Challenges for U.S. Climate Policy

Challenges for U.S. Climate Policy

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Todd D. Stern, special envoy for climate change at the U.S. Department of State, joins the Carnegie Endowment's Jessica T. Mathews to discuss the result of the Paris Agreement, the domestic and international implications of the agreement, and the future of U.S. climate policy and diplomacy. Stern outlines the framework for international cooperation to limit rising global temperatures after the twenty-first Conference of Parties (COP21) meeting in Paris. Stern goes on to discuss the implications of the COP21 agreement for U.S. climate policy.

MATHEWS: So if I may interrupt your conversation, my name is Jessica Mathews. I started working on this issue in—actually before Todd Stern, believe it or not, 1982, but very glad to be here today.

You all have Mr. Stern’s bio in front of you. For anybody who has ever worked in government on the international side—it’s probably half of the people in this room—has I’m sure had the experience of sitting next to somebody from another government at a dinner and hearing their envy of our system that allows people to go in and out of government at senior levels—go in, kill yourself, go out, work/think/write, go back in, kill yourself again. It’s a wonderful system, and people envy it in other systems. It has one big downside, which is that very often in international negotiations the head of the U.S. team is doing it for the first time, and on the other side of the table is somebody who’s doing—who has been negotiating for his country or her country for 30 years, and there’s a pretty steep learning curve.

This issue is one where the United States has not had that disadvantage because Todd Stern is the personification of institutional memory, both because of his work ethic and his passion about this issue, and his dedication over an extraordinary period of time. I don’t know whether there is anybody from any other country who has lived through, in senior positions, nine of the 21 COPs. Maybe there has, but there’s certainly nobody who has made a bigger difference in them.

So we’re here to talk about what is really, I think, a pretty historic breakthrough, and not by any means an unmixed victory, as we seldom have, but one that really probably does represent a major turning point on one of the handful of the most important issues that the world faces. So I think we—it’s fair to say that we should begin with a recognition of the extraordinary success that Mr. Stern has achieved.

And so we’re lucky to have him. We’re going to hear some remarks for him, then he and I will have 20 minutes to talk, and then we will have half an hour for all of you. Todd? (Applause.)

STERN: Well, thank you. Thank you very, very much, Jessica, for the kind and generous remarks. And thank you for—to everybody who’s here and to the Council on Foreign Relations.

I am just going to—first of all, I’m going to get this watch so I don’t lose track of my time. But I am going to take just a few minutes to try to set the stage, then we can have a conversation for the remainder of the time. And I want to start by giving you just an outline of why the Paris agreement is so important and is, indeed, I think a genuinely historic agreement that I hope and think will be a pivot point going forward.

So, in a nutshell, this is what I would say are the key points about Paris. First, it establishes the first genuinely universal and durable climate regime, something—an agreement that is really applicable to all. We have had others that cover all the parties, but this is the first time we have one where all the parties are actually taking action.

Second, it sets us on a path of high ambition. We started off—we came into this conference with the absolutely extraordinary fact of 186 countries having put forward their targets, in the lingo their co-called INDCs. That’s just completely amazing. That was—I think if you had asked anybody a year earlier what the high end of a—of a most optimistic prediction could have been for the number of countries, I can’t imagine anyone would have told you more than about 150. And that would have been the—you know, the 10 on a scale of 10 in terms of optimism. So this was, in and of itself, quite extraordinary. And it’s not enough; we know that. But if you look at what those—that first set of INDCs are already projected to do with respect to the impact on temperature, it’s significant. The Climate Action Tracker, which is probably one of the best outfits doing this kind of analysis, said in October of 2014 that the world is on track for about a 3.6-degree Celsius increase in temperature. Remember, the goal of the convention and the goal that scientists have generally rallied around is 2 or below 2 degrees. As of October 1st of this year, because of these INDCs, the Climate Action Tracker put out a revised number, which was 2.7 (degrees). So 2.7 is still a long way off of where we need to go, but it’s also a long way forward from where—what they predicted just a year earlier. So you have the INDCs.

You also have structure built into the agreement with respect to ambition. Most importantly, you have every five years there will be a global stock take to see where we’re doing, how we’re doing as against our temperature and other goals, and in the year following that stock take a time to ratchet up individual country targets. So that, enormously important. And the—and there are also very strong goals that were agreed to, well below 2 degrees and even an effort to pursue the far more challenging 1.5-degree goal, as well as the notion of essentially climate neutrality—a balance between emissions and the removal of emissions in the world during the course of this century. So very important stuff. So that’s the second point, it’s very strong ambition.

Third, and related to ambition, the agreement establishes a strong transparency and accountability system: binding transparency requirements with common standards for developed and developing countries, regular inventories done according to agreed international standards, regular reporting with respect to those inventories and the progress countries are making toward achieving their goals, a robust review of all of that reporting based on expert teams, and also on peer discussions to be held every—at the—during big conferences, and then flexibility built into the system to take into account the fact that there are countries with a lot of different capabilities and a lot of different capacities. But the flexibility is supposed to be based on that. It’s not flexibility based on the fact that you are a developing country by status, but rather what capacity do you have, do you—what flexibility do you need based on that real capacity.

Fourth point I would—I would make is that this agreement revises the fundamental architecture of the climate system with a means of differentiating among countries that is looking forward rather than looking back, and is grounded—as I just indicated a moment ago—in countries’ own circumstances and capacities. The firewall between developed and developing countries has been the fault line of these negotiations from the very beginning, for over 20 years. Kyoto embodies this structure, and it was largely stillborn because of that. From the start of the Obama administration, we came in convinced that we had to evolve that architecture. We have no quarrel whatsoever with the notion that countries need to be treated differently, and that there’s a vast range of country capabilities. And so differentiation, absolutely, but not on a bifurcated basis according to categories that were written in 1992. In a—in a nutshell, that’s where we were at.

The agreement also includes enhanced focus on adaptation, which is a(n) enormously important issue, and continued robust financial support. So all of those—those are all, I think, the critical features of this agreement.

If I have a few more minutes, I will talk for a minute on how—on how we got this done. Many people asked—have asked me, at the point when you went to Paris, did you know pretty well that—you know, that you had it in the bag? And the answer is no, not at all. There was the last big meeting at the sub-ministerial level—so for these purposes, I get—I get to be a minister for—(laughs)—for international climate purposes. So I don’t go to the meetings—there are usually three or four during the year—at the sub-ministerial level, the so-called negotiator level. And the last of those this year was the week of October 19th, and it was a bad meeting. It was very acrimonious. There was a kind of quasi-revolt against a short and concise draft that had been put on the table by the co-chairs of the negotiation. And it was a—the previous drafts had been ungainly kind of compilation documents that were 90 pages or so long, so not very useful, nothing that could have gotten us to Paris. Co-chairs tried to kind of cut that knot by putting forward a short, concise text intended to be the thing that to take us to Paris. Many countries were prepared to work from it, but some key players were not. And it—as I say, it was—it was an acrimonious, very negative meeting in October. And that was the last—that was a month—essentially five weeks before going to Paris, and that was the last time all the parties were getting together. So we—it was not a—it was not a glide path, let’s say, to an agreement in Paris.

We came out of that meeting and I came out of that meeting very convinced that we needed to revive a strong coalition that the EU had actually been quite instrumental in putting together in Durban in 2011. Durban is where the mandate for this four-year negotiation was agreed to. And the EU pulled together a coalition of progressive developing countries that included the islands, the least-developing countries, a group of progressive countries from Latin America. And that was a very important grouping back in Durban. Our main focus in Durban had been playing—not playing, but working with the—with the major, biggest developing countries—China, India, Brazil, South Africa. But the EU had done something really important. Then that coalition had kind of been quieted, its voices somewhat silenced at this October meeting. And I went to the so-called pre-COP meeting, which was two or three weeks before—I guess three weeks before the COP, very much with the view that that coalition needed to be revived and strengthened again.

I was worried that there would be—that there were certainly some in the—you know, in the—in the overall group of countries, the large group of countries, who very much preferred a minimalist agreement, just a few sketches that would then be filled out later through negotiations over guidelines and such. That wasn’t at all where we stood. We were concerned about this architectural change that I was talking about—again, this firewall was so engrained in the thinking of countries that we didn’t know how that was going to go in the end.

I think just to tick off the factors, and then I’ll stop so we can—so that we can move on. But I think critical factors in getting this done in the end were the solidarity among the U.S. and the EU and the so-called Umbrella Group countries. Those are basically the non-EU developed countries who we have grouped with. I think the China diplomacy that we’ve done over the last several years, and most dramatically at the end of 2014, was hugely important. I think that there was very important U.S. diplomacy at the—at the highest level, President Obama interacting very aggressively and consistently with not just China, but with Brazil, South Africa, India; met with five important island countries in Paris. And Secretary Kerry, my own immediate boss, was working this issue almost constantly all year, and spent the whole last week in Paris. That coalition I talked about, wanting to revive that, that came together in spades in Paris. Somebody—and it might have been me, but—(laughs)—but certainly I used the term if I didn’t coin it, but high-ambition coalition. And that became a very, very powerful and significant diplomatic force within the meeting, pushing against the notion of minimalism. And I think the French did a great job. I think that the foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, had a kind of true north in these negotiations, which was to have ambition, to have a regular ratcheting up process built into the agreement, and to not let that go, and to not let there be a minimalist kind of result. I think that was all very important.

I’m going to stop there so we don’t take too much time, and we can pick up questions.

MATHEWS: OK, perfect. Just before we—before we leave what’s happened and turn to the future, what about the corporate role? Was it important? And it certainly was more public in the run-up to Paris than it had been in other—talk for a minute about that.

STERN: I think actually that it was very important. I don’t think—not so much in, you know, what languages are we figuring out to solve the problem and this or that provision, but I think that the—that the French had a notion from the beginning to create what in their lingo they described as a—as pillar four, which was non-state actors; so sub-nationals—governors, mayors—and business. And I think that—I think all of that kind of activity, and we in the—we in the U.S., led by the White House, had a lot of interaction with companies and had—I forget what the final—I lost track at 80-plus; I think it went substantially higher than that in the end—the number of companies who signed on to—both to present what they were prepared to do by 2025 or 2030 themselves with regard to greenhouse gas emissions, and to sign on to a sort of short statement supporting a strong Paris outcome. That was in the U.S., but there was that kind of activity much more broadly.

And I think that that—all of that activity from outside of the negotiation world sends a message to people in the negotiations that this is not just a bunch of climate people, you know, by themselves in a—in a room, but that there is a—that there is a much broader worldwide effort and engagement. You know, I think, you know, back in the—in New York, there was a big march in the streets of New York that I think, again, was that—and there was supposed to be one in Paris; it was canceled because of the terrorism that had occurred recently in Paris. But all of that sense of big public engagement, and certainly including—very much including corporate engagement, I think really important.

I mean, the—and the other thing about the corporate engagement is, I mean, we always have to remember that what’s sort of the game here, the play that is necessary with respect to climate change, is to accelerate the transformation of the—of the energy base of the economy from high to low carbon. I mean, that’s what all of this—that’s what all of these agreements are about. That’s what all of this is about. So the corporate actors are critical.

MATHEWS: Absolutely. So we’ll come back to that if we can.

But let’s talk about the coming year: key moments, key events, and sort of impacts on markets and on political expectation.

STERN: So maybe let me start with impact on markets and then talk a little bit about what we have on our agenda for this year.

But, look, I think that this is going to have a big impact on markets. I mean, I think you start with the proposition that you have 196 countries who have agreed at the leader level that we are going to go forward. And not just that they have agreed to go forward, but again, the amazing number of 186 of them—I think it’s 187 now—who have not just said, yes, we will sign some agreement, but here’s what we are going to do, and we have taken the time in our country to figure out what we are going to do, which is an exercise of some considerable complexity in its own right.

So I think that the sense that—and again, the kind of lasting nature of the agreement, with the periodic stock takes and new commitments built into it, you know, with the transparency measures and so forth, I think—I think should create a sense of inevitability about where we’re going. And I think that that sense of inevitability is going to be important. I don’t know if it’s translating yet, but I think it’s going to be important with respect to markets.

It also—and I think this is more probably—or I guess I’m not enough of an expert to know whether this is a transient affair or not a transient affair, but it—let’s just say that Paris and the, you know, kind of historic banner headline nature of what happened there happened at the same moment that fossil fuel markets are in—are in quite a lot of stress: coal in a lot of lot of stress, and oil, you know, also, although probably oil comes back to some degree. So I think that the sense that this is where we’re going and there is not any turning back is—I think it’s the—I think it’s the right message. I think it is—it is—it’s real. The natural world, unfortunately, will keep—will keep confirming that there’s not any way back. And so I think it will have a big and lasting impact on markets.

With respect to this coming year, so in the first instance, we will be focused on—and other countries also will be focused on the next immediate steps with respect to this agreement, which is signing, joining. Some countries will take, you know, some period of years, probably, to join. Hopefully a lot—the agreement’s open for signature on April 22nd in New York. I think that Ban Ki-Moon is planning some kind of event around that, but I don’t know any details. But that will be important. The agreement actually enters into force upon the joining by 55 countries, comprising 55 percent or more of global emissions. So, you know, I think it would be a good thing if we are well on our way in—to meet those—to meet those goals. Again, it will take some time, undoubtedly, for some countries. But that will be one piece.

Then there will be additional elements. There are a raft of guidelines, guidance, work programs, things that are called for in the agreement or the accompanying decision, mostly not to be done this year, but to be done over the course of the next two or three years. And the work will start on all of those. We need guidelines—more specific guidelines on the transparency system, and across a range of issues there’s that kind of work to be done.

There are—there are additional important elements or additional important kind of venues for action this year. ICAO is the International Civil Aviation Organization. They have their every-three-year(s) assembly this year. In the 2013 assembly, which for a set of reasons I won’t go into long detail on I ended up being heavily involved in, there was an agreement to try to develop essentially a system—a kind of a cap-and-trade system where countries—where airlines would have—would have certain goals set, which they could then partly meet by buying offsets, offset credits. So an effort to set up that system is going on right now.

The Montreal Protocol regulates ozone-depleting substances. One of the substances that was developed to not deplete the ozone level—so, to be a substitute for a depleting substance—was—is called HFCs. They don’t deplete the ozone level, but they’re a huge greenhouse gas agent, small but growing by leaps and bounds because it’s a—it’s a(n) industrial chemical that’s used in air conditioning and all sorts of cooling. And so in the developing world it’s just going—skyrocketing. So that’s also going to be quite important.

So we have a lot going on.

MATHEWS: You don’t expect any moves politically in the U.S. around the U.S. signing and this. I notice that the official documents used the word “ratification,” which is usually a word we associate with treaties. And I know this has been done as a political agreement, but are you at all concerned—

STERN: Yeah, well, “ratification” in the international context doesn’t necessarily mean, you know, any particular process. That’s country by country. So there’s—I mean, our classic ratification process is advice and consent in the Senate for those agreements that are written and structured in such a way as to—as to need that. We don’t think that this is one of those. So—but there would still—even if it’s not a ratification process, there are instruments of accession that have to be deposited and prepared and things like that. So there’s—there are—there are formalities for everybody, and some countries will have—countries, again, have all different kinds of processes.

MATHEWS: But you don’t—since the document has been finished, you haven’t heard any worries that there’s anything in it that provides an opening for somebody who thinks it does require?

STERN: Oh, I don’t think there’s anything in it that suggests that the document is one that requires advice and consent by the Senate. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t hear and I won’t hear from friends on the Hill.

MATHEWS: I think it does.

STERN: Quite possible. But, you know, I’ve testified any number of times over the years, so we’ll just see what happens. We haven’t—we don’t—haven’t heard anything yet.

MATHEWS: So in our INDC there is a phrase—

STERN: I’m sorry, what did you—

MATHEWS: In our—in our INDC, the U.S. one, there is a phrase where it says we do not intend to use international market mechanisms.

STERN: Mmm hmm.

MATHEWS: Can you talk to us about why we said that, what it means? Does it mean price? And why it’s—why it’s there.

STERN: Yeah. So that reference is to the notion of buying credits from another—from other countries, right? And that wasn’t at all a statement that we are against that or that we wouldn’t ever do that, but the—part of the notion with respect to clarity and understanding of INDCs and transparency that we have advocated—and we wanted to, you know, put our money where our mouth is—is to—is to set forth key elements of our—of our kind of regulatory and policy structure that we intend to use, that our—that our target for 2025 is built on. So all we were saying there is our target for 2025, 26 to 28 percent reductions below 2005 levels, is not built on a bunch of assumptions about how we’re going to buy 4 percent of that using credits from other countries.

But, having said that, there was actually tremendous progress made, I think surprising progress made, with respect to the markets issue in the agreement. So the agreement now includes the—endorses the use—voluntary use by countries of market mechanisms, and calls for the setting up of a new thing, which I think—which I think most people would understand to be—to involve a system where you can—you can, in fact, buy offsets, by credits from other countries. There was such a thing under Kyoto. It’s called the Clean Development Mechanism. And I think at least many people see the notion of a new market mechanism as being the kind of son of this, of CDM.

So markets are very much in the agreement, are very much more in the agreement than I think most people thought was going to happen. And we were an active player in those negotiations and very supportive of them.

MATHEWS: Were we also part of the leadership in bringing up the 1.5-degree goal? Tell us about where we stand on—

STERN: I wouldn’t—yeah—well, so we supported the ultimate language that was—that was agreed to, which is essentially to pursue—it’s not—it’s not stated as a—as a goal. I’m forgetting the exact words now, but the goal is well below 2 degrees and then kind of making, in essence, best efforts to pursue the 1.5 (degree) notion.

That was—really, the drivers of the 1.5-degree goal were the island states, really, who—you know, they’re the ones who—they always punch way above their weight in these negotiations because not all of them, but, you know, any number of them are kind of on the front lines of risk, and that many of them felt that 2 degrees already isn’t good enough for them. So we had to—it wasn’t just us; I mean, I think that whether it was the U.S., the EU, the big developing countries or others, people did not want to actually turn the core goal into 1.5 (degrees), but on the other hand wanted to include 1.5 (degrees) as a—as a goal that we should be striving towards. But, yeah, so I wouldn’t—I would not say that we were—we weren’t the leader of that, but we were supportive of it.

MATHEWS: So who are the countries—which are the countries that most concern you looking forward, long term? I can remember arriving in Rio to see the Saudi text of the—with the entire text of the framework convention in brackets. And I know that there’s still a concern. Russia has been difficult to deal with on this issue for many years, but I don’t want to answer the question. What is the—where are the big challenges, do you think?

STERN: Yeah, so—well, I mean, there’s two different ways to look at that question. I mean, if you—if you mean in the context of the ongoing international negotiations, that’s kind of the—

MATHEWS: Well, I guess I mean both the negotiations and the real world on the ground, yeah.

STERN: The real world, right, OK.

So with respect to the negotiations, you know, the short answer is I don’t think we know yet. I think that there—going into these negotiations there were various groupings of countries who were, at least sort of from our point of view and from the point of view of any number of countries who were seeking a certain kind of agreement, were challenging. But we have an agreement that was met with a kind of extraordinarily broad acclaim. I mean, even in the hall you had any—most countries expressing a great deal of satisfaction with it. In the world outside the hall you had, I think, a quite remarkable sense that this was—this was a very strong outcome.

So, now, will some of the traditionally challenging countries go into the negotiations on guidelines and guidances and various things like that and be challenging? Undoubtedly. I mean, I would—I would expect that that would—that that would be true, and not because they’re doing anything wrong, but because they’re looking at their—at their own interest as they see it. But a lot—a lot, a lot, a lot—is now embedded in an—in an agreement that’s agreed to, so there’s only so far that a country can—you can’t really move off of the agreement in the context of a guideline-type discussions.

You know, with respect to the real world, you know, I think that the important thing is going to be for all—I mean, many countries in the world don’t contribute very much to the totals of greenhouse gas emissions yet. So for a great many countries, getting them generally, gradually on a path to lower-carbon forms of development is what you’re looking at. Obviously, there are—there are big, big players—China the biggest among them, and the most consequential. But, you know, India and Brazil and Indonesia and others are obviously big players, as—you know, as are we and other developed countries. So I think that there’s

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You know, as are we and other developed countries. So I think that there’s—you know, there is obviously a gulf between what you agree to and what you pledge to do in an agreement and executing it. So it’s going to be—and it’s going to be challenging. It’s going to be very challenging to do the things that we’re agreeing to. So I think it’s going to be hugely important that now at national levels, and even subnational—but the national level is still the most fundamental unit—that laws and regulations and policies get put in place that will produce the results that were agreed to, and not just hit the number for 2025 or 2030, but get the entire economy of whichever country we’re talking about on a path that is going to allow for steeper and steeper reductions over time. So I think that’s going to be—you know, that’s going to be the name of the game.

MATHEWS: So let’s talk about the name of the game here. Are we going to be able to do this without putting a price on carbon?

STERN: Is the “this” the 2025 target, or—

MATHEWS: No, it’s more as you defined it, which is a longer term—

STERN: Longer term. Well, I think—so, the short answer for 2025 is I think the answer is yes. And again, there’s all kinds of regulations that in effect put implicit prices on carbon. But in a longer-term way, I think that that’s a really important step. The president tried to go there back in 2009 and ’10 with the cap-and-trade legislation, and got halfway there but not all the way. You know, there are—there are large numbers of people in the kind of think tank and academic communities on both sides of the aisle who look at this issue and—I mean, it’s kind of a no-brainer that we ought to be going in that direction. And so I think longer range, yeah, I would think that we would have to go in that direction.

MATHEWS: Yeah, I was—I was stunned to read the other day that of this—in this record-breaking year for automobile sales, or for vehicle sales last year, 70 percent were trucks and SUVs in the United States, and only 30 percent were actually cars.

STERN: Yeah.

MATHEWS: And so it seems as though we are condemned to a cyclical process that—and those cars will stay on the road for 12 to 15 years.

STERN: Yeah. I mean, it is also true that there’s—you know, that there are standards that we have put in place both for heavy duty and light duty vehicles. And the light duty standards take us from—will take us from 27 to 54 between, I think, 2012 and 2023, or something like that. And the next round of heavy duty are coming up. And those will drive—you know, will drive change as well.

MATHEWS: Yeah. I have a long list of questions, but we should now turn to the members. And let me ask—let me remind everybody, we’re on the record. Please give your name and your affiliation. And please stick to one question. And please wait for the microphone. Go ahead.

Q: Thank you. Adam Taylor with the World Bank.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve had these kind of two parallel tracks, with negotiations around the 2030 agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Climate Change Agreement of Paris. And at times, it’s felt like those two tracks were competing with each other. Other times they were very much complementing each other. And at least from where I sit, or my perspective, is that the climate agreement actually got a lot more awareness and kind of fanfare than the SDG agreement did, even though these are very much overlapping agendas. So my question is, what do you see as the optimal relationship between them so that we can learn lessons from each, and then we can use both to increase political will to support kind of the broader agenda around sustainable development?

STERN: May I take that, or?

MATHEWS: Yeah, please.

STERN: So they’re obviously mutually reinforcing. They’re different—those two exercises are quite different in their nature. I think maybe most importantly because in the climate world when you’re talking about countries making specific pledges to do specific things, generally backed up by—either by existing or by, you know, soon-to-be national regulations and legislation and so forth. Whereas, in the SDG world, they’re kind of broader-brush goals, nobody’s individually promising to do anything, which doesn’t mean they’re not important, because I think the original Millennium Development Goals have been very important and a mover of action in a variety of ways. So I think they’re important, but quite different in that respect.

I think that action on the climate front will certainly be relevant to the SDG world. There are some in—there’s not a big climate goal per se, but climate is built into a number of the Sustainable Development Goals. So I think that action—as we drive down emissions, that’s going to help realize some of what is called for in the SDG world. And interesting question whether it will react back the other way. I’m not sure.

MATHEWS: The gentleman right in front of—yeah, go ahead. And then I’ll come forward.

Q: Thank you. Will Davis with GW’s Elliott School.

Jessica touched on the domestic political situation here in the U.S. And because this is not a treaty that you’re submitting to the Senate for ratification, do you have any small smidgeon of concern that a successive administration perhaps less committed to climate action as the Obama administration could walk back from some of our agreements? Or have we crossed threshold politically, if not legally, where this is going to be a U.S. bipartisan approach to climate change going forward? Thank you.

STERN: Well, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know that we have. I would like it to be the case that we are in the land of climate being a post-partisan issue in the United States. I think that would be a little bit aggressive as an estimation of what’s going on here. It is, by the way, actually that way in Europe. I mean, if you watch the swing back and forth between, you know, labor and conservatives, or social democrats and conservatives, they don’t change the climate policy very much. So it pretty much is a post-partisan issue there.

Here, it obviously isn’t, if you look at the Hill. I think that—you know, my own view is that there is an inexorable process that is going on right now in the public. And if you look—if you track public opinion, it is trending more and more toward belief in the reality of climate change, belief that we should be acting to contain it. And I think—and my own sense, I actually think it’s backed up by numbers, is that this is also—these are also numbers that are generationally relevant in influence. So that as with each passing year those numbers are going to increase because—you know, for generational reasons.

In terms of whether I have concern, look, I think that it would be—it would surprise me a lot to see any new president actually try to walk all the way back out of what we’ve agreed to. You should know that whether an agreement is—has been—you know, gone through advice and consent, whether it’s entirely legally binding or partly legally binding, as this one is, countries can still pull out. I mean, that’s always the right of a country. I just think that this is a problem that is upon us.

It is not just not going away, but it’s getting worse, that stepping outside of the land of political rhetoric when people have to get down to the business of governing that it’s not—I don’t see a new president from whichever party having that inclination. And I think it would be an unbelievably consequential, in the downside—in the downward sense—thing for any president to do vis-à-vis global opinion and U.S. foreign policy interests. I mean, I think this is—it would be a hugely disruptive thing to do with respect to U.S. standing in terms of broader foreign policy. So I really don’t think that’s going to happen. And, you know, I hear all the rhetoric. I don’t think that’s going to happen.

MATHEWS: There’s—in the blue shirt, right there.

Q: Hi. My name is Talia Schmidt. I’m a student at William and Mary.

And I was hoping that you could clarify one point for me, but I also have a question. So the clarification was: You said the point that in the first year we need to have 55 countries join on. And I was wondering if you could specify what you meant by that, since the INDCs are specific for each country and it doesn’t seem to me like there’s any—or, like, what is that common ground that all the countries need to do, because it seems like each country kind of has their own pathway that they’re following and there’s no specific thing that every single country has to do.

And then the second, my actual question, is the ratcheting up every five years that we have to do, other than the carbon markets, what other kind of things do you have in mind that we can do, since it seems like we’ve put what we have on the table for this to meet our 2025 goals.

STERN: OK, so let me just clarify a couple of things. Those are good questions, but I didn’t say that we have to have 55 countries join in the first year. I said that the thresholds for the agreement to enter into force—that’s the legal term for the agreement to become—you know, to be in effect—is that 55 countries need to join, comprising 55 percent or more of global emissions, whether that’s in 2016, ’17, ’18, whenever it might be. None of that is in any way inconsistent with the notion that each country decides on its own what it’s going to do.

It’s just that—so joining the agreement means you’re going to be part of this overall agreement. Part of this agreement includes you putting in your nationally determined contribution and saying: This is what we’re going to do. You decide that. But are you part of the—of the new conference of parties to this new agreement, or are you not? So that’s what joining is about. Are you going to be part of making the rules? Are you going to be part of being in this system or not? And so joining is what countries need to do. They don’t need to do in the first year, but I would expect to a see pretty forward-leaning posture from the U.S. in that regard.

With respect to the ratcheting up, so, again, let me just—so I’m not misunderstood at all—there are five-year cycles built into this agreement. There are some countries, at this point not that many, the United States is one, Brazil also, I think the Marshall Islands, there’s a handful who decided on doing a five-year target, in other words 2025, on the premise that the agreement starts—at least this was the premise—that the agreement would start in 2020. U.S. elected 2025 targets and then we would have a target for 2030 and then we would have one for 2035 and so forth.

Many countries took targets to 2030, so a 10-year period from 2020 to 2030. After that, I think many of those countries actually will start doing them each five years, but we’ll see. There is a five-year cycle though which will say countries need to each five years either put in a new target because, you know, you’re target period has run out and you need to do a new one, or even if you’re not at that point where your target has run out because you’ve got a longer—you’ve got a 10-year target, you need to revisit your target, take another look at it, look in terms of—in the context of ongoing science and technology developments, and decide whether you’re going to ratchet that up even in the middle, or you’re going to reconfirm that you’re going to stay where you are.

So that was all agreed to in terms of what are we actually going to do after 2025 to produce further reductions. You know, I don’t really have any comment about that yet, there’s all sorts of things we want to improve.

MATHEWS: Can I ask you, Todd? There is some concern that the official inventories may understate the problem, especially in terms of oil. If it turns out that that’s the case, and more needs to be cut in order to get to 2 degrees, for example, what would be the process within the structure of the agreement to do that? What would be the intersection of IPCC science and the Paris agreement?

STERN: Well, so I think that the intersection is going to come most directly in this process that I’ve referred to as the global stock take. So the global stock take, the first official—well, official, non-official—the first sort of proto-stock take in 2018, where the assumption of everybody in this negotiation was that the new agreement would start in 2020. The way it was actually written, it’s possible it will start a little bit before that. But let’s just for simplicity assume it’s starting in 2020. There’s an initial 2018 stock take which is—again, would be before the agreement started—and then 2023 and every five years after that.

That is meant to take into account the latest science from the IPCC and, you know, all sorts of other factors, and then to give the world—give all the countries in the agreement a sense of where the trajectories really need to go. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re going to get there right away. We didn’t get there this time right away, although we made progress. But that’s basically the answer to your question.

MATHEWS: OK, there’s two right here at the table, and then I will go to the back.

Q: Thank you. Paula Stern.

STERN: Hi. Paula.

Q: Hi, Todd. Congratulations.

STERN: Thanks.

Q: My question goes to China. Played, as you said, a very important role diplomatically. And China’s, in my words, schizophrenia between market forces and state-run orders and power, they’re making the shift in response to the climate change challenges. But how does the United States—this is U.S. interest and U.S. market-based firms in which we develop innovation towards remediation and other alternatives, renewables—how do they get an adequate voice in the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and China when it comes to China’s adoption of new technologies? We’ve got an asymmetry between the state-owned enterprises and the lack of a full market forces in China. And yet, we have in the United States our innovators, our entrepreneurs, who tend to be smaller. How do they get up? How does the U.S. government make up for that asymmetry when it comes to the market?

MATHEWS: Todd, let me take one more and—

STERN: Yeah, yeah.

MATHEWS: You had a question as well, right? OK.

Q: Hi, Todd. Lisa Friedman from ClimateWire.

STERN: Hi, Lisa.

Q: I’d love if you could reflect a little bit about how you think this is going to play in the elections. We saw a flurry of responses to Paris after the—after it was announced. But, you know, were you surprised to not hear it come up at all in the Republican debates last night? You know, how big an issue do you think this is going to be in the campaign? Also, if I could clarify, is the United States going to be signing this in New York on the 22nd, or is the U.S. planning something different or earlier?

STERN: So to Paula’s question, the first question, I don’t have any particular learning to provide with respect to how U.S. innovators are going to—I don’t know that they’re going to have a voice—I don’t think that they will have a voice in terms of Chinese policy. There’s obviously—I mean, China’s a big, big market. And the ways that countries—that companies get into that market and the challenges they have, probably a better question to direct to Mike Froman than to me. (Laughter.) But you know, I think that—I don’t think I can offer a lot there, other than that it’s a huge big market and they are going to—I think China really has the bit between their teeth now, and I think not just because of climate change but because of air pollution.

And air pollution is not just a broad, deeply serious threat of the kind we should all be worried about, but it is a—it’s a potential threat to stability. And they take that very seriously. And you can deal with air pollution in a way that ignores climate change, but I don’t think they intend to do that because it would be foolish to do, it would be much more expensive. And they realize also that they—that they’ve got this huge climate challenge. And they are getting bigger and bigger. So they’re already almost twice the size of the United States in emissions, which is a remarkable level of growth.

Lisa, look, I can’t speculate whether this is going to—whether this is going to—whether climate change is going to jump up into the Republican primary. And since I am at the State Department now and not in my old political hat, and since we’re on the record and in public, I will—(laughter)—I am not going to say anything more about the election. But we can have coffee. (Laughs.)

MATHEWS: OK. There were a bunch of questions in the back. Let’s start over in this corner.

Q: Hi. I’m Penny Starr with CNS News.

In March of 2015, Gallup took a poll. And 55 percent of Americans that responded were concerned about climate change. And also, they asked a specific question. On the survey it says: Do you think that global warming will pose a serious threat to you or your way of life in your lifetime? And in 2015, 62 percent of Americans said no. So I wondered how those numbers jive with what you’re saying about increasing numbers of people believing in climate change and its effects. Thank you.

STERN: Well, so, I don’t—I’m not armed with poll numbers that I’ve looked at recently, but, look, I think that a lot of—here and everywhere else, questions like this depend enormously on what the nature of the question is and how it’s—how it’s phrased. And for people to say they don’t think it’s a serious threat within their lifetime is completely understandable given what—the way the issue is commonly talked about and understood in the press. So I think if—I think if we were—if you’re an election buff, actually, and you look at RealClearPolitics every day like I do—(laughs)—you’ll see that they—that there’s a whole bunch of polls in New Hampshire, Iowa, this place that place. And the line that’s at the top of RealClear is an average of a bunch of polls. So I think if you saw—if we did a sampling of good polling and a range of the way the question is asked, you would see that there is in fact a real movement up in the level of U.S. public concern.

MATHEWS: Gentleman right—

Q: Hi. John Negroponte.

STERN: Hi.

Q: I add my congratulations to the president, and the secretary, and you, and others who were involved. Paula asked a question about China. My only elaboration that I’d like to hear from you is have they become partners—real negotiating partners in this? It used to be a somewhat adversarial relationship and it’s evolved over time. And are you optimistic about that going forward. And my second question is to do with the levels of assistance that have been promised, the $100 billion fund, and whether you care to comment on the prospects for achieving that in our respective legislatures in the countries that have promised these kinds of funds.

STERN: Thanks very much. So on the first question, I think China has become a—it is an evolving relationship and they have become much, much more of a negotiating partner, which doesn’t mean that we walk into these negotiations hand-in-hand and are on the same side of everything, because that’s not true. You know, the hugely consequential joint announcement in November of 2014 between the president—our president and President Xi in Beijing of our respective targets was a—I think a kind of seminal event.

It had been building up over the course of years because, you know, we were really adversarial in 2009 in Copenhagen. And coming out of that experience, I think—my own read is that the Chinese wanted very much to not be in as adversarial a posture going forward. And, you know, I had dozens and dozens of meetings with my counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, over the years, and have a very close relationship with him. I thought that coming out of the joint announcement we would go into the conference in Lima, and China would not be at the outset any easier with us than they had been before because, you know, they also have a lot of relationships on the developing country side, groupings that they’re part of, that they try to maintain. And that’s completely understandable.

When things got rough and things got stalled in Lima, you know, my Chinese colleague, you know, came into see me and said, why don’t we try to do X, Y, and Z, using actually literally, you know, verbatim some of the language that we had agreed to on our joint bilateral statement. And that was—we did that in Lima. It broke the deadlock, and we went forward. It didn’t happen exactly like that in Paris, but there were elements of that. So I think that it’s not like they come in holding hands with us, you know, as if they were the EU or somebody on the sort of the traditional allies side, but we’re talking all the time, I think sizing up where things are and where they need to go.

And then, you know, there is—I think there was with China—and in some sense it was, to me, a big driver in trying to do the joint announcement that we succeeded in doing in 2014, China became invested in the success of this negotiation at the point where they have that joint presidential announcement. They were not prepared to have it fail in a way that they would be blameless for. They wanted it to succeed. And so in that sense, they’ve become a very different kind of negotiating partner. But it’s not the same—you know, they’re not like the EU. It’s different.

With respect to levels of assistance, just for clarity—you know, to be clear, the hundred billion dollars is an aggregate, it’s a joint collective commitment by developed countries. So it’s not just us. And it is based on funding from all sources, public, private, you know, the multilateral development banks and so forth. But the OECD did a report that they released in October of this year showing that through 2014 we were at about somewhere between $62 ½ billion per year being provided north-south of climate financing.

There were then—in the immediate aftermath of that announcement—all of this was at the bank fund meetings in Lima—there were a number of additional pledges that were made by—both by individual countries—France, Germany, U.K. and others—and by some of the NDBs—so the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, et cetera. And adding all of those up would probably over the course of a few years get us into the high 80s if not more. So will we make 100 by 2020? I think we will. You know, I think we are going to hit that number. That’s certainly the commitment that we’ve made. And, you know, I think that’ll happen.

MATHEWS: We have time for one more. And I was working in the back, but we’ll go in the middle. Judith.

Q: Thank you. Judith Kipper.

This is obviously long overdue, the world’s most important problem, very complicated. Is there anything built into the agreement by the U.N., by the U.S., by anybody to have a public policy, public awareness, global campaign? Because if citizens are well-aware of the consequences of global warming, then they’ll keep their governments accountable. And there are a lot—there’s a lot of things that individual citizens could do to help the problem, to resolve the problem. Certainly in the U.S., we’re not doing it.

MATHEWS: Let me add one question, slightly different but also a broader sort of wrap-up question. Having done this enormously consequential thing of breaking through the Kyoto developed country-everybody else firewall, do you see any likely tails—carryover from that to other multilateral, other economic or non, negotiations that are underway?

STERN: Yeah. So to take Judith’s question first, you know, there has been some talk, and I think that we don’t know yet. I think that it would be a very good idea to try to carry forward this pillar that, as the French call it, of what they did in Paris. So again, think some national units, private sector, civil society. I think it would be a good thing to institutionalize that as part of the yearly meetings, and to have the capacity to try to drive the sort of thing that you’re talking about more into the global framework.

I would a little bit disagree, at least partially disagree, with what you said with respect to the United States. I think that if you—if you look at what the Obama administration has done, the president has done really since particularly—I mean, there was a bunch of action that was taken in the first term, things like the landmark standards on vehicles and so forth that were quite important. But as a matter of public communications, it wasn’t—it wasn’t nearly as big a deal as it became in 2013.

2013, he comes right out of the box and talks about climate change, I think the only issue he talked—in terms of a policy issue he talked about—in the inaugural. I mean, he clearly, I think, had in mind that this was a piece of business that—where progress had been made, but that was still very much unfinished. He followed that up with the big speech at Georgetown announcing the Climate Action Plan. Then he announced that plan, and he didn’t just announce it, but very aggressively from the point of view of both policy and public communication implemented it. Hugely beneficial and productive one-year spent at the White House by John Podesta, who took the lead in really driving that.

And I don’t—I think all of that—first of all, this is actually something I should have said earlier, that domestic action was tremendously important internationally. I mean, if you want to look at what’s happened internationally, like, how did we get where we got, the fact that the U.S. had that kind of credibility and that kind of leverage, because of what we were doing at home, really changed the equation for us.

But I also think if you look at—and again, I have not looked at these kinds of statistics—but sort of the number of articles mentioning this discussion of climate change over the course of the period from the time of the president’s Climate Action Plan, I would guess—I would guess it was, like, way higher than it had been before that. But the most important point is I completely agree with you on the centrality of driving that kind of discussion and communication effort.

Jessica, on your question, I don’t really have a—I don’t have an educated—I’ve asked myself the same question, whether—I mean, the question’s fundamentally whether this success in multilateralism can be—can have an impact on other multilateral exercises with respect to other issues. I don’t know. I mean, this has certainly been one of the most difficult nuts to crack, one of the most historically charged, acrimonious, nasty negotiations that—you know, anywhere on any issue. And not shockingly, by the way, because to deal with climate change you’re affecting your entire economy. So it’s not like you’ve got one, you know, particular isolated problem that you can deal with. It goes to—it goes to the economic fate of countries.

Whether it’ll have—I mean, people like you and John Negroponte and others here probably have a better sense than I do. But I think it’s a very interesting question. It would be great. I do think if it had failed, the kind of ambition of multilateralism would have been dealt a blow. The fact that it has succeeded, maybe we can turn it around and say well certainly there’s some forward impetus. But I’m not sure.

MATHEWS: Well, we have to follow the Council’s rules and stop. Please join me in thanking Todd for this. (Applause.)

(END)

This is an uncorrected transcript.

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