Trump’s North America Trade Deal Is Poised to Worsen Climate Change—But Dems Don’t Seem To Mind

Rachel M. Cohen

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts, speaks about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, known as the USMCA, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., December 10, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

While Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats made clear that they would not bring the Unit­ed States-Mex­i­co-Cana­da Agree­ment (USM­CA) to a vote until it had the back­ing of the AFL-CIO, sup­port they final­ly secured last week, Democ­rats appear com­fort­able vot­ing on the replace­ment trade deal that has vir­tu­al­ly no sup­port from lead­ing envi­ron­men­tal groups.

A House vote could come in the next few days and on Fri­day Decem­ber 13, ten envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, rep­re­sent­ing 12 mil­lion mem­bers, sent a let­ter urg­ing Con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives to vote against the pro­posed deal, which will replace the 25-year-old North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAF­TA).

This final deal pos­es very real threats to our cli­mate and com­mu­ni­ties and ignores near­ly all of the fun­da­men­tal envi­ron­men­tal fix­es con­sis­tent­ly out­lined by the envi­ron­men­tal com­mu­ni­ty,” the let­ter stat­ed. The groups — which include the Sier­ra Club, Green­peace and 350​.org — not­ed that the deal does not even men­tion cli­mate change, fails to ade­quate­ly address tox­ic pol­lu­tion, includes weak envi­ron­men­tal stan­dards and an even weak­er enforce­ment mech­a­nism, sup­ports fos­sil fuels, and allows oil and gas cor­po­ra­tions to chal­lenge cli­mate and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions.” The groups link to a two-page analy­sis pro­duced by the Sier­ra Club that goes into greater detail about what the group sees as the deal’s envi­ron­men­tal shortcomings.

House Democ­rats, mean­while, have been tout­ing the envi­ron­men­tal pro­vi­sions nego­ti­at­ed in USM­CA, insist­ing they’re both strong and the best they could have fea­si­bly achieved.

Accord­ing to the envi­ron­men­tal news orga­ni­za­tion E&E News, at a Politi­co event last week, House Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi described the USM­CA as sub­stan­tial­ly bet­ter” than NAF­TA and said we are very pleased with the envi­ron­ment [pro­vi­sions].” While she con­ced­ed we want more,” she stressed, but we don’t have to do it all in that bill” and praised it for talk[ing] about the envi­ron­ment in a very strong way.”

Rep. Suzanne Bonam­i­ci (D‑Ore.), who co-led the House work­ing group focused on envi­ron­men­tal trade issues, told reporters at a press con­fer­ence last week that this is going to be the best trade agree­ment for the envi­ron­ment” and cheered its mon­i­tor­ing and enforce­ment pro­vi­sions. Rep. Bonam­i­ci did not return In These Timess request for comment.

Back in May, every Demo­c­rat on the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, chaired by Rep. Richard Neal (D‑Mass.), sent a let­ter to Pres­i­dent Trump crit­i­ciz­ing the draft agree­ment for its lan­guage around the envi­ron­ment, includ­ing its lack of any appar­ent pro­vi­sions direct­ed at mit­i­gat­ing the effects of cli­mate change.” Now the Com­mit­tee is cham­pi­oning its work to shape the final text, say­ing the revised ver­sion will serve as a mod­el for future U.S. trade agreements.”

Hav­ing so many mem­bers of Con­gress sup­port this agree­ment is espe­cial­ly frus­trat­ing for cli­mate advo­cates because, in Sep­tem­ber, more than 110 House Democ­rats, includ­ing 18 full com­mit­tee chairs, sent a let­ter to the pres­i­dent urg­ing the new trade deal to mean­ing­ful­ly address cli­mate change” and to include bind­ing cli­mate stan­dards and be paired with a deci­sion for the Unit­ed States to remain in the Paris Cli­mate Agreement.”

While Democ­rats claim this deal improves on some envi­ron­men­tal pro­vi­sions, they have yet to explain how it mean­ing­ful­ly address­es cli­mate change,” said Jake Schmidt, the man­ag­ing direc­tor for the Inter­na­tion­al Pro­gram at the Nat­ur­al Resources Defense Council.

Cli­mate advo­cates point to the grow­ing prob­lem of out­sourced” pol­lu­tion—where wealth­i­er coun­tries like the Unit­ed States and Japan take cred­it for improv­ing their own domes­tic envi­ron­men­tal stan­dards, while then import­ing more goods from heavy-pol­lut­ing coun­tries. Crit­ics say the cur­rent draft of USM­CA does noth­ing mean­ing­ful to address this problem.

The trade agree­ment is being hailed for rolling back the Investor-State Dis­pute Set­tle­ment, con­tro­ver­sial pri­vate tri­bunals that have enabled cor­po­ra­tions to extract huge pay­ments for gov­ern­ment poli­cies that may infringe on their prof­its. But Ben Beachy, a trade expert with the Sier­ra Club, says the agree­ment includes a major loop­hole for Mex­i­co, where oil and gas com­pa­nies will still be able to sue in those pri­vate tribunals.

The approach the NAF­TA 2.0 deal takes is rec­og­niz­ing there’s a prob­lem but then allow­ing some of the worst offend­ers to per­pet­u­ate it,” he told In These Times. It’s an unabashed hand­out to Exxon and Chevron: It’s like say­ing we’ll pro­tect the hen house by keep­ing all ani­mals out, except for foxes.”

Beachy says the deal over­all dra­mat­i­cal­ly under­cuts” the abil­i­ty of the U.S. to tack­le the cli­mate cri­sis. By fail­ing to even men­tion cli­mate change, it’ll help more cor­po­ra­tions move to Mex­i­co, and this is not a hypo­thet­i­cal con­cern,” he said. We can­not simul­ta­ne­ous­ly claim to fight cli­mate change on one hand and enact cli­mate-deny­ing trade deals on the oth­er. Do we real­ly want to lock our­selves into a trade deal for anoth­er 25 years that encour­ages cor­po­ra­tions to shift their pol­lu­tion from one coun­try to another?”

Karen Hansen-Kuhn, the pro­gram direc­tor at the Insti­tute for Agri­cul­ture and Trade Pol­i­cy, told In These Times the final agree­ment rep­re­sents an even worse sit­u­a­tion for farm­ers than under NAF­TA. On food and farm issues it’s def­i­nite­ly sev­er­al steps back,” she said, point­ing as an exam­ple to how USM­CA will make it eas­i­er for com­pa­nies to lim­it the infor­ma­tion they pro­vide to con­sumers about health and nutrition.

Emi­ly Sam­sel, a spokesper­son with the League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers (LCV), told In These Times that her orga­ni­za­tion informed mem­bers of Con­gress that [they] are strong­ly con­sid­er­ing scor­ing their USM­CA vote when it comes to the House floor on LCV’s Con­gres­sion­al score­card.” LCV was one of the ten envi­ron­men­tal groups to sign the let­ter oppos­ing the trade deal last week.

USM­CA does include lan­guage requir­ing par­ties to adopt and imple­ment sev­en mul­ti­lat­er­al envi­ron­men­tal agree­ments, but the 2015 Paris Agree­ment is not among them. Get­ting the pres­i­dent to agree to putting any­thing about cli­mate change or the Paris Agree­ment was always going to be a tough sell, con­sid­er­ing Trump has promised to with­draw from the land­mark cli­mate pact. Still, envi­ron­men­tal advo­cates insist House Democ­rats have real lever­age that they should use more aggres­sive­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly since get­ting the trade deal through Con­gress is Trump’s top leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ty for 2019.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic sup­port­ers of USM­CA say the exist­ing lan­guage is good enough for now, and that it will posi­tion the gov­ern­ment well for when Trump is out of office. A spokesper­son for Nan­cy Pelosi told The Wash­ing­ton Post that the changes Democ­rats secured in USM­CA put us on a firm foot­ing for action when we have a Pres­i­dent who brings us back into the Paris accord.” Ear­li­er this year 228 House Democ­rats vot­ed for a bill to keep the U.S. in the Paris Agreement.

U.S. labor groups have thus far remained most­ly silent on the con­cerns raised by envi­ron­men­tal organizations.

The Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Machin­ists and Aero­space Work­ers, which oppos­es the deal on labor grounds, did not return request for com­ment on the USMCA’s envi­ron­men­tal pro­vi­sions. The Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca released a state­ment on Fri­day say­ing the deal includes some mod­est improve­ments” for work­ers over NAF­TA, but a spokesper­son for the union told In These Times, We don’t have any com­ment on the envi­ron­men­tal pro­vi­sions.” The Blue­Green Alliance, a nation­al coali­tion which includes eight large labor unions and six influ­en­tial envi­ron­men­tal groups, has issued no state­ment on the trade deal, and did not return request for comment.

And the AFL-CIO issued a state­ment last week prais­ing the deal, though not­ed it alone is not a solu­tion for out­sourc­ing, inequal­i­ty or cli­mate change.” A spokesper­son for the labor fed­er­a­tion did not return request for comment.

Rachel M. Cohen is a jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton D.C. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rmc031
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