Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

The Paris Approach to Global Governance

By the standards of a traditional treaty, the Paris agreement on climate change falls woefully short. Yet its deficits in this regard are its greatest strengths as a model for effective global governance in the twenty-first century.

WASHINGTON, DC – As a former president of the American Society of International Law, I should bemoan the recent Paris agreement on climate change as a failure. By the standards of a traditional treaty, it falls woefully short. Yet its deficits in this regard are its greatest strengths as a model for effective global governance in the twenty-first century.

The international legal gold standard is a treaty, a binding document that can be enforced by courts and arbitration tribunals. Such agreements comprise more than expressions of intent; they contain codified, enforceable rules, along with sanctions for non-compliance. Indeed, they must be ratified by national parliaments, so that they become a part of domestic law.

The Paris agreement is none of these things. In the United States, as a matter of domestic law, it is an executive agreement, binding only on President Barack Obama’s administration. An executive-legislative agreement would have the same status as a treaty, except that a treaty must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate, whereas an executive-legislative agreement must be adopted by the Senate and the House under the same rules that apply to all domestic legislation. An executive agreement made by one administration is not necessarily binding on its successor, but it would have to be explicitly repudiated.

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