The president’s deal-shaper takes the stage in climate talks

By Lisa Friedman | 12/07/2015 09:11 AM EST

LE BOURGET, France — Todd Stern doesn’t mind being the bad guy. The Obama administration’s special envoy for climate change said he knows personal attacks come with the territory of pushing often-unpopular U.S. positions before the United Nations. Over the nearly seven years Stern has held the job, he has borne the brunt of the global environmental community’s frustration with American climate change policy. If the criticisms weigh on him, he doesn’t let it show.

LE BOURGET, France — Todd Stern doesn’t mind being the bad guy.

The Obama administration’s special envoy for climate change said he knows personal attacks come with the territory of pushing often-unpopular U.S. positions before the United Nations.

Over the nearly seven years Stern has held the job, the lanky, bespectacled lawyer has borne the brunt of the global environmental community’s frustration with American climate change policy. In 2011, he waited impassively as a college student interrupted a speech to demand that he start lowering emissions instead of expectations. The following year, he hardly blinked an eye as he walked a gantlet of young environmentalists holding signs denouncing his position on protecting islands. Activists like to joke that his name approximates the German words for "death star."


If the criticisms weigh on Stern, he doesn’t let it show.

"I guess I have the right kind of constitution," he joked during a recent interview in his State Department office. But jokes are dry and fleeting with Stern, and he pivoted deftly to the efforts the Obama administration has made to show the world that America is serious about tackling global warming.

"I so don’t feel like the bad guy," he said. "We have the A-Team in this administration. We really do. We have people who are committed and believe in this issue, and are working flat-out on the domestic side. So I lose sleep over all sorts of things. I lose none over that."

A lover of spy novels and the Chicago Cubs, Stern is widely considered no-nonsense, detail-oriented and cautious. He has a reputation for bluntness — he prefers to describe his style as straightforward and candid — and makes it his business to know every piece of the massive international climate change agreement he has been charged with shaping.

This is his moment of truth. With President Obama back in Washington, D.C., after two high-profile days of speeches and meetings here aimed at building momentum for a new global accord, the responsibility for bringing a deal home is now in Stern’s hands.

His task: convincing 195 countries to agree by the end of this week to terms that the administration and the American public — if not the GOP-led Congress — can swallow.

Stern’s experience goes back to the beginning in 1997 as a Clinton administration senior negotiator to help craft a hard-fought global deal that Congress promptly rejected. The Kyoto Protocol never even came before the Senate for approval, because lawmakers unanimously repudiated it on the basis that it demanded sacrifices only from some nations, while letting others — particularly China — off the hook.

Those around him say Stern views the Paris negotiations as his second chance. Indeed, this time around, things are different. More than 180 countries have submitted plans for cutting or curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The lingering big debates revolve around to what extent countries of different levels of wealth and development should act — not whether or not they should.

This deal has Stern’s fingerprints all over it. Both his admirers and detractors say it’s due to his singleminded persistence in tearing down the "firewall," as Stern likes to call it, between rich and poor in the United Nations’ climate architecture. Doing so, Stern is convinced, is the only way America will embrace a climate accord — and he’s willing to accept some backlash to get it.

"Todd is as an understated person as you will find, but he has a backbone of steel," said Stuart Eizenstat, Stern’s former boss, who led the U.S. delegation in the Kyoto talks.

"I’ve never, ever seen Todd Stern lose his temper. He is low-key, he’s factual, he’s determined. He knows what he needs to get," he said.

Stern’s former chief of staff Kareem Saleh added, "He doesn’t bullshit, and he doesn’t buckle."

A lawyer, not an activist

Stern’s doggedness, though, hasn’t won him many admirers among international environmental activists.

Mohamed Adow, a senior climate adviser for Christian Aid and a longtime presence at the U.N. negotiations, described Stern as a "defensive player" who cares more about letting the world know why America can’t join a treaty or offer too much money than about building bridges.

"The feeling we get is that he’s explaining himself better, and his limitations, which is why the world understands the U.S. better than any other country. But the feeling is he isn’t listening enough to others," Adow said.

Even Europeans, who see eye-to-eye with America on a number of issues, grouse that Stern can be dogmatic. Much of the tension stems from the early years of the Obama administration, when a cap-and-trade bill failed to move in Congress and action everywhere seemed to stall, yet the world still expected the United States to lead on climate change.

"How many times he tried to explain to us how the U.S. political system works. I said, ‘You know, we have democracy, too, in the European Union,’" former E.U. Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard recalled of working — and sparring — with Stern.

Todd Stern, chief U.S. climate negotiator. | Photo courtesy of AP Images.

Still, she and others said, Stern is not the type to shift blame for an unpopular position onto his bosses. More than one person used the phrase "good soldier" to describe him and said that if there is daylight between Stern’s personal positions and the ones he advocates, it never shows.

"He’d say, ‘This is how it is. This is how far we can go,’" Hedegaard said of Stern’s matter-of-fact manner. "He’s very loyal to his bosses, but you really sometimes thought, ‘Oh, Todd. For God’s sake, can’t you push it a little bit?’ He probably did."

Stern’s former aides insist that he did, advocating inside the Obama administration for a carbon tax and other measures when legislation failed and later working hand-in-glove with White House adviser John Podesta and Secretary of State John Kerry to spur the Clean Power Plan regulations and seal a key deal with China.

Saleh, Stern’s former chief of staff, said others might have balked at the challenge of getting China to make a deal, or dwelt on the possibility of it backfiring. But, he said, "Todd didn’t blink an eye. He picked up that ball and ran with it and got a deal done."

Saleh described Stern as "incredibly well-prepared" and recalled the chiefs of staff to other country’s ministers grousing when Stern would join meetings and plop down a massive briefing book that he’d digested in full. "He is one of the hardest workers I have ever met in my entire life," Saleh said.

New Zealand Ambassador Jo Tyndall said Stern "seems to relish" details of the Byzantine negotiations.

"There is no one that would rival Todd in certainly understanding the detail and having the bigger picture," she said.

And while pleas from activists about creating a safe planet for future generations aren’t likely to make a dent in Stern’s positions, Tyndall argued that being a passionate environmentalist doesn’t necessarily make one the best negotiator for one’s country.

Building trust and strategies

Brazilian Ambassador Luiz Figueiredo, who has gone head-to-head with Stern at several climate conferences, said he has become close with Stern over the years.

"He’s a reliable person, and I think that’s something fundamental for a negotiator. You have to have trust. You have to understand the other person negotiating with you is someone you can rely on. Todd Stern is this kind of person," he said.

Aides argue that Stern, though not given to high-flying rhetoric, nevertheless cares about climate change. After all, they note, the man has dedicated the better part of his career to it and has stayed in the job as envoy far longer than anyone believed he would.

A graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, Stern himself acknowledged that the issue found him while he was serving as staff secretary in the Clinton White House. But even as a young man, Stern said, he was drawn to the issue. He recalled living in New York after law school, surrounded by stacks of New Yorker magazines, and reading all the way through a three-part series by the late scientist-activist Barry Commoner on solar power.

"I’m not somebody who grew up in the environmental movement, but … from way, way back I was very interested and cared a lot," he said.

Still, Stern describes the lure of the international climate process not in terms of a desire to protect the environment, but rather the way someone would talk about why he loves chess: the challenge of thinking through strategies, understanding and anticipating others’ moves, and maneuvering around unexpected ones.

"I’ve liked having to constantly think through substantive strategy tactics," he said. "I have learned up close and personal the art of the possible. You can’t always get the exact best thing you think you can do. So calibrating that against the interesting wave of domestic challenges and, if anything, the more interesting wave of international challenges … that’s been really interesting. I’ve liked that."

Stern served as energy adviser to Hillary Clinton when she ran for president in 2008 and was her choice for envoy when she became secretary of State. Many observers expected Stern to leave when she did in Obama’s second term. But once countries agreed to striking a new international agreement in 2015 in Paris, the lure to stay was strong.

"There were points along the way I thought, ‘I should go. Maybe you want to let go of this.’ But I wanted to see this through," he said.

Surrounded by coffee-table books on Qatar and Mexico, a painted elephant figurine and other tchotchkes from his travels in climate diplomacy just days before the Paris climate talks, Stern said he never underestimates the difficulty in getting nations to agree to a new accord. That, Stern said, is the thing over which he loses sleep.

"You’re only working on a problem that affects every aspect of everbody’s economy, so it’s not like it’s a big deal," he said, deadpan.

"It affects everybody, all of these different interests, all of these different economies, and it’s consensus rule, so everybody has to agree," he said. "Other than that, it’s easy."