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Diplomacy in Action

Remarks at Secretary Clinton's Foreign Affairs Policy Board Meeting

Todd Stern
Special Envoy for Climate Change 
Washington, DC
January 3, 2013


As Prepared

I’m pleased to have the opportunity to address this group. I happen to think the engagement of the national security community on climate change is enormously important. We need a broad, national conversation about climate change so that we can start thinking rationally about policy, rather than just losing the issue to hot-button politics. So I appreciate the invitation to spend some time with you.

I’m going to talk today about where we stand on climate diplomacy and what I see as the road ahead. In doing this, I’ll talk about the multilateral, UN negotiations; initiatives we’re promoting outside the multilateral framework; and some thoughts about the domestic climate change picture, which is inextricably linked to what we do internationally.

Let me step back for a minute or two at the outset to make a few overarching points.

First, let’s stipulate that climate change is a real and growing problem that has the potential to do serious harm to the well-being of people around the world and to our national security. In this regard, I would commend to your attention the World Bank’s new report, “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided.”

Second, since greenhouse gases are produced most fundamentally by burning fossil fuels, reducing them implicates all aspects of an economy, and that makes the problem extraordinarily difficult to tackle. All countries, but especially developing and emerging ones, worry that limiting climate change means limiting their growth and development. And developing countries resent mature economies telling them to take action that we didn’t have to take when we were developing. Their perspective has been that industrial countries created the problem, should fix it, and should not make demands on developing countries.

This perspective prevailed in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, where developing countries were exempted from any real obligations – a move that ended up dooming U.S. participation.

As President Obama took office in 2009, with the next phase of negotiations slated to conclude at the year-end climate conference in Copenhagen, the prevailing paradigm of climate negotiations was still that all real obligations to address climate change belonged to developed countries, a paradigm we saw as unworkable because you can’t solve the problem unless at least the important developing countries are part of the equation. Developing countries account for some 55% of global emissions now and that’s projected to rise to around 65% by 2030; and they account for nearly all growth in emissions.

Our real focus, starting in 2009, has been to reorient the negotiations away from that unworkable paradigm so that something real could be achieved and so that an agreement wouldn’t be dead on arrival in the United States. We insisted in the months leading up to Copenhagen that any outcome, whether legally binding or “politically binding,” needed to demand action by all major players, developed and developing, and that everyone’s action needed to be subject to genuine transparency.

Looked at through this lens, we accomplished quite a bit in 2009, 2010 and 2011. The Copenhagen Accord included, for the first time, agreement by all major countries – developed and developing – to implement a set of listed targets or actions through 2020 and to do so with international transparency. Although the full Conference of the Parties refused to formally adopt the Copenhagen Accord, the next year’s meeting in Cancun did adopt a fleshed out, 30-page version of the two-page Accord.

In 2011, in Durban, we took steps to make the Cancun agreements operational for the period up to 2020, writing guidelines for the new transparency regime, outlining the structure and functions of a new Green Climate Fund, and taking steps to set up a new Technology Center and Network, among other things.

In addition, we agreed in the so-called “Durban Platform,” to negotiate an agreement with “legal force” by 2015, taking effect after 2020. And crucially, this new agreement is to be “applicable to all Parties” – in effect, the opposite of the Kyoto Protocol, whose real obligations were applicable only to developed countries. So this was real progress, but the struggle to get this right continues, as there are already signs that many countries are trying to backtrack from Durban.

In light of the Durban Platform, the 2015 Conference of the Parties, probably to be held in Paris, is likely to be quite consequential. If we get this right, there is potential to take a next step that could be meaningful not just for climate negotiations but for making real progress in the effort to contain climate change.

To do that, we will need to create a flexible structure (1) that is conducive to broad participation; (2) that prompts significant action by the major players; and (3) that articulates means of differentiating among countries in a pragmatic rather than ideological manner. What we can’t accept is an ideological differentiation in which, for example, China is on the same side of the line as Chad because they were both classified as “developing” in the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This issue of differentiation is liable to be the most difficult in the negotiation because it is freighted with all the North/South baggage of the past 20 years – and indeed well beyond that, since climate change has in some ways become a surrogate for resentments and disappointments in other areas. Still, we have made progress, and, by rights, ought to be able to continue.

The real focus for all of us in negotiating the new agreement should be on what is known as “ambition” – doing enough to make a significant difference in solving the problem.

It is easy to propose ambition on paper, but a lot harder to make it work in an agreement that everyone can actually accept.

Anyone can say we’re going to demand strict legally binding commitments to slash our emissions and to have those commitments subject to a rigorous compliance regime with tough penalties for non-compliance, and by doing this fix the climate problem once and for all. The trouble is that this kind of approach won’t work because too many countries would see it as threatening to their core interests in growth and development. This is paper ambition, but we need real ambition. The circle we need to square is to press for maximum action in a way that nations see as consistent with their need to grow and develop.

We have ideas about how to do this; they are by no means perfect; but nothing in this arena is.

The legal nature of a new agreement will also be a challenge. The ultimate formulation agreed to in the Durban Platform calls for a new “Protocol, other legal instrument, or agreed outcome with legal force.” What this might translate into, especially that last phrase, isn’t clear yet. India’s former Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh (now Minister of Rural Development), used to argue that we should consider different ways of interpreting the words “legally binding,” even including some elements that are binding at a domestic level. These are still very much open issues, and will be an important part of the discussion over the next three years.

Finally, the issue of financial assistance to developing countries will loom large. In particular, there will be enormous pressure on donor countries to show that they are taking their 2009 pledge to a goal of mobilizing $100B/year by 2020 seriously. The key here will be to combine limited public funds with smart policies and instruments to leverage significant private sector investment in clean energy and infrastructure in developing countries.

Much work is going on around the world, in countries, think tanks and financial institutions regarding options to do this. We are now pushing for more coordination among donors and are planning to host a meeting of senior climate and finance officials in Washington in the first quarter of this year.

Such coordination can serve two purposes – to flesh out useful ideas and to develop a narrative of how we intend to go about meeting this pledge.

The premise of outside initiatives is that, given the slow pace and fraught nature of the UN negotiations, it is important to drive real action among willing partners that doesn’t depend on treaties, negotiations, etc. This makes sense substantively and can also send a positive signal that concrete international action in the immediate term is possible and can deliver results.

CCAC. Last February, Secretary Clinton announced a new effort, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, committed to reducing non-CO2 pollutants such as methane, black carbon and HFCs. Together, these agents account for over 30% of current global warming, millions of premature deaths, and extensive crop losses. Because these pollutants are short-lived in the atmosphere, meaningful reductions could have a real impact on the level of temperature increase in the near term.

We started with six countries and are now at 26 plus nearly 20 non-state partners, including UNEP (our Secretariat) and the World Bank. We have over $20 million in committed funds and are working on a series of initiatives to attack large sources of emissions, such as methane from landfills and from oil and gas production; black carbon from heavy-duty diesel engines; and HFCs used in refrigeration and air conditioners. The first year has been very successful in getting the Coalition off the ground. The key now will be to build the initiatives and make them effective.

MEF. I started this job with a conviction that there needed to be a small forum of major developed and developing countries that could meet at a high-level and in a more candid and intimate way than is possible in the 190-nation setting of the UN. Indeed, I wrote an article on this subject a few years before the Obama Administration started. We decided to use the group of 17 countries that the Bush Administration had put together in 2007 in the “Major Economies Meeting,” rebranded it as the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (the “MEF”), and infused it with a the mission to (1) facilitate progress in the UN negotiation and (2) focus on what this group of countries, responsible for some 80% of global emissions, could do together.

Regarding that first mission, the MEF has become exactly the sort of forum we envisioned, and has allowed us and others to test-drive new ideas that have ended up playing an important part in the negotiations. Regarding its second mission, the MEF did technology roadmap work in 2009 that led, with a push from the MEF leaders, to the creation of the so-called Clean Energy Ministerial, a successful forum run by the MEF country energy ministers.

This year, we are re-focusing the attention of MEF ministers on this second mission and working to establish a MEF Action Agenda under which the MEF countries would embrace major actions similar in scope to the G20’s commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.

What we do domestically is enormously important. It influences our leverage and credibility in multilateral talks and also our capacity to get significant things done in outside initiatives.

The President accomplished a great deal through executive action in his first term, but there is much more to do. His comments since the election, including on election night, have been a helpful start. To reiterate what I said at start today, direct, open engagement on climate change – not just clean energy – is critical. In talking about guns the other day, the President said that you can’t get much done without public opinion on your side, but there’s not much you can’t accomplish if the public is with you. That is true for climate change as well. So we need an open, adult conversation about this issue – building public support and engagement and taking advantage of credible messengers who are not the usual suspects – messengers like Mayor Bloomberg, Governors Christie and Cuomo, CEOs, the national security community, insurance executives, etc.

We have to remember that while there are many benefits in developing clean energy – enhancing energy security, reducing conventional pollution, building new industries – the thing that turns the pursuit of clean energy into a war of necessity, so to speak, rather than a war of choice is climate change.

I think there is real potential now to make headway with the public. The Superstorm Sandy together with the record drought this past year have started to open the door to a more pragmatic public engagement because people who lived through these events, directly or vicariously, care a lot more about being protected than they do about ideological jousting.

In my view, we should press forward with a strong substantive focus both on building resilience and on accelerating the transformation to clean energy through a variety of policy levers. And we should make that adult conversation happen.

Thanks very much. I’d be happy to take questions.

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