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To keep a hostile Congress out of the process, the president can only partake in internationally binding agreements with a base in existing US law

The United States’ refusal to make internationally binding its ambitious pollution targets at the Cop21 climate talks in Paris isn’t a sign of Barack Obama’s lack of political will, but a reflection of the legal limits of his authorities and the political realities of what other nations will commit to doing.

Obama has proposed a legally binding agreement applicable to all nations without binding emissions targets. That approach isn’t ideal, but it’s politically and legally achievable – and a massive step forward for climate action.

Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has led the effort to discredit Obama’s efforts in Paris, backed by a powerful apparatus of fossil fuel funded climate skepticism and state-level Republican opposition to the landmark Clean Power Plan, which would reduce US dependence on dirty coal. McConnell and others have made clear that no new international climate agreement would ever be approved by the Senate.

That credible threat is keeping US climate negotiators from making the pollution targets in the Paris agreement internationally binding. But it’s not putting the breaks on the idea of a legally binding agreement.

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