Obama’s Climate Envoy: ‘Now is Our Time’

Todd Stern can’t bear to think about failing to strike a climate change deal in Paris next month.

U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern arrives to attend the opening of informal ministerial consultations to prepare for COP 21 in Paris, France, Sunday Sept. 6, 2015. The Paris UN climate conference in December 2015 will deliver a new universal climate change agreement.
AP Photo/Christophe Ena
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Nov. 24, 2015, 1:53 p.m.

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,” 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 Novem­ber 30 through Decem­ber 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 go­ing 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,” Stern 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 Stern 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.”

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