Stung into action by a student protester, Todd Stern has forged climate consensus with China with a hostile Congress at his back
By Ed King
“I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait.”
It is December 2011 and in the sultry heat of Durban, South Africa, tensions over a lack of progress at the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN climate convention are boiling over.
As lead US negotiator Todd Stern prepares to make remarks to fellow delegates, he is interrupted by a 21-year old from Middlebury College in Vermont.
Abigail Borah only has time for a few words before she is escorted out by an unusually efficient UN security guard, but her words are greeted with applause – and leave Stern visibly stunned.
The vastly experienced bureaucrat later tells a colleague in an EU delegation he was shaken by the intervention. The anger from someone so young was not something he could forget.
Later that day, as the New York Times reports, US climate policy shifts.
Instead of delaying any UN deal till 2020, Stern indicates an EU proposal for 2015 as the agreement year for a global climate deal could be workable.
The long walk to Paris has started.
Todd Stern is special envoy for climate change at the US State Department, one of a handful of positions to report directly to John Kerry.
He’s a “nice person, a genuine and committed climate progressive” says a veteran climate diplomat who worked with Stern closely over the years.
Yet to many – particularly journalists – his surname seems appropriate. Smiles are rare, and he’s often seen with a phone glued to his ear, deep in conversation.
Stern has held the role since early 2009, appointed by President Barack Obama at the bidding of Hillary Clinton, who he knew when White House staff secretary to Bill Clinton from 1995-1998.
It’s a “gruelling” and “near impossible” job trying to convince the world to take action and keep the US Congress onside, says Nigel Purvis, deputy chief US climate negotiator from 2001-2002.
“That requires not only a clear-eyed understanding of domestic and international political realities but also enormous patience and dedication to securing climate progress.”
Obama and Kerry will take the credit if a global climate pact is signed off in Paris (and it won’t get signed off without approval from DC) but it is Stern who will give them the green light.
The thin, grey-haired 64-year-old with frameless round glasses and ever-present tie has been at the heart of every UN climate summit since Copenhagen.
Arguably he’s now more relevant than ever before.
As it happened: China and US strike climate agreement in Beijing
Roll back a year to 12 November 2014. Obama joins China president Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. They are about to make an historic announcement.
The leaders are a full four flags apart, but after years of bickering at UN climate negotiations, they announce they have reached common ground.
Both commit to long term greenhouse gas cuts, the US 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2025, China an emissions peak by 2030.
For the UN climate talks, this is a seismic event, a top emerging economy agreeing for the first time to take radical steps to tackle climate change.
In one swoop it changed the landscape of talks, former India environment minister Jairam Ramesh told Climate Home.
Interview: “I’m pretty optimistic” – lead US climate lawyer on Paris talks
For Stern and his long-term colleague in and out of government, John Podesta, this was the payoff of secret talks with China that started in February 2013.
One telephone call with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua got the ball rolling.
“I made the case that if the deal were done well, and it had enough ambition, it could help to build momentum for Paris next year,” Stern told Rolling Stone magazine.
China wobbled in 2014, suggesting a deal before Paris would be too soon. It wasn’t a position the American duo bought. “Todd and I both thought there was potential to do something earlier,” said Podesta.
That persistence may have made a deal in Paris this December more likely, giving confidence to other governments thinking of making similar pledges.
“Todd Stern has been near the centre of these efforts and deserves enormous credit for his understanding of how to navigate the political landscape as well as his patience and persistence,” says Purvis.
The new US-China relationship paid dividends in the closing hours of the Lima climate summit last December.
A late row threatened to blow the meeting out of the water, with the G77 bloc of 134 countries classed as ‘developing’ said it wanted those labelled ‘developed’ in 1992 to adopt carbon cutting commitments first.
As Stern recounted to reporters at a 3am press conference after the meeting’s close, “Mr Xie and I were able to offer that language up in effect, and it found its way into the text as a way of getting through that difficulty, so that was quite useful.”
The 2015 deal, the pair agreed, would reflect the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, so important to poorer nations.
But instead of relying on the 1992 list of countries classed as rich, contributions would be “in light of different national circumstances,” a line straight out of the US-China climate pact.
“I think the way we were able to deal with that issue in the US-China joint announcement a few weeks ago actually ended up becoming quite significant here,” he added.
The pair – who are “good friends” according to Stern – will have a central role in Paris. Every meeting since Copenhagen has relied on one or the other to give his assent to the deal on the table.
Both, according to a former senior EU negotiator, are “correct and respectful… they have clearly invested a lot in that relationship.”
Yet if Xie and Stern count themselves close, relations with other nations and groupings are frequently strained.
One criticism former and current negotiators Climate Home spoke to about the US envoy was the lack of empathy he can show to other countries in the heat of global negotiations.
US dealings with small island states at the 2012 UN climate summit in Doha left many of the island’s network of envoys and advisors in tears, such was the hardball strategy employed by Stern.
Pacific leaders were pushing for a new mechanism to help them deal with irreversible impacts of climate change, known as loss and damage.
The US feared huge compensation claims and blackballed the proposals, with Stern overheard saying: “I will block this. I will shut this down.”
Alden Meyer from the US Union of Concerned Scientists recalls the intense pressure place on Stern by civil society and other nations to back down.
A day later – in hallmark Stern style – the US agreed an outcome that did not surrender its position on compensation, but allowed talks to inch ahead.
“We don’t like this text, but we can live with it,” he told countries at the closing plenary session, 11 words that sum up the US approach to the wider UN climate process.
That stance riled many, including Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum, who asked president Obama in 2013 to replace Stern with Michael Bloomberg, businessman, former New York mayor and high profile climate activist.
Report: Countries edge towards loss and damage deal at climate talks
Yet the portrayal of Stern as a man who is solely focused on marginal gains and not about the fate of Pacific islanders at threat from rising sea levels isn’t accurate, says Pete Ogden.
“He does care, for sure” argues the former White House aide who was Stern’s chief of staff in the lead up to the Copenhagen climate talks.
What he doesn’t do is burst into tears, quote Shakespeare, threaten to cut his hand or give long-winded speeches as more popular negotiators have done in recent years.
Ogden recalls the warm reaction to Stern’s first speech at a UN climate event in March 2009. The team could not believe the response of delegates.
For the first time in almost a decade the US was applauded, Stern pledging to “make up for lost time” after eight years of Bush-era inertia.
“Hi guys from Germany. HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] might be interested in press clips below, especially the AP story. Good day today,” he wrote to State colleagues in DC.
As proof of his commitment to global solutions, Ogden also cites the intense diplomacy Stern has led with China and India, as well as in forums like the Montreal Protocol where moves to slash potent HFC greenhouse gases are edging forwards.
These, he argues, is evidence of a man utterly determined to seek solutions to global warming.
And so to Paris and 2015, and the prospect of a global climate deal.
For the first four years of his tenure Stern had little foundation to base his claims for US climate ambition on.
Now he has a White House quarterback in Obama calling the moves, and an aggressive linebacker in Kerry mopping up the opposition at home and abroad.
The US Clean Power Plan, bilateral climate deals with China and India together with (an as-yet unpaid) $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund offer Stern breathing space.
Against that, the lead US envoy knows he cannot agree to anything that looks or smells like a new treaty for fear of enraging already hostile Senate Republicans.
Given the ball by Obama, he now has a clear but narrow pathway to the end zone, a run that will undoubtedly be the defining moment of a high-flying career.
Would the world be contemplating a 2015 agreement had the US not changed tack in 2011?
That’s impossible to answer. But asked about Abigail Borah’s comments, Stern surprised an interviewer last year by saying he agreed with most of what she said.
“A lot of people feel it’s not happening fast enough. I sympathise with that. It’s true it’s not happening fast enough,” he said.
“It’s not easy to move the system… but let me say, the most important thing that can be done with respect to climate change needs to happen at national level.
“The international agreement is important, but real action gets driven at national level, and an international agreement stitches that together.”