The best way to change hearts and minds in the United States today is to demonstrate that the global community can and will move on without US leadership if it is not forthcoming. Let’s have a respectable new agreement by 2015 and not another useless scrap of paper. Ian

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