White House Climate Envoy: 'Now Is Our Time'

Todd Stern speaks during a press conference at the Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru in 2014. Todd Stern speaks during a press conference at the Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru in 2014. Juan Karita/AP file photo

Todd Stern, the soft-spoken dip­lo­mat who has labored for years to craft a glob­al cli­mate ac­cord, flatly ad­mit­ted that he would not an­swer the last ques­tion.

Stern, at a press con­fer­ence Tues­day, was asked to ima­gine what would hap­pen if a fi­nal pact doesn’t come to­geth­er in loom­ing talks in Par­is, and wheth­er the cur­rent mo­mentum could be re­cap­tured.

“I am not go­ing to in­dulge in think­ing about the down­side of Par­is,” said Stern, the State De­part­ment’s spe­cial en­voy for cli­mate change. “I am go­ing to prefer to fo­cus on the up­side. What I will say is this: The stars are more aligned right now to reach agree­ment than I have ever seen hap­pen be­fore. We have a real op­por­tun­ity.”

Stern knows very well what it looks like when the stars don’t align.

It looks like Copen­ha­gen, where six years ago, chaot­ic United Na­tions talks nearly dis­solved be­fore na­tions salvaged a loose in­ter­im deal that pre­ven­ted ne­go­ti­ations from col­lapsing out­right.

Stern noted that head­ing in­to Par­is, roughly 170 na­tions have already sub­mit­ted their na­tion­al pledges to curb green­house-gas emis­sions over the next 10-15 years, and said there’s mo­mentum.

“We know coun­tries are in­ter­ested in get­ting this done. The situ­ation right now bears no com­par­is­on, for ex­ample, to the most re­cent ma­jor mo­ment, which is 2009 when people were head­ing in­to Copen­ha­gen, and I have been around long enough that I was ac­tu­ally there. We have this op­por­tun­ity. We have this mo­ment,” he said.

He cau­tioned that coun­tries must de­part from their “fixed po­s­i­tions,” but said that has already been hap­pen­ing and ex­pressed con­fid­ence in get­ting a fi­nal deal. “I am not,” Stern said, “go­ing to think about the al­tern­at­ive.”

Ne­go­ti­at­ors will face a suite of thorny ques­tions about the ar­chi­tec­ture of the pact, the strength of lan­guage to en­sure that coun­tries’ emis­sions-cut­ting ac­tions will be ac­cur­ately re­por­ted and veri­fied, and much more.

Stern’s press con­fer­ence comes ahead of the open­ing of the U.S. talks sched­uled for Nov. 30 through Dec. 11, which Pres­id­ent Obama will at­tend early on. And Stern spoke to re­port­ers at a time when Cap­it­ol Hill Re­pub­lic­ans who op­pose the po­ten­tial deal have been step­ping up their ef­forts to un­der­cut the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion at the talks.

In one case, they’re vow­ing to re­ject a White House re­quest to fund the first $500 mil­lion of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s $3 bil­lion pledge to the Glob­al Cli­mate Fund, a mul­ti­lat­er­al ef­fort to help de­vel­op­ing coun­tries cut emis­sions and deal with the un­avoid­able ef­fects of cli­mate change. 

Stern said the U.S. has “every in­ten­tion” of mak­ing good on fin­an­cial pledges. But he also noted that cli­mate fin­ance pulls in a wide ar­ray of par­ti­cipants and must go for­ward bey­ond 2020. In 2009, ne­go­ti­at­ors set a goal of mo­bil­iz­ing $100 bil­lion an­nu­ally by 2020 from an ar­ray of pub­lic and private sources to help de­vel­op­ing coun­tries tackle cli­mate change.

“We are look­ing for a world go­ing for­ward, a post-2020 world, where the class of donors, the group of donors, starts ex­pand­ing,” Stern said. “The good news, it already is,” he said, not­ing, for in­stance, that a num­ber of de­vel­op­ing coun­tries have be­gun con­trib­ut­ing to the Green Cli­mate Fund.

“It is go­ing to be a world where the base of donors is go­ing to ex­pand, the donors that are already there are go­ing to con­tin­ue to provide ro­bust fin­an­cing, and the spe­cif­ics and dol­lar num­bers and all of that will be part of these ne­go­ti­ations,” he said.

There’s al­most no chance that the hoped-for pact will, on its own, be enough to meet the in­ter­na­tion­al goal of pre­vent­ing a glob­al tem­per­at­ure rise of more than 2 de­grees Celsi­us above pre-in­dus­tri­al levels, a tar­get aimed at pre­vent­ing the most dan­ger­ous cli­mat­ic changes. Re­cent ana­lyses es­tim­ate that na­tions’ pledges to the U.N. thus far would lower the amount of tem­per­at­ure in­crease, but would not hold it be­low that level.

But Stern and oth­ers see the best chance in a long, long time to put glob­al car­bon emis­sions on a more sus­tain­able path, and he has em­phas­ized that an im­port­ant part of the deal will be a mech­an­ism for coun­tries to toughen their ac­tions over time.

Tues­day’s Web-based press con­fer­ence found Stern, who has a work­man­like style in pub­lic that of­ten es­chews soar­ing oratory, will­ing to speak in sweep­ing terms about the up­com­ing talks.

He warned against ac­cept­ing a “min­im­al­ist” deal that kicks ma­jor de­cisions down the road.

“Now is our time,” Stern said. “This is the mo­ment, and we want to seize it.”

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec