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Why Doesn’t the Trans-Pacific Partnership Mention Climate Change?

Congress should vote no on the supersized trade agreement if urgent environmental concerns are not met.

Indonesian firefighters trying to contain forest fire. Image by Amirin via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama announced earlier this month that his administration would not approve the Keystone XL pipeline, citing environmental concerns and little upside for the American economy. This was seen as a minor victory for a president prioritizing climate change in his final years in office. But Obama’s involvement in the far more impactful Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement—which champions Pacific trade but fails to mention the phrase “climate change” even once in the Environment Section—is unfortunate, to say the least.

When the U.S. Trade Representative’s office unveiled the details of the 12-nation TPP deal on November 5, it gave Congress more than 2,000 pages of text spread across 30 chapters. The agreement was originally negotiated in secret, and while the House and Senate can report on the bill in committee and will ultimately vote on the trade agreement, under fast-track trade negotiating procedures, each house is limited to 20 hours of debate. They cannot amend any of the provisions negotiated by the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. Sadly, that means climate change won’t be making its way into the trade agreement’s text.

Multilateral trade agreements are complex pieces of negotiation. Many interests, in both the public and private sectors, weigh in and influence the direction of any trade agreement. In the final analysis, trade agreements are about trade, commerce, and markets, as well as regional, national, and global economics. In other words, they are about money. And what we know, simply by looking at the world, is that commerce almost always trumps climate change and other environmental issues.

To see this conflict between economic and environmental forces in action, one only has to look to the food and kindred products industry. A manufacturing sector that produces everything from potato chips and snacks to dairy, sugars, and fats and oils, these businesses would be among the big beneficiaries of TPP. According to the Sunlight Foundation, this industry has filed dozens of lobbying reports to TPP member states—and these are merely the voluntary disclosures.

The food and kindred products sector is also deeply involved with the palm oil industry, which is particularly profitable for TPP member nations Malaysia and Brunei. These nations have recently been severely impacted by devastating fires in the Indonesian archipelago. The fires have spread because of a particularly strong El Niño season, exacerbated by global warming. But the palm oil industry has also been pointed to as a direct source of practices that make the situation worse.

As Lindsey Allen, executive director of the conservation organization Rainforest Action Network, wrote recently in The Guardian, many of these fires are a “direct result of the industrial manipulation of the landscape for plantation development.” The fires have been pumping more carbon emissions into the atmosphere than the entire American economy, and this is just one glaring issue left unaddressed in the TPP’s environment section.

While the text of the TPP does address the environment in general ways, it does so with none of the urgency that climate change action demands. Instead, there are platitudes about “sustainable development,” “protecting the environment,” and recognizing that it is “inappropriate to encourage trade or investment by weakening or reducing the protection afforded in [the participating countries’] respective environmental laws.” But any potentially positive environmental action, including that which would address climate change, is undercut by text like this: “The Parties recognise the sovereign right of each Party to establish its own levels of domestic environmental protection and its own environmental priorities, and to establish, adopt or modify its environmental laws and policies accordingly.”

As economist Jeffrey Sachs, who champions responsible globalization, wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed, “the agreements are thin, unenforceable, and generally unimaginative.” He also took issue with the failure to include climate change language, and the equally curious failure to address it “boldly and creatively.”

It’s one thing to negotiate in secret, but quite another to demand that Congress neither amend nor rigorously debate TPP before giving it a simple yes or no vote. Perhaps it’s time that trade negotiations were made public, and the resulting agreements opened up for actual debate and amendments. Then maybe, just maybe, climate change action would have a chance against the greedy engines behind international commerce.

Since TPP was negotiated in secret and isn’t amendable, the most that people can do is contact their representatives and senators by phone or email and urge them to vote no. It’s crucial too that voters explain to their representatives that they want a vote against TPP because it is weak on climate change.

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