Meet Jonathan Pershing, the new US climate envoy

Veteran diplomat and energy analyst steps back into the heart of UN climate talks tasked with implementing 2015 Paris agreement

By Ed King

Negotiating with Jonathan Pershing is akin to being at the wrong end of a Formula 1 wind tunnel.

In an attempt to secure an interview in late 2014, I tried to convince the then ex-US deputy climate envoy to speak on the record about the climate talks.

For 15 minutes Pershing was charming but blunt. There was no room for negotiation. It was a chat on background or the call was dead. He won. He usually does.

“If we can’t take it home and sell it at home, in whatever political economy we are living in, we won’t do it,” he told Indian NGOs at the 2012 UN talks in Doha, an exchange subsequently leaked to the media.

With Todd Stern to step down as top US climate envoy on 1 April, Pershing returns to a beat he knows well, as secretary of state John Kerry alluded to on Monday.

“Jonathan’s new role is a homecoming of sorts for him,” he said in a statement. Pershing is the “perfect person to pick up the baton” added Kerry.

UN documents reveal Pershing was present as a humble science officer at the first round of UN climate talks in 1991, when the extent of problems were just starting to emerge.

During the Bill Clinton administration he was deputy director of global change at the State Department, and a lead author for the UN’s IPCC climate science reports.

Stints followed at the International Energy Agency in Paris and the World Resources Institute in Washington, before he returned to government in 2009 under Barack Obama.

Seasoned US climate talks observers seem to agree he’s a good choice to take over for the remainder of Obama’s term in office – after which all bets are off.

“Nobody is better prepared to step into Todd’s role than Jonathan Pershing,” said Nat Keohane, vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund and a former advisor to president Barack Obama in 2011.

“Jonathan combines a deep understanding of the diplomatic context, a keen intellect, and a sterling reputation earned through decades of work on climate change,” he added.

“He knows the brief, knows the players, knows the strategy – I don’t think they’re going to miss a beat,” said Alden Meyer from the US Union of Concerned Scientists.

Reactions outside the US are more guarded. Pershing is not shy of impressing rivals with his knowledge of this brief, and he knows how to play hardball.

Many remember him as Stern’s right-hand-man during Obama’s first term in office when the US was routinely blamed by developing nations for slowing negotiations.

“He’s good and tough,” said a former EU negotiator by email.

“Jonathan Pershing is a very experienced negotiator who knows his brief very well. I have known him personally for many years and have a great respect for him,” said veteran Bangladeshi climate advisor Saleemul Huq.

US transition

But what will Pershing – famed for his beard and curious collection of 1990s ties – offer compared to his predecessor?

There’s a sense his grasp of the myriad technologies coming online will place him in a good position as the US moves to ramp up global clean energy deployment.

“He was a key architect of Mission Innovation at the department of energy,” said Keohane, referring to the December 2015 commitment by 20 countries to double clean tech research spending by 2020.

“He now comes with the additional knowledge of energy side and the technology potential, and I think that will add another dimension,” he said.

Where Stern needed his lawyer’s brain to scan negotiation texts for punctuation or words that could bind the US into politically toxic greenhouse gas cuts, Pershing’s task is slightly different.

The Paris Agreement is done. Now the process is moving to a new stage of making decisions a reality, especially the creation of a new system for countries to report and verify their emissions.

It will also require the US to deliver at home and maintain pressure on emerging economies to honour their commitments. Few play the bully pulpit role better than Pershing.

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Reporters who have worked with him before say colleagues will likely find him more approachable than Stern, who was largely guarded in his interactions with media.

This is not a man who lacks confidence or shies away from a press conference, rather an individual who has had 25 years to come to an understanding of how the US can best tackle this issue.

It’s not a view influenced by emotion or by older debates over historical responsibility for global warming, rather it’s one based on data and technology.

It’s best summed up in a recent interview with Climate Home, where Pershing spoke of the US passing a “tipping point” where energy could now be cheap and green.

“I think there’s a really interesting debate underway, if you look at the polls on what Americans would like. Cleaner energy, fewer emissions. They are interested in the environment,” he said.

“Americans love national parks and cities with parks. They like efficiency. The question is can you let them do that at a cost that lets them adopt technology without changing other things they value?”

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