“Let’s get this damn thing started!” — Climate envoy Todd Stern on U.S. climate action and the possibility of deal with China

U.S. Climate Envoy and former Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Todd Stern spoke at CAP Tuesday.  If you want to know where US-China negotiations are headed on climate, I highly recommend watching the video of his talk here (a PDF of his prepared remarks are here).

He is a blunt guy for someone who is the lead State Department climate negotiator, as made clear by the headline quote about the need for the United States to get off its butt and lead the way with domestic climate action.  Duh! (see “US responsible for 29% of carbon dioxide emissions over past 150 years, triple China’s share“).

He emphasized that  “the [current] status quo is unsustainable.” He took that message in his subsequent travel to China last week to discuss bilateral global warming agreements between the U.S. and Chinese governments.

“This is a moment to reevaluate our conceptions about what is possible,” CAP President and CEO John D. Podesta said as he introduced Stern. It’s a crucial opportunity for the United States and China to move forward together on climate issues because, as Stern pointed out, any U.S. action on climate change will not be enough without China.

He hopes to “deepen the dialogue” with China and “drill down deeper” on climate issues. A bilateral agreement with China is part of the long-term goal, but he said that does not expect a “big agreement” to come out of this trip. His goal is to lay a foundation for future agreements.

Stern shied away from discussing specifics of potential agreements between the United States and China, but he did mention some key issues that will have to be on the table. For example, “I don’t think there is any question that the developed countries are going to have to provide resources to many countries in the developing world,” he said.

Emissions limits, which are currently being debated in the United States as part of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, will be another key issue for China. Many in China fear that, “putting limits on emissions would constrain economic growth, job creation, and the country’s capacity to continue its impressive rise,” Stern said. But he argued that China “must do what many in the Chinese leadership recognize, and is not to stop growing, but to grow smarter.”

China has already begun to “grow smarter” in many ways, and Stern urged listeners not to forget that. “We need to acknowledge the impressive steps the Chinese have already taken to promote low-carbon development and the new ones that will be coming off drawing boards soon,” he said.

Stern also cautioned against urging the Chinese to move forward if others remain complacent. “We need to recognize that if we aren’t careful, we may spend the next few years pushing China to do more, but will then spend all the years after that chasing them, as they hurtle profitably down the road to the low-carbon transformation,” he warned.

International climate change agreements are not as easy choice for the Chinese, according to Stern. “China can take a new path recognizing the need to make significant international commitments against the background of a robust collaboration with the United States,” he said. “While I think, in my view, the right choice is clear, you shouldn’t underestimate the dilemma for China.”

Stern is hopeful and told attendees that he does not think the two sides are that far apart on what must be done. “In terms of the overall dynamics of where we need to go, I don’t think it is a dramatically different assessment,” he said. He also said that the United States needs to “listen, not just lecture” during this week’s talks.

He expects conversations with the Chinese to be more science oriented than past talks because he is travelling with John Holden, the White House’s chief science adviser. He also said that he believes the Chinese are “in a different place with respect to where the science is,” although he did express concern about the Chinese government’s domestic emissions estimates, which show lower emissions levels than what many independent assessments have found.

Those discrepancies would need to be resolved as part of an international emissions treaty in the future, but this week’s trip will focus on setting the stage for future agreements, which have become increasingly important as Kyoto nears expiration in 2012. The United States must play a major part in reducing emissions, but global climate change is a problem too large for one country to resolve alone. As Stern told attendees, “While the critical first step must be for us to put our own house in order, the problem can only be solved globally.”

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19 Responses to “Let’s get this damn thing started!” — Climate envoy Todd Stern on U.S. climate action and the possibility of deal with China

  1. If only the US and China would repeal the Laws of Thermodynamics, that should solve everything!

  2. gmo says:

    I have a hard time determining what to expect from China considering it is such a land of contrast sort of spanning the range from global power to developing country.

    Every little bit of ground the US & China either through bilateral agreement or unofficially pushing each other through something like peer pressure will be good and hopefully then never ceded such as by a possible new Administration in 2013. The investments China is making and some of the other information like from this post are heartening, but just like here in the US you cannot help but wonder if the leadership really “get it”.

    It would be preferable if we could know China is driven by concern over disappearing glaciers, ocean acidification, etc – the science. But as long as they are making some real progress, I can accept it even if it is driven more by geopolitics or trying to dominate new industries, like China seeing an opportunity to try to take a global leadership role by stepping to the fore on combating climate change. Just like we can think US action like with Waxman-Markey may help pull China along, Chinese action may help push reluctant American politicians.

    Basically, I want to think that whatever the initial cause there can be positive feedback among the major players when it comes to moving away from fossil fuels and addressing climate change. Thus I am one who also feels that despite W-M not being optimal, getting moving in the right direction is still useful.

  3. Ken says:

    “Stern also cautioned against urging the Chinese to move forward … ‘… if we aren’t careful, we may … spend all the years after that chasing them, as they hurtle profitably down the road to the low-carbon transformation’ …”

    Let me understand this: It is the policy of the United States not to push China toward carbon neutrality because the low-carbon transformation may be profitable??

  4. paulm says:

    The medical profession recently got it now the next will be the justice department… this will be on feedback that will push the price of oil up.

    Climate change toll is crucial evidence

    With the deadly effect of global warming quantified, international law can be invoked and the perpetrators punished

    …the numbers are increasingly clear, and responsibilities cannot be evaded for ever. The legal implications are analogous to those faced by the tobacco industry once evidence solidified about the links between smoking and cancer. Shareholders and investors in fossil fuels need to be aware that they now face a liability that will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars – their products are killing people, and it is only a matter of time before the wheels of international justice begin to turn.

  5. gmo says:

    I am not sure why Ken inserts the “it is the policy of the United States” based the Stern comments. But I interpret the prepared remarks as not saying we should not push China because they will profit from the shift away from carbon but rather that we (America) should not drag our feet so that China gets ahead and reaps many profits while we fall behind the curve.

    It looks like a version of what Obama has said about the US needing to be a global leader in the technology and business of moving away from carbon. Stern is saying it friendlier talking in terms of a “real partnership” with “mutual benefit” when it comes to China. Either way the alternative is the US not being forward-looking and figuratively choking on the dust of other like China if they move more rapidly on low-carbon development.

    I could be wrong, but I see Stern’s warning as not “do not push” China but “do not fail to at least keep up” when pushing China or anyone else on the move from carbon.

  6. Phil Eisner says:

    I sure hope all this glorious talk is a prelude to action on our part! Sometimes I think that the talk and gamesmanship is just that, a political. But global warming is not a game; it is a growing slow-motion disaster. Scientists all over the world are going to have to take over the publicity theater and increase their warnings, shout dire facts, and demand political action. Marches on Washington are in order.

  7. Craig says:

    “I don’t think there is any question that the developed countries are going to have to provide resources to many countries in the developing world,” he [Stern] said.

    I can only imagine the howl of protest that will arise from the far right when this sticky issue comes to the floor. Looking into my crystal ball, here are some predictions.

    “The Democrats want to give away our competitive advantage to the Chinese” Senator James Inhofe (R-OK).

    “Another socialist policy from the Obama administration. This time they want to spread the wealth all over the world” Bill O’Reilly.

    “Developing Nations Demand Rich Nations Pay” Fox News Nation headline.

    “This is some UN sponsored plot to take away money from hardworking American families and give it to third world nations” Rep. Mike Pence (R-ID)

    “It’s a good thing I told my constituents to arm themselves, cause I can hear those black helicopters coming now” Michelle Bachmann (Wingnut-Minnesota)

    The messaging of the clean energy/climate coalition better be spot on to counter this vitriol. Anyone have any strategy suggestions?

  8. Leland Palmer says:

    I’m so glad we have apparently rational, serious, reality based leadership.

    China appears to be a much harder problem to solve than the U.S., in terms of attempting to solve the technological problems and transforming it into first a carbon neutral, and later a carbon negative society.

    Looking at China, using the CARMA kml file of powerplants imported into Google Earth, nothing seems familiar, looking at it from above. It’s hard to know what they can do, and what is harder for them to do.

    They have the advantage of being able to take direct socialist action, to build windmills and solar plants, for example. They may be able to take the lead in CCS, which appears to be the key to becoming carbon negative.

    Plentiful biomass is available in Siberia, but biomass in China may already be utilized for other purposes. China might have to rely much more on biocarbon imports than the U.S., it’s hard to say.

    I get the impression that carbon negative bioenergy ideas would be harder to implement in China, but I don’t know if this is the case, or not.

    We need massive amounts of mapping information, to come up with reasonable plans to perform this massive transformation, and to know what it is reasonable to ask the Chinese to do, and what is not.

    Purdue University has a fledgling project called Hestia that aims to map CO2 emissions worldwide on fine spatial and time scales, and this is urgently needed, IMO.

    Fortunately, the Chinese seem to be taking this at least as seriously as we are.

  9. MikeN says:

    Strategy suggestion, how about not giving money to the developing world?

  10. MikeN says:

    Ecostew, that study is not reasonable. It assumes the economic conditions of today, but of course with that sea level rise comes a great deal of economic growth and a better ability to adapt. And keep in mind that Galveston is where it is today, because they raised the city up out of the sea.

  11. Konrad says:

    While China may have co2 emissions comparable to the US, their aerosol particulate pollution seems far greater. I feel that reducing aerosol particulate pollution should be China’s first priority with regard to emissions.

  12. ecostew says:

    MikeN – you are not grounded in peer-reviewed science – including economics.

  13. dhogaza says:

    “Another socialist policy from the Obama administration. This time they want to spread the wealth all over the world” Bill O’Reilly.

    Glad to see that billo is down with third-world poverty …

  14. paulm says:

    dhogaza if there is enough wealth to go round shouldn’t it?

    Isn’t that what Globalization is meant to achieve?

  15. Peter Wood says:

    The talk was definitely worth viewing, but unless the west gets serious with its targets or financing, I don’t see how developing countries will adjust their emissions much. A possible way of getting around this deadlock may be for more permit auction revenue to be used to finance emissions reductions and adaptation in developing countries.

  16. I am curios. Is this the first time China and the U.S. sit down for what seem to be serious climate change cooperation? How similar are their agendas…?