Obama’s Climate Envoy: China Will Surprise Us in a Good Way

Obama’s longtime climate envoy on finally inking a global emissions deal, on China’s future, and what happens to U.S. leadership.


Todd Stern has been President Barack Obama’s climate change envoy since the first day of the administration, shepherding the often difficult U.S. engagement with international climate talks from the dark days of Copenhagen in 2009 to last December’s seemingly triumphant Paris accord to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

On Friday, Stern steps down after seven years of globe-trotting, arm twisting, and deal making. Foreign Policy took the opportunity to ask him about Paris, China, and the future of U.S. climate policy. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: You’ve been a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, and that, coupled with being a climate change envoy, has probably created a life of heartbreak and disappointment. But you’ve got the Paris agreement now. The United States and China both said they’ll sign it in April, and I wonder if Paris is the breakthrough that’s going to get the world to a limit of 2 degrees [Celsius] of warming, or if it’s just a house of cards that’s contingent on what countries do five years from now, 10 years from now, and so on?

Todd Stern: I thought you were going to ask me if the Cubs are going to win the World Series.

I do think that Paris is a breakthrough. It doesn’t put anything in the bag, but it gives us a real chance. It establishes a lasting structure, an agreement that involves everybody, that’s got strong goals, strong additional targets, with a strong transparency regime, and it has a ratcheting-up of ambitions built into the agreement.

Now, the initial targets don’t get us everywhere we need to go, but they actually took a very consequential first step. [Editors’ note: Outside estimates suggest the world was on track for a 3.6 degree Celsius increase before Paris, and now is on track for a 2.7 degree increase.]

It’s a long way from 2 degrees but also a long way from where it was before. Very importantly, it sends highly significant signals to the marketplace that, if things go well and the right focus is maintained in important countries, we will get an acceleration in the move toward clean energy.

FP: In the past, you’ve spoken of the “unforgiving math of accumulating emissions.” If you look back, from 1992 on, with the creation of the whole U.N.-led approach to climate change, the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] process, and years and years of climate summits, we’ve seen atmospheric carbon concentrations just keep rising. We’ve seen sea levels keep rising, global emissions still rising. Is the whole U.N. framework, specifically the UNFCCC, still the best way to get this done?

TS: Well, the UNFCCC is an important piece of the equation. You might have been looking at a different answer if Paris had collapsed in failure, but it did not.

The UNFCCC provides a forum where all countries are involved. There’s a much smaller group of countries which account for most of the emissions, but if you look at the countries which account for the emissions now, or which are on track to account for more emissions going forward, or which are vulnerable to the impacts, you sort of need to have everybody.

But that doesn’t mean there can’t be or shouldn’t be other forums for cooperation among countries, and there already are some. I could imagine all sorts of pairings and groupings of countries looking to make progress that happens outside the four corners of the UNFCCC. So I don’t think it should be seen as the exclusive place to do anything on climate change, but on the other hand, it is important to have the kind of anchor body that all countries are part of.

FP: You say there’s scope for different pairings of countries. A few years ago, there was a lot of talk about getting the biggest emitters together, like just the U.S. and China, which together make up something like 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Is that something that should be given more thought in the future?

TS: It gets a lot of thought now. Secretary [of State John] Kerry started the climate change working group with China in 2013. Could a lot more potentially be done between the United States and China? I’m sure the answer is yes. But again, there are a lot of concrete initiatives between the two countries working on everything from heavy-duty vehicles to carbon capture and storage to green ports.

The United States and China have worked a lot together, particularly in the last several years, and I see no reason why that wouldn’t continue. But there’s no such thing as a G-2, to the exclusion of other things.

This exercise has got to be about the transformation of the energy system, and the acceleration of that transformation, and I think Paris sends a great big signal that was received by the private sector. The day after Paris felt a lot different than the day before Paris, in terms of the prospects for renewable energy and for clean energy going forward in a long-term way. By contrast, the longer-term prospects for fossil fuels, well, the market has shifted.

FP: Speaking of China, one of the biggest questions going forward is this ongoing debate: Have greenhouse gas emissions in China peaked, or are they still growing? Will they peak before 2030 or after? You’ve spent years working with China’s climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, on all these issues. So is China going to surprise us in a good way or in a bad way?

TS: Compared to the targets that have been put forward, which would mean peaking [greenhouse gas emissions] around 2030, my guess is China surprises us in a good way, but I have no crystal ball.

But they have a commitment and a focus that is a lot broader than just climate change. They’re rebalancing their economy away from the emphasis on manufacturing and more toward services. They see the model that got them for the first 30-odd years of their move more toward a market economy — it was very successful in a certain way — but they don’t see it as sustainable.

There is horrendous environmental degradation and damage that’s not sustainable for them politically, so I think they are deadly serious about making these changes. It would be possible to clean up the conventional air pollution in a way that would not help climate change, but that would be very foolish, and I don’t think that’s their intention.

China keeps accounting for a larger percentage of the total [global greenhouse gas emissions] because we and others are going down, so China will be in such bold relief as an emitter that there will be constant, worldwide pressure. So if I had to bet, I would say they’ll surprise on the good side, but it’s fundamentally an impossible question to really answer.

FP: You’ve said many times over the years that United States leadership is crucial to galvanizing international action on climate change. When you look at U.S. politics now, whether it’s in Congress, whether it’s on the presidential campaign trail, what do you think happens when you’re gone, when Kerry’s gone, when Obama’s gone?

TS: On the first point, I would like to underline that the Climate Action Plan of the president, and the whole suite of big-time policy moves, and a strong communication effort behind that, really pretty powerfully changed our leverage and credibility around the world, and that was very visible to me.

So what happens when this team is gone? There is a scenario in which, while there will be new players, the political commitment [to climate issues] is likely to be very, very similar. There is another scenario that is harder to judge. I think there are issues that are extremely popular politically, and it’s going to get harder to be in actual, flat-out opposition to taking any action on climate change or clean energy.

I would not anticipate anybody walking away from the Paris agreement, because it would just be such a huge black mark on the U.S. as a matter of diplomatic standing and foreign policy. Whether an incoming administration loved climate change or not, I just don’t think they would walk away. There’s too much investment by too many countries all over the world — it would be so obviously damaging to U.S. leverage on all kinds of issues. Having said all that, there could be differences between two different administrations regarding domestic engagement, but I really wouldn’t expect to see a return to zero on climate policies.

FP: Speaking of domestic politics, you’ve been stressing that the administration’s Clean Power Plan to clean up the power sector is an important piece of the United States getting to its emissions goals, and you’ve expressed a lot of confidence that the plan is going to go ahead. But now we’ve got a Supreme Court stay on the plan; there’s still a lot of opposition at the congressional level and at the state level. Just at a nuts-and-bolts level of curbing U.S. emissions, how problematic are these head winds for the Clean Power Plan?

TS: I actually don’t think the head winds are as strong as you are suggesting. I think the Supreme Court stay was unwelcome, no question, but you can’t overinterpret it. It’s a procedural hold-things-in-place order. It doesn’t say, “Well, we’ve looked at the merits, and we think ‘X.'”

I go back to the underlying legal soundness of the Clean Power Plan. Let us remember that the Supreme Court itself ruled in 2007 that the Environmental Protection Agency is not just allowed to, but is required to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. And EPA is trying to do that.

I actually am confident that this is going to prevail, and if for some reason it doesn’t, then the Supreme Court has to recognize that there must be some other way to regulate it under the Clean Air Act because the Supreme Court has told EPA it has to.

I see a speed bump. I don’t see head winds.

FP: We tend to focus on CO2, the main greenhouse gas. But, recently, there’s been a lot more attention on apparently rising levels of methane, especially in terms of the U.S. fracking boom. By some calculations, all those emissions may have even erased much of the climate progress of the Obama years. Has methane undone much of what’s been achieved?

TS: I don’t think so. The U.S. does a greenhouse gas inventory every year, and we’re down 10 percent or 11 percent or so from 2005, so I don’t think it’s correct to say that whatever’s happened with methane has undone progress.

I do agree that methane regulation is very important, that methane is a substantially more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, but the administration has taken strong steps on methane. We have a new rule on the oil and gas sector that calls for a 40-45 percent reduction over 2012 levels by 2025.

I think methane is very important. And I think natural gas is a substantially less polluting fossil fuel than coal. So in that respect, increased activity in natural gas as compared to coal is, in principle, a good thing, but you lose the advantage if you allow a lot of methane to leak.

Photo credit: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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