By Jon Lamson

In the fall of 2018, the leaders of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada signed the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The agreement recently passed both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, and is awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature, which he is certain to give. Prior to the House vote, a Dec. 13 letter signed by nine of the U.S.’ largest environmental and climate groups, including the Sunrise Movement, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC),, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace, urged representatives to vote against the agreement. In an earlier letter to representatives, the Sierra Club, NRDC, and League of Conservation Voters (LCV) noted the failings of NAFTA (ratified in the U.S. by the Clinton Administration in 1993) for contributing to “climate change, toxic pollution, economic insecurity, and social inequity.” The new deal, they argue, “ignores nearly all of the fundamental environmental fixes consistently outlined by the environmental community.”

Throughout negotiations during the recent ratification process, environmentalists and (some) Democrats in Congress have advocated for seven “essential environmental changes” in the reworking of NAFTA. These included binding climate, clean air, water, and land standards, an independent and binding enforcement system, the removal of handouts to the tar sands and fracking industries, and the elimination of a number of laws protecting polluters across countries. According to the latter letter sent by these environmental groups, the negotiated trade agreement “fails on all seven counts.” They argue that the deal would further increase our reliance on tar sands and fracked gas, and that due to the long term and wide ranging effects that this agreement would likely have, its failure to address the climate crisis should be disqualifying. 

Despite this, the agreement easily passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives with a vote tally of 385 to 41. Through the Senate, the deal passed 89 to 10. Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar both voted for the bill, and Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden both voiced their support. Warren said in the Jan. 15 debate that the trade deal was a “modest improvement” for the country’s workers but did not speak to the environmental opposition. 

The strongest opposition came from the progressive and environmental wings of the Democratic Party. In the same debate, candidates Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer announced their opposition to the trade deal. Sanders, after detailing the environmental opposition (and then getting told by the debate moderator to “stay on trade”), noted the difficulty in passing new trade legislation. He stated, “If this is passed, I think it will set us back a number of years.” Other members in opposition included all House members of “The Squad,” and Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Chuck Schumer, Ed Markey, and Sheldon Whitehouse, many of whom detailed similar environmental critiques. 

In writing a new trade deal, it is essential that we address climate change, and put an end to the environmental missteps of the original NAFTA. According to a 20th anniversary environmental review of NAFTA from a number of environmental organizations, the agreement “facilitated the expansion” of large scale industrial agriculture heavily reliant on fossil fuels, pesticides, and GMOs, “undermined Canada’s ability to regulate its tar sands industry,” promoted the consumption of tar sands (one of the least efficient and most destructive fossil fuels), and “weakened domestic environmental safeguards”, to name just a few of the mentioned consequences. 

In the updated trade deal, climate change is never even mentioned (which is almost certainly an intentional move by the administration). The limited environmental “improvements” focus solely on local pollution and conservation issues, which (while important) fail to address the overarching climate and ecological crises. To quote Bill McKibben, one of the preeminent environmentalists of our time, a successful fight against climate change must be “more focused on shifting culture than winning narrow legislative victories.” For the climate movement, if the USMCA is a victory, it is by the narrowest of margins, getting us no closer to anything resembling progress. At some point, we must commit to this fight, and reject the so-called compromises that spit in the face of the environment. Apparently for most in power, however, now is not that time. 

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