Today President Barack Obama will be visiting Columbus to celebrate the start of early voting at the annual state dinner sponsored by the Ohio Democratic Party. He is likely to talk about his administration’s accomplishments and what he hopes his legacy will be.

Central to Obama’s legacy is the historic Paris Agreement forged among almost 200 nations and signed at the Paris climate conference last December. Last week the agreement passed the threshold for entry into force — much faster than anyone anticipated — when the EU became the 55th party to ratify it. China, the United States, Russia, India, Brazil, Canada, and 70 others have also ratified the agreement.  It will come into force on November 5.

At the core of the Paris climate agreement is a historic commitment to limit global warming not just to 2 degrees Celsius — which scientists had said was as high as we could go and still have a chance of preserving a stable environment — but to keep warming as close to 1.5 degrees C as possible. This is significant because our planet has already warmed by .8 degrees C since the Industrial Revolution, and another .8 degrees C is locked in due to the long half life of the carbon already emitted. 

This means that in order to meet our commitment to the Paris climate agreement, we must stop burning fossil fuels. We can’t keep building new fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines, fracking wells or oil rigs. We must keep fossil fuels in the ground, or the next generation will not have a livable planet.

 Unfortunately, there is a catch to the Paris climate agreement: It is not legally binding. It couldn’t be. If it were legally binding, it would have to go to Congress for approval, and you can predict what would have happened. Fossil fuel money has bought more its share of politicians, and our Congress has more than its share of climate change deniers. The Paris Agreement would have met the same fate as the Kyoto accord 20 years ago: It would not have gotten through Congress.

The fact the Paris Agreement is not legally binding does not mean it is meaningless. Countries that signed it, including the United States, have made public commitments to certain goals for lowering carbon emissions, and they can named and shamed if they aren’t holding up their end of the deal. But what the non-binding nature of the climate agreement does mean is that if its goals for lowering carbon emissions go up in court against something that is legally binding, it will lose.

 Enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If ratified by Congress, the TPP will be legally binding — and the TPP has some extremely anti-environmental provisions. Chief among these is the “investor state dispute settlement” system. This system allows corporations to sue countries over any provisions that cut into future anticipated profits. You read that right. Corporations can take countries to court over any regulations that could cut into profits. And those lawsuits don’t land in regular courts. The TPP and similar trade deals have their own system of private tribunals overseen by arbitrators picked in part by the very corporations bringing the complaint. 

What kind of lawsuits end up in the investor state dispute settlement system? Half of the new investor state cases in 2014 targeted policies affecting power generation, mining, or oil and gas extraction. Under previous trade deals, polluters like Shell, BP, and Chevron have brought more than 700 cases against the polities of more than 100 governments. One of those cases you may have heard of. Under NAFTA, TransCanada, the company whose Keystone pipeline was vetoed by Obama last year, is suing the United States for $15 billion over its lost profits.

 The United States has the resources to either fight this lawsuit or pay the fine. But smaller countries involved in the TPP such as Vietnam do not. Some multinational corporations have profit margins greater than many countries’ entire gross national product. If a small country enacts any environmental regulation that multinational corporations don’t like, the corporations can sue. These countries know that, so the TPP will dampen or undercut the laws and regulations they need to fulfill pledges under the Paris Climate Agreement.

 If the TPP goes into effect, what we will see is a race to the bottom on climate and environment. It will be almost impossible for countries to meet the pledges they made in Paris – and keep in mind that these pledges are not enough to get us to 2 degrees C of warming, never mind the stated goal of 1.5 C. The agreement calls on countries to take stock of their climate actions every five years and ramp up their pledges. That simply will not be possible under the TPP.


President Obama is likely to bring the Trans-Pacific Partnership before Congress during the lame-duck session in November. Because Congress fast-tracked the treaty last year, they can’t amend it in any way.  They have only an up or down vote. We must tell our members of Congress to vote NO on the TPP. Now is the time to let them know that not only will we not vote for them if they approve the TPP, but we will spend every waking hour campaigning against them to make sure they are not re-elected.

 The people of Ohio oppose the TPP. Let’s make sure our members of Congress do too.


Story by Cathy Cowan Becker


Photos by Paul Becker

Taken at the March for Fair Trade held October 8 at the Ohio Statehouse

Jason Edwards
Jason Edwards

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