Former State Dept. negotiator Richard Smith discusses climate change diplomacy

As a former State Department negotiator, Richard Smith led negotiations on some of the most significant environmental and scientific agreements of the late and post-Cold War era. In his new book, "Negotiating Environment and Science: An Insider's View of International Agreements, from Driftnets to the Space Station," Smith discusses some of the precedents he and his teams established for dealing with today's environmental challenges. During today's OnPoint, Smith explains how the lessons learned during his time as a negotiator can be applied to next month's Copenhagen meeting. He also discusses the importance of U.S. leadership on environmental issues.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Richard Smith, a former State Department negotiator and author of the new book, "Negotiating Environment and Science; an Insider's View of International Agreements from Drift Nets to the Space Station." Richard, it's great to have you here.

Richard Smith: Thank you, it's good to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Richard, during your time at the State Department you led negotiations on some of the most significant environmental and scientific agreements of the late and post-Cold War era. What's the biggest lesson learned that you think the Copenhagen negotiators can take with them to next month's meeting?

Richard Smith: Well, there's a number. One is the importance of having a plan when you get there. You can't make this up on the scene. The team has to get together on the U.S. side and go to Copenhagen with a clear plan and thought of how far they can go and what they can accomplish. It wasn't the case in Kyoto. It was done on the scene and didn't work very well.

Monica Trauzzi: Is your sense that there is a plan or that a plan is being devised?

Richard Smith: Well, of course, I'm not part of the game anymore, so I'm not really sure, but looking at it from the outside I'm very encouraged that Todd Stern, an experienced guy on these issues, was appointed early, because one of the things that I think is key is to have the negotiator involved from the earliest stages, putting together the inter-agency discussion that has to take place in order to work out what we're going to do in the negotiation. So, I think that the fact that he's there and that he has been there for some time and will be there through the negotiation is very encouraging and I think that they may be well be doing a lot of the right things I didn't get done before Kyoto.

Monica Trauzzi: So, the new book walks through eight landmark negotiations that you led and these negotiations established important precedents for facing environmental and scientific challenges. From a diplomatic standpoint, what do you think we can expect from the Copenhagen meeting?

Richard Smith: Well, I don't expect you're going to get an agreement with hard mandatory targets, there's just too many barriers to that to develop a country position in which they feel like they can't make those kind of commitments right now is going to stand in the way. And the fact that the United States is not quite at the point where it can say, "We're prepared to do this and achieve this much." It's close, but it's not there. I think the most you could hope for is that they have a good, positive discussion, that they agree in general terms and principles on where they want to go and that they agree to meet again and to move this into the next year in a positive tone. I think it would be a real mistake if, as you suggested, the blame game was played, because it's a situation where all of the parties concerned want to achieve this result and I think they have to play it that way and recognize that it involves working together over a period of time.

Monica Trauzzi: So, is that how you would define success at this meeting? I mean how would you define it?

Richard Smith: I would define success, in fact, I think really the worst thing that could happen is that they would come back as they did in Kyoto with commitments to supposedly mandatory emission reductions which everyone knows can't be met and won't be met in the commitments. You can't, in my view, certainly in the United States, you can't negotiate ahead of where you're ready to go to domestically. If you go to an international meeting and come back with commitments and then try to sell them to the Congress you've got a problem. You've got to get the movement there and get the understanding of all the parties in the executive branch and the Congress to where we can go and what we need to do and then negotiate with those commitments in mind. So you have to get the horse before the cart.

Monica Trauzzi: Once you strike an agreement, how do you make it stick?

Richard Smith: Well, it's an interesting question. I don't think, certainly in these kinds of negotiations, you have the possibility of much of a stick. I mean if the negotiations in these kinds of issues doesn't result in something that all the parties feel is in their interest they'll pull out. I mean all of these negotiations can be pulled back from or they won't meet the commitments and there's really not much that can be done. So the key, in my view, is to come up with an agreement that recognizes the circumstances and needs of all the parties and comes up with an agreement that they all feel reasonably comfortable with. That's the best assurance that it's going to stick.

Monica Trauzzi: Why is U.S. leadership so important on environmental issues?

Richard Smith: Well, I guess in some ways it's the size of our economy and our role in the world. We are, I guess, the only real superpower and if we're not involved there's a big chunk of the world, both politically and economically, that's not involved and that's going to undercut. My experience in all of the negotiations that I was involved in was that U.S. leadership is key. We may not play quite the same role we did in the early post-World War period, but we're still in a situation where we're looked to for leadership and in cases where the United States has recognized the problem and is responding to it as it did in the case of the ozone layer and the phasing out of global fluorocarbons, then the prospects for success is really great. And when the United States falters, then the prospects drop.

Monica Trauzzi: Is the diplomatic approach on environmental issues different than other issues?

Richard Smith: Well, I haven't negotiated a lot of other issues, but I think there are differences. One is the fact that in these areas you really have to operate on the basis of incomplete information. You have to set up a process, as again, the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer is a good example, where you set up a process where you keep coming back to the question. You're not going to get it right the first time and the science is changing and moving and you've got to set up a structure which will deal with that and keep coming back to the problem and review and revise. This need to work together in that active way may be a little different than some other kind of negotiations where you can…in the arms control you can agree to go to a certain level and that's it and you can walk away and not pay that much attention as long as it's met. Here, you're involved in a game that requires the parties to keep working together. I think that may be something of a difference from some other.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, well, we'll end it there. Thank you for coming on the show. It was great to have it here.

Richard Smith: Thank you very much.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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