Trans-Pacific Partnership: a glass ceiling for climate action

Dr. Guy McPherson, Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, once said, “If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money”. The Trans-Pacific Partnership signatories will gladly turn blue if it means a bit more green in their pockets.

The existence of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has been controversial ever since it was first conceived back in 2005. President Obama (to the dismay of many) now has “fast-track authority” to negotiate the TPP, meaning that while Congress can still vote to approve or reject it, they must do so after no more than 20 hours of deliberation, with no ability to amend or filibuster the agreement.

Given the rushed and likely insufficient time that will be given to the TPP’s deliberation, it would be great to know what is in it. Fortunately, the famous/infamous transparency activists at WikiLeaks have released parts of the agreement on their site. Hidden in the pages upon pages of legalese are some very problematic lines. For example, Section A, Article II.9, paragraph 3 (c) of the TPP Investment chapter working document reads:


“Provided that such measures are not applied in an arbitrary or unjustifiable manner, or do not constitute a disguised restriction on international trade or investment, paragraphs 1(b), (c), and (f), and 2(a) and (b), shall not be construed to prevent a Party from adopting or maintaining measures, including environmental measures:

  1. necessary to secure compliance with laws and regulations that are not inconsistent with this Agreement;
  2. necessary to protect human, animal, or plant life or health; or
  3. related to the conservation of living or non-living exhaustible natural resources”

Trans-Pacific Partnership: Investment A.II.9.3(c) [emphasis added]


It may seem harmless at first, second, and tenth glance. It may even seem beneficial, with all that talk about things being necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health, but the dangerous parts are in bold. The biggest problem is the “disguised restriction on international trade or investment” clause. Though article II.1 is full of definitions, “disguised restriction” is not one of them. Let that sink in: signatories to a multinational agreement, given authority to sue governments that infringe on their rights to make large amounts of money, get to decide arbitrarily which laws are really disguised restrictions and which are not. This is an issue for many areas of regulation (human rights, health, workers’ rights, consumer protection, etc.) but I’ll stick to what I’m good at here.

Another problematic part is saying that signatories can take action on environmental issues, so long as the regulations and laws they seek to comply with “are not inconsistent” with the agreement (read: so long as they don’t hurt profits). The language makes it clear: the group, an entity by its very nature concerned first and foremost with profits, gets the final say on what environmental measures should and should not be taken.

If you’re inquisitive, you may have read the referred-to sections in the quote. You may say, “it’s no big deal–it’s just saying that countries can’t demand that other signatories purchase a certain amount of goods from them because of environmental regulations!” Yes, it’s true that those are the only parts restricted now, but aside from the fact that new paragraphs could be added into this working document (which itself is already 5 months out of date), it’s an issue of principle going back to the opening quote: short-term economics do not and should not supersede long-term human sustainability.

As important as the economy is, there’s no sugar-coating it–to solve the problem of climate change, profits are going to need to take a hit. Unless someone comes out with nuclear fusion reactors and infrastructure to get the power to everywhere we need it yesterday, we’ll have to scale back if we want to sustain our species on this planet. But we’re never going to solve the problem if we have a group of countries submitting daily injunctions to the EPA or DOD saying that taking action on climate change is hurting their bottom line.

I leave you with a grim but poignant comic by the New Yorker’s Tom Toro that underscores the proxy war between profits and sustainability:

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