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The Senate ratified a climate change treaty with rare strong bipartisan support


Yesterday, the U.S. Senate did something rare. A bipartisan group of lawmakers voted to ratify an international climate treaty. The Kigali Amendment formally commits the U.S. to curb its use of potent greenhouse gases found in common appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners.

NPR's Laura Benshoff has been digging into the politics of the vote and whether or not it shows a path for bipartisan climate action. Hi, Laura.


SHAPIRO: We almost never get to talk about something like this, so tell us how we got here.

BENSHOFF: It's true.

SHAPIRO: It's been a long road.

BENSHOFF: It has been a long road. Major players have been working on this for over a decade. You know, we've known for some time that hydrofluorocarbons - or HFCs, these gases you mentioned in refrigerators and other things - were contributing to climate change. And they're so commonly used that, globally, there's just tons of opportunities for them to leak. And when they do that, they are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere.

And so the U.S. is home to some big manufacturers of the products that use these gases. And they could have looked at this issue a couple of ways. They could have said, we don't care, don't make us change. But instead, enough companies looked around, saw that other countries were moving ahead with getting rid of HFCs, and they said, we want to stay competitive. We want the rest of the world to keep buying U.S.-made products and joining this treaty will help. And there was actually legislation passed at the end of 2020 under former President Donald Trump to do what the Kigali Amendment calls for, even without having ratified it.

SHAPIRO: I admit I was shocked yesterday when I saw that the Senate tally was 69 to 27. That is more bipartisanship than we have seen on almost anything, let alone a climate treaty. How did this get so much Republican support when most other climate proposals split starkly along party lines?

BENSHOFF: There's one big factor. It wasn't just climate friendly; it was business friendly. Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, they all lobbied for this to happen. I talked to Kevin Fay, who's the executive director of a coalition of manufacturers. And he said these industries have already spent billions of dollars developing the next generation of refrigeration technology, and they want to be able to sell it where it will be in most demand.

KEVIN FAY: Air conditioning and refrigeration are in extraordinarily high demand. The markets outside the United States, particularly in developing countries like China, India, Brazil, were projected to more than double in the next decade.

BENSHOFF: So this becomes about keeping a global trade advantage for U.S. companies.

SHAPIRO: What's the larger lesson here? Is there a way to parlay this into other climate initiatives on the agenda?

BENSHOFF: This was kind of an unusual case. Many climate challenges that the U.S. has struggled to tackle are a lot messier. There are winners and then there are some powerful losers. So take electric cars, for example. If you get rid of gas-burning cars, you're basically elevating the companies that build electric ones and supply electricity over companies that produce fossil fuels. And that's tricky politically.

And that's why you see climate actions that get passed along party lines, like the climate spending bill that passed - and budget reconciliation - just by Democrats. There were no Republican votes. So even though many of the policies in that act will support industries and give money to GOP-led states, Republican lawmakers didn't vote for it. So I think the big lesson from yesterday's bipartisan vote is this - if you can show a policy isn't just a climate win, if you can align it with a clear economic win, you might see bipartisan support.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Laura Benshoff. Thanks for the explanation.

BENSHOFF: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate on a temporary basis for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.