The Role of International Negotiations in Addressing the Climate

The Role of International Negotiations in Addressing the Climate
Apr 21, 2011

About the Speaker

Todd Stern

TODD STERN United States Special Envoy for Climate Change

Todd Stern plays a central role in developing the U.S. international policy on climate and is the President's chief climate negotiator, representing the United States internationally at the ministerial level in all bilateral and multilateral negotiations regarding climate change. Stern also participates in the development of domestic climate and clean energy policy.

Stern brings extensive experience in the private sector and government. Before joining the Obama Administration he was a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focused on climate change and environmental issues, and a partner at the law firm WilmerHale, where he served as Vice Chair of the Public Policy and Strategy Group.

Stern served in the White House from 1993 to 1999. As Staff Secretary, he played a central role in preparing the key issues of domestic, economic and national security policy for the President's decision, as well as handling a number of special assignments. From 1997 to 1999, he coordinated the Administration's initiative on global climate change, acting as the senior White House negotiator at the Kyoto and Buenos Aires negotiations. At Treasury, from 1999 to 2001, Stern advised the Secretary on the policy and politics of a broad range of economic and financial issues, and supervised Treasury's anti-money laundering strategy. Previously, from 1990-93, Stern served as Senior Counsel to Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he advised Senator Leahy on intellectual property, telecommunications and constitutional issues.

After leaving the government, Stern was an Adjunct Lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Stern is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

About the Lecture

With frightening evidence for climate change mounting around the globe, from droughts and massive forest fires to melting glaciers and rising sea levels, you might think nations would wish to work together to meet such a grave threat. Instead, as U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern reports, there has been only modest progress internationally in facing up to the challenge of climate change.

Stern starts by describing the kinds of devastation beginning to ravage the planet and the perils we face as a result. He also acknowledges the shameful drift from fact to opinion among American political leaders when it comes to dealing with the science of climate change, and the companion drop in poll numbers of Americans deeply concerned by the problem. Nevertheless, Stern notes that the Obama administration has remained true to its policy of tackling the problem, focusing on clean energy R&D to transform the economy and cut emissions. He recounts proudly that investments made by the U.S. government are leading to advanced vehicle batteries, electric charging structures over the nation, and a vast increase in energy production from wind, solar and geothermal sources.

But progress internationally is much harder to come by. There are deep divisions among nations who gather to discuss the way forward under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The main cause of acrimony involves a "firewall" between developed and developing nations, which sprang up in 1992 when the UN began work on an international treaty to reduce global warming. According to Stern, developing nations have approached these climate conventions insisting that legally binding commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions fall primarily on developed nations, which are responsible historically for the lion's share of CO2 output.

The problem with this argument today, says Stern, is that many of these developing nations have evolved such strong economies in the past decade that they are closing in on developed nations in emissions. Stern believes the U.S. cannot agree to a treaty that doesn't take into account this reality; and that the U.S. must insist instead that certain countries "graduate" from the category of lower to higher emitter when they meet the right criteria, and then assume an appropriate set of obligations.

Stern has been involved in international negotiations for a long time, watching the ebb and flow of effort and politics around the climate issue. His hope is that the next UNFCC convention prove "a cooperative and mutually beneficial platform for combating climate change," rather than "a platform focused mostly on rhetorical thrust and parry."