Ep60: Todd Stern 'President Obama's Climate Negotiator'

“From our point of view, Copenhagen as a COP was a mess, but we also thought that it did enormously important things.”: Todd Stern on the 2009 Copenhagen COP climate conference.


In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talks to Todd Stern, former White House Staff Secretary and United States Special Envoy for Climate Change from 2009-2016.

Michael and Todd begin by discussing how Todd became involved with climate change and the events of the 2009 Copenhagen COP conference.

They then discuss negotiations between the United States and China for a climate deal.

Finally, they look forward to COP 2021 in Glasgow and Todd’s hopes for the conference.

This is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.



Michael Liebreich: How did you become involved with climate change?

Todd Stern: When I was working for President Clinton in the White House I was the staff secretary which is an important job that manages all of the flow of paper from the White House to the President. In that job I got pulled into various other special assignments. I got a knock on the door from the Chief of Staff in July of 1997, asking if I could jump on to the climate change team because there was a bunch of work that still needed to be done in preparation for Kyoto. I knew a little bit about climate change, but not very much. I ended up going to Kyoto and after Kyoto the Chief of Staff and President asked me to be the point person for the administration overall. And I did that for about another year and a half. I was also in Buenos Aires for COP 4.

ML: What about COP15?  What was your verdict on Copenhagen?

TS: From our point of view, Copenhagen as a COP was a mess, but we also thought that it did enormously important things. Nobody wanted an agreement that the United States couldn't join, that had already happened with Kyoto. We knew that the thing had to get moved onto a different track. The world was way out in front of reality in terms of its expectations. But in the end, Copenhagen was really very, very important, it was the first time that developing countries had taken on real commitments. There was less of a firewall between developed and developing countries in the Kyoto outcome. You had all the big developing countries taking on their own commitments agreeing to a certain form of transparency, that was the first time that a below two degree goal was articulated. There was an agreement to set up something called a Green Fund, which turned into the Green Climate Fund. I think that there were a bunch of important things that happened. It was a really critical step away from the Kyoto model, where developed countries do basically everything. It couldn't fly politically, but it couldn't fly substantively in a world where by 2009, already, developing countries were the majority of annual emissions. In my view, Copenhagen planted a bunch of seeds that ultimately sprouted in Paris, so it was important but it was a mess. 

ML: What was the background to the US-China deal at COP Paris?

TS: We worked on China from the beginning. Hillary Clinton's very first trip as State Secretary was to Asia and she asked me to come with her and she made climate change one of our top three priorities. March 2009 was our first bilateral meeting. I said in that meeting “we should try to see if we can work together”, which didn't happen right away, but it started happening over time. We formed quite a close relationship with Xie Zhenhua and met with each other all the time, and I took him to my hometown, and he took me to his hometown and we had him over for dinner and all the rest of it. John Kerry went to China in April of 2013 and a climate change working group between the two countries was established at a very high level. Obama met with President Xi for the first time that summer, so a bunch of good, more intensive, higher-level things happened in 2013. January 2014, Kerry calls me into his office and says, basically, “what do we do for an encore? We got it, what's the next big thing?” And that's one of Kerry's great strengths, he's an Action Jackson, he wants to know what's next. We did come up a day or two later, and I said, What about if the two presidents announced their targets for Paris together in a joint announcement?

ML:  Moving to Paris itself - how did the target to keep temperature rise “well below two, preferably to 1.5 degrees” arise?

TS: There were a whole litany of issues to do with the structuring of the overall agreement that made it possible. There was a provision in Paris that people were not paying a lot of attention to that called for the IPCC, the scientific body of the UN, to do a study about 1.5 degrees compared to other possibilities. That became the famous 2018 1.5 degrees report, which was really the thing that started to move toward 1.5 degrees. The big proponents of 1.5 in Paris were the islands and various vulnerable countries. We were very keen on having a solidified alliance with those countries. But then you had the people who really pushed it hard. And then you had the moving of the goalposts after Paris that started with the 1.5 report in 2018. 

ML: What are your thoughts on the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow?

TS: I'm not going to be there but the biggest focus for this COP is ambition. It's the first time that there has been a moment to get the actual movement called for in Paris. You have this tremendous sense of urgency about the need to do way better than we're doing right now. Emissions have gone up, not down since Paris. The UK has a huge target for reduction, the EU has a very good target of 55% reduction. The US announced at the Biden climate summit in April a 50% to 52% cut. Japan has made good noises, there are various others who have spoken, and many smaller countries. The big missing factor so far with respect to Glasgow is China. Last year, Xi Jinping announced carbon neutrality before 2060. Not quite good enough, but very good movement in the right direction. But for there to be a real chance to get to net zero, and to hold to 1.5, or even close to 1.5, you need to move now. So what is central to Glasgow is what are you going to do between now and 2030. China has 27% of global emissions now, China is bigger than the entire OECD. All developed countries put together are not as big as China in emissions right now. You can't get there without China taking a bigger step. They did something very good: just about a week ago, Xi Jinping indicated they are going to stop funding new coal on the Belt and Road, their infrastructure initiative around the world. We don't exactly know what he means by new and we don't know whether it also includes finance, but it was a good step. But it doesn't talk about what they're doing at home and their emissions are still going up.