Todd Stern on Paris, the future and learning from the past

By Jean Chemnick | 03/28/2016 07:15 AM EDT

Todd Stern says struggling through Kyoto, Japan, and Copenhagen, Denmark, helped teach him what a climate deal would need to succeed. Stern, who will step down as the U.S. special envoy for climate change Friday, said it was good training for the past seven years that culminated in December with a new global accord in Paris.

Todd Stern says struggling through Kyoto, Japan, and Copenhagen, Denmark, helped teach him what a climate deal would need to succeed.

The State Department’s top climate diplomat entered the world of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as a negotiator in 1997 — the same year the world reached its first deal to contain global warming.

He remembers the summit in the ancient Japanese capital that year and the next in Buenos Aires, Argentina, focused on implementation, as "sprawling" and "quite political" affairs — even more so than when he returned to the process a decade later. It produced an agreement with what Stern described as a "sharp, bright line" running through the middle of it — dividing the legally binding commitments demanded of a few wealthy nations from the voluntary actions the vast majority of countries were invited to take.

Todd Stern
U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern will step down Friday after seven years as the Obama administration’s top global warming negotiator to the United Nations. | Photo courtesy of the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

The deal fell flat, at least in the United States, where it never even received a Senate vote.

But Stern, who will step down as the U.S. special envoy for climate change Friday, said it was good training for the past seven years that culminated in December with a new global accord in Paris.

"I think having gone through the crucible of Kyoto was an enormously important, formative experience for me in terms of how I approached this job as soon as I got here at the beginning of 2009," he said.

"Kyoto was a difficult experience for the United States," Stern remembered. But, he said, it clarified for him once and for all that the firewall the convention had traditionally maintained between developed and developing countries had to come down. Mandatory emissions commitments for rich countries especially were "a complete and total nonstarter," he said. "We could not do that. It was as clear to me as anything from the day I got here that that kind of structure wasn’t viable."

Learning from mistakes

The trouble was how to go about convincing the rest of the world. Kyoto and Buenos Aires had made it clear to Stern that UNFCCC summits weren’t the place to do it.

"I learned what a COP [Convention of the Parties] was like," he said. They were too chaotic with too many players and didn’t allow for the kinds of sidebar discussions that would lay the groundwork for a new paradigm.

"We need a way to break through the political fog and bureaucratic clutter to give global environmental issues the focused top-level treatment they deserve," Stern wrote in an open memo in 2007 addressed to "presidential aspirants." His proposal was the creation of the "E-8" — an annual gathering of a few major developed and developing countries modeled on the Group of 7, aimed at "encouraging frank, informal dialogue and clearing bureaucratic logjams."

Soon after, then-President George W. Bush inaugurated the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change. It was reimagined two years later under President Obama as the Major Economies Meeting on Energy and Climate Change.

Slight as the change to the title was, Stern and his colleagues changed the group’s mission dramatically, using it as a forum "intensively focused on advancing negotiations," Stern said, in a direction the Obama administration believed would result in a climate deal.

The 2009 summit in Copenhagen did not produce that deal, however, leading many to predict the UNFCCC would be marginalized, and many more to blame the United States and China. Stern was viewed by many activists and foreign negotiators in those years to be more concerned with managing expectations than delivering compromises that would yield an agreement (ClimateWire, Dec. 7, 2015).

But Paris vindicated both the UNFCCC process and the U.S. approach, Stern said. The U.S. team, led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Stern, counts among its achievements in Paris a "bottom-up" structure that calls for all countries to put forward targets that are not binding under international law — Stern’s top policy "lesson learned" from the Kyoto effort, he said.

‘No particular plans’ to campaign for Clinton

As for the United Nations, Paris will keep it relevant for years to come, Stern said.

"I think if Paris had failed, the UNFCCC would have been in some serious stress," he said. But as it is, the U.N. body "has a strong institutional role now going forward."

The structure of the Paris agreement calls for years of taking stock; renewed emissions reduction and financial pledges; and monitoring, reporting and verification activities that must all be carried out under the auspices of the U.N. body. Many of the deal’s details are left for future conferences, with key next steps due at this November’s conference of the parties in Marrakesh, Morocco, and beyond.

For the State Department, that work will be overseen by Stern’s former deputy and now successor, Jonathan Pershing.

Stern says his own plans are to write and teach, but also to remain "busy and engaged" on climate change.

The role Stern is vacating was originated by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who hired him. Asked whether his next stop might be her presidential campaign, he said: "I don’t have any particular plans for that.

"I very much enjoyed working with Secretary Clinton while she was at the State Department, I’ll just say that," he said with customary caution.

Long-term decarbonization plan in the works

Stern declined to weigh in on whether the next administration should continue the "special envoy" position or handle climate diplomacy differently. But he said it was "enormously useful" to have a high-level official who focused solely on climate change, rather than as part of a broader portfolio, as was the case in past administrations.

The need for a ministerial-level worker who can talk with counterparts in other governments is strengthened, not diminished, now that Paris must be implemented, he said.

An interagency team helmed by White House climate adviser Brian Deese but including Pershing will write a blueprint this year for how the United States can put itself on track to meet Paris’ long-term decarbonization goals by midcentury. The deal called for the world to limit post-industrial warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational target of 1.5 C.

Stern said he had envisioned the plan as a "white paper" with ideas for how various sectors of the U.S. economy would achieve deeper reductions over the decades.

"It’s not a question of putting forward a 2050 target," he said. The paper will respect that achieving midcentury goals — the United States has pledged to cut emissions more than 80 percent by 2050 — will be an "iterative process" dependent on policies that will be set by future administrations.

The Obama administration will not begin to write the next set of U.S. commitments to the Paris agreement, which are due in 2020 to be realized in 2030.

"That’s going to be in the hands of the next president," Stern said. He declined to say whether any of the GOP candidates now vying to replace Obama would keep the United States on a trajectory to meet its 2025 commitments to Paris — or to plan a way to build on them in four years’ time.

"My own view is that any administration would keep us in the Paris regime," he said. "I think it would be a huge foreign policy blunder for the United States to try to in any way pull back from Paris, because it is an issue viewed as hugely important all over the world, and it is an agreement that is pretty much universally applauded.

"You can’t do it alone, but things don’t move well in this area … without U.S. leadership," he said. "So I would certainly hope to see that continue."