Scitech | U.S. back in climate change action: Obama envoy

Bipartisan symposium attendees discuss moving forward in anticipation of upcoming international negotiations

WASHINGTON—“You know, when I think about the U.S. getting back in the game after sitting too long on the sidelines, I’m reminded of that famous two-word press release that Michael Jordan issued in 1996, after having left basketball for most of two years,” commented Todd Stern, special envoy on climate change for the Obama administration. The press release read: “I’M BACK.”

Stern’s remarks were delivered in a keynote address on March 3, as policy-makers gathered in Washington for a bipartisan symposium on American climate policy. The upcoming round of international climate negotiations in Denmark in December provided an increased sense of urgency, as several panelists argued that a failure by the U.S. to implement a strong domestic climate law before the talks will undermine the chances of achieving an effective new agreement.

But a new climate law may meet delays, as it is predicted to face fierce opposition from some quarters in Congress, especially among the ranks of the Republican Party, which has historically opposed strong climate regulations.

Achieving ratification by the Senate, as required by the Constitution, presents a further challenge to American participation in a new international climate treaty. Nigel Purvis, formerly a senior climate negotiator for the Clinton administration, pointed to the high bar set by the U.S. Constitution for ratification of treaties – a two-thirds majority of senators’ support is required – to explain the 1997 U.S. Senate resolution rejecting the Kyoto Protocol.

Echoing remarks made on a visit to China several weeks ago, Stern stressed the necessity of taking action. “This is not a matter of politics or morality, right or wrong. It is simply the unforgiving math of accumulating emissions,” said Stern.

Throughout the day’s discussion, contributors addressed this recurring tension between the demands of necessity identified by science and the limits to action imposed by politics.

“We cannot forget that we are engaged in a political process and that politics, in the classic formulation, is the art of the possible….We need always to push the envelope of what is possible,” Stern said.

Indeed, as contributors sought to reconcile needs with limits, one clear lesson emerged: politics, coalition-building, and strategy are indispensable. In this respect, the symposium itself rendered an important public service, facilitating bipartisan deliberation on complex policy problems and signaling U.S. intentions to the international community.

Despite the political challenges, Stern nonetheless emphasized that when U.S. negotiators head to Copenhagen, he hopes they will come with support from Congress.

“The optimum would be [climate] legislation that is signed, sealed and delivered. It has been a long time now that countries have been looking for the United States to lead and take action. I think nothing would give a more powerful signal to other countries in the world than to see a significant, major, mandatory American plan,” Stern said.

Purvis noted that one way forward would be to reconfigure the way in which U.S. engagement in an international climate regime is structured legally. The Constitution requires Senate ratification of treaties, but international agreements can also be constructed as “executive-congressional agreements,” which require only a simple majority’s support in Congress.

“All our major trade agreements are done this way. NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and the WTO [World Trade Organization] were not treaties. There is nothing stopping the Congress from doing the same thing with climate,” Purvis said.

The symposium was organized by four think tanks – the World Resources Institute, the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the Center for Global Development, and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment – as well as by Senators Jeff Bingaman, John McCain, Olympia Snowe, and Debbie Stabenow.


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