by Andrew Light and Adam James
This past Tuesday, Todd Stern, America’s top climate diplomat at the Department of State, was compelled to clarify comments he made last week at Dartmouth College on the global goal of limiting temperature increase caused by climate change to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F). Several commentators, including our former CAP colleague Brad Johnson on this blog, raised concerns that it signaled a reversal of a commitment the U.S. has had since 2009 to the 2C goal. Stern denied this assertion in no uncertain terms: “Of course, the U.S. continues to support this goal; we have not changed our policy.”
While it’s heartening to have the 2C goal reaffirmed by our chief climate envoy, it’s unfortunate that he had to do so. Only a very selective and skewed reading of this speech should set off any alarms. What Stern actually said at Dartmouth doesn’t even register as a gaffe.
Stern’s comments in the Dartmouth speech on the 2C target are relatively minor. They comprise a very small portion of a much more broad-ranging speech which includes, among other topics: current evidence of the disastrous impacts of rising temperatures around the world, the ideological divide over concern about climate change in the U.S., the Obama administration’s efforts to lower domestic emissions without comprehensive energy legislation, the nuances and challenges of climate diplomacy in a forum where consensus must be reached by 194 countries, and options for reducing emissions among smaller coalitions of the willing.
On the 2C target, Stern only challenges the likelihood that building a top-down international treaty, which divided up the allocation of emissions reductions country by country to stabilize temperature at 2C, would actually work. For various reasons, mostly concerning national self-interest, he favors a “more flexible approach” which would start with bottom-up nationally derived policies and then instead take the challenge to be to “increase the overall ambition” to stabilize at 2C with a hoped-for boost by future innovations in clean energy technology.
If this part of Stern’s speech is minor, the U.S. commitment to the 2C target is quite important even if progress toward that goal is lagging. The endorsement of this target was the first major shift in international climate policy that the Obama administration embraced, signaling a complete break with the approach taken by the Bush administration which had isolated us in the international climate negotiations.
The 2C target was first endorsed by President Obama himself in the leader’s declaration emerging from July 2009 G-8 summit in L’Aquila Italy. In fact, the leaders statement wound up endorsing a stronger statement than what was originally proposed. An earlier draft had stipulated that holding temperature increase at 2C over pre-industrial levels was “aspirational.” The final statement removed this proviso signaling a newly unified position by the richest developed countries in the world.
Later that year, the 2C target was repeated and endorsed by most of the 194 parties in the U.N.’s official climate negotiations in Copenhagen, including a last minute personal push by President Obama, and the rest of the U.S. climate team led by Todd Stern. Five countries however kept the “Copenhagen Accord” from becoming official given the defacto consensus rule governing any agreement in this process. But the 2C target, and a lot more by way of architecture for a regime for measuring progress on emission reduction, was enshrined the following year in the Cancun Agreements in the same process.
Now, there are many reasons to criticize these statements and agreements as not doing near enough to actually help to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas pollution and, indeed, ensure that the 2C target will be met. But one cannot deny that they are nonetheless important pieces of international diplomacy in themselves. The U.S. can’t easily reverse course on the 2C target any more than it could announce tomorrow that it was pulling out of the U.N. climate negotiations altogether. Since the president put his own credibility on the line in forging the language of these agreements, he’d have to provide some explanation to other global leaders.
It would, in short, be a diplomatic train-wreck for our chief climate negotiator to announce a reversal of the US position in a speech like this one. So, it should be no surprise that he didn’t do any such thing.
Nonetheless, we’ll play along. Suppose it was Stern’s intention to quietly float the idea of backing away from 2C on a pleasant August day in New Hampshire outside of the media spotlight, to “road test” it for the future. If that was Stern’s position then this particular speech would have been the wrong vehicle.
At the beginning of the speech, well before Stern challenges the idea that a top-down treaty can deliver on the 2C target, he discusses eight separate impacts of rising temperatures which should serve as a wake up call for anyone who now doubts the reality of anthropogenic climate change, ranging from the 2010 Pakistani floods, to this year’s Colorado wildfires, to ice melt in Greenland. He concludes with a warning: “And remember, these events are what we’re seeing with only a modest global temperature increase – about 1.3° F since 1900 – compared to the much larger increases we will see if we don’t take strong action.” So now we’re to believe that the real point of the speech is to reverse-course on the U.S. endorsement of the 2C target? Interesting. Maybe next week Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood will argue for eliminating federal highway speed limits by first iterating the number of traffic fatalities at current limits.
The real problem that critics are having here is with Stern’s approach to forging an international climate agreement. For well-rehearsed reasons, most people in the environmental community prefer a treaty like the Kyoto Protocol that, crudely put, sets an overall target for emission reductions, allocates to each signatory party a portion of those reductions to be responsible for, and then leaves it to them to form a national policy to meet their agreed upon obligation. Stern thinks there is little or no hope that we’ll create a global treaty that looks like Kyoto which can actually meet a 2C goal – much more ambitious than the goals of the Kyoto treaty – because too many parties will disagree on the allocation of responsibility for reducing emissions. We agree with him on this point.
Regardless of the disagreement one would have on the legal form of a new climate treaty with any of us, Stern’s position here does not seem to be downplaying the importance or the possibility of hitting a 2C target. In fact, he uses the importance of hitting a 2C target as the rationale for criticizing the current negotiation process. Take the line that is causing the most concern now among many of our friends:
This kind of flexible, evolving legal agreement [which Stern prefers] cannot guarantee that we meet a 2 degree goal, but insisting on a structure that would guarantee such a goal will only lead to deadlock.
Why bother mentioning a 2 degree goal if the US doesn’t think it is important anymore? Charitably read, the claim is that no international agreement will ever guarantee a particular outcome. At best it will be structured smartly enough to compel all parties to achieve a desired outcome rather than breaking out of the agreement altogether.
This is a good lesson for us all to keep in mind, particularly given the questionable success of the Kyoto Protocol. Just after the Durban climate negotiations last December, Canada announced that they will not meet their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. While this came as no surprise to those following the actions of the Harper government since coming into power, it’s still an object lesson of the sort of thing we don’t want to tee up for a more ambitious global treaty that needs to include the fastest growing carbon polluters in the developing world.
Finally, Stern ends this part of the Dartmouth speech with a plea to move beyond the turgid waters of the UN climate negotiations to reduce emissions in other ways. This is the actual punch line to the international portion of this address. What can we practically do to move forward? He begins:
Now I want to shift gears slightly. As much as we need to make the UN climate regime work effectively and promote aggressive, real-world action, we also need to recognize that it can’t do everything. So we should expand the field of international engagement to include other, more informal groupings of countries prepared to act in ways that can make a difference. The point of such coalitions is not to negotiate agreements, debate the meaning of treaty clauses or grandstand about the imagined sins of our rivals, but to act. To produce results. To get something done. And efforts like these are starting.
Stern goes on to highlight efforts like the new Climate and Clean Air Coalition, now comprised by some 20 countries and 10 non-state partners to take on short-lived climate forcers, especially methane, black carbon, and HFCs, which now “account for over 30% of current global warming, millions of premature deaths, and extensive crop losses.” Again, if the point of this speech was to float an abandonment of the commitment to the 2C target, and a new dismissive stance on international climate policy out of touch with reality, as some have put it, then this speech is a flop.
The validity of Stern’s preferred “flexible” approach to structuring a new climate treaty is a discussion for another day. The worries about the US commitment to the 2C target, whether it is achievable at this point or not, are unnecessary and unhelpful.
Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow and Director of International Climate Policy, and Adam James is a Special Assistant, at the Center for American Progress.