Todd Stern’s Not-So-Excellent Day in Durban

, director of strategy & policy | December 14, 2011, 9:49 am EDT
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US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern has a tough job.

He has to represent a country whose politics are dysfunctional and one of whose major parties is in a state of extreme denial about the scientific reality and urgency of climate change. Having failed to win Senate passage of a comprehensive climate bill last year, the Obama administration he represents must use its executive authority to try to meet the president’s commitment to reduce U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases some 17 percent below 2005 by 2020 levels —a commitment that most of the world views as wholly inadequate to begin with. He and his colleagues in the administration must wrestle with a recalcitrant Congress to obtain the financing pledged by the United States for developing country activities to deploy clean technologies, reduce deforestation, and adapt to the mounting impacts of climate change. Finally, he must try to persuade countries like China and India to do more to fight climate change, even while he can make no such commitments for the United States.

U.S. Special Envoy Todd Stern (left), with Deputy Special Envoy Jonathan Pershing (center) and André Aranha Corrêa do Lago of Brazil at COP 17 in Durban; from Earth Negotiations Bulletin

As I said, it’s a tough job. But it was exceptionally so last Thursday, at the climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa.

It started with his speech to the high-level plenary of the Conference of the Parties. Usually, these are pretty sleepy affairs, where ministers make broad statements about their negotiating objectives and their progress at home on climate change policy. But this speech was exciting even before Todd opened his mouth, as Middlebury College student Abigail Borah delivered (unauthorized) remarks to the plenary. She was able to shout out  her statement before security officers hustled her out of the plenary hall. Here’s what she said:

“I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot. The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for too long. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait. We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty.

You must take responsibility to act now, or you will threaten the lives of youth and the world’s most vulnerable.

You must set aside partisan politics and let science dictate decisions. You must pledge ambitious targets to lower emissions, not expectations. Citizens across the world are being held hostage by stillborn negotiations.

We need leaders who will commit to real change, not empty rhetoric. Keep your promises. Keep our hope alive. 2020 is too late to wait.”

Her remarks were greeted with sustained applause from many in the audience. Saudi delegate Mohammed al-Sabban, who was presiding over the plenary at the time, joked that the applause was “meant for you, Mr. Stern.”

The next day, Ms. Borah said “Yesterday I was removed for my disrupting the progress of the negotiations. The United States will spend the next nine years insisting they need more time. I spent thirty seconds insisting it is too late to wait.”

Immediately following his plenary speech, Todd held a 12:30 PM press briefing to correct “a misconception running around and kind of gaining currency… attacking the United States for proposing to delay action on climate change until 2020”; he continued by saying “it is completely off base to suggest that the U.S. is proposing that we delay action until 2020.”

Where could negotiators and media possibly have gotten such a misconception? Perhaps from the opening U.S. press briefing in Durban eleven days earlier, where Todd’s deputy, Dr. Jonathan Pershing, said:

“we see a list of actions and commitments that countries have committed themselves to that run through the year 2020. Our thinking, and that which we’ve heard explicitly from others, is that there is no intention on the part of Parties to modify the pre-2020 actions that they’re taking…the idea that countries would change their current pledges…seems unlikely to me.”

Dr. Pershing went on to claim that such frozen ambition through 2020 is consistent with the “long term visionary goal of seeking to stay below two degrees [Celsius].  Many, and essentially an infinite number of [emissions] pathways, get you there.” While technically not a U.S. proposal to delay action until 2020, this clearly was a statement of belief that no major nation was going to up its level of ambition before then, coupled with an apparent lack of concern about the impact of such a course.

Journalists wouldn’t let these statements rest for the remainder of the first week in Durban, as UCS and other NGOs pointed out that while technically true, freezing emissions reduction ambition at current levels through 2020 would require significantly greater effort post-2020 to preserve the option of staying below two degrees, and that this in turn would be economically and politically difficult. This has been documented in recent reports by the International Energy Agency and the United Nations Environment Program, among others.

So the U.S. was holding a press briefing to correct the “misconception” generated by its own previous press briefings.

But the fun wasn’t over for Todd yet.

Later in the same press conference, he referred to the European Union’s call for adoption in Durban of a “roadmap” towards a new legally-binding regime to be negotiated by 2015, that would include emissions limitation commitments by countries that don’t have them under the Kyoto Protocol, such as the United States, China, and India. Seeking to blunt the common perception that the U.S. was a major stumbling block to such a deal in Durban, Todd said “the EU has called for [a] roadmap. We support that and we’ve—I talked with the EU at length.”

Later that evening, at 8:06:59 PM Durban time to be precise, the U.S. Press Office at COP 17 released the following “Statement Regarding Todd Stern’s Press Conference,” with instructions that it be attributed to Emily Cain, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State:

“Todd Stern said in his press conference today that the United States could support a process to negotiate a new climate accord. He did not say that the United States supports a legally binding agreement as the result of that process. The EU has supported both a process and the result being a legally binding agreement.”

I’ve been following climate treaty negotiations since they started in 1990, and I can’t recall such a correction ever being issued to a statement by the U.S. head of delegation. It may have happened on other issues, but not on climate, as far as I know.

Juliet Eilperin reported on the whole affair in a blog post on the Washington Post website, in which she quoted me saying that with this unprecedented correction, it appeared that “Todd is saying he can only support such a process if it’s a road map to nowhere.”

For a moment, I felt a little bad for piling on. After all, Todd is a genuinely nice guy in a very tough job, who had just experienced a very rough day. But then I remembered why I was in Durban—to do my small part in getting the U.S. and other countries to commit to meaningful actions to save the planet—and the feeling passed.


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  • Kelly

    Emily Cain is Todd Stern’s press director. She issued the statement on Todd’s behalf to quell the misunderstanding in the press. The state department release was not to reel him in by any means, it was to reel in the press.

    • The press had to be reeled in because Todd created the impression at his news conference that the US supported the European Union “roadmap,” the goal of which, of course, was to negotiate a new legally binding treaty with emissions reduction commitments for the United States and other major emitting countries without such commitments under Kyoto, such as China and India.

      Reporters knew that the US was resisting the phrase “legally binding commitments” in the text under negotiation in Durban, and were wondering whether Todd’s press briefing comments signalled a softening of the U.S. position. That’s why the State Department had to issue the correction, to make clear that in fact, the U.S. was not supporting the EU roadmap — at least not any version of it that the EU would recognize.