The United States’ lead climate negotiator, Todd Stern, unveiled the nation’s new climate vision in a televised speech from the Yale Law School Monday afternoon.
Three weeks after hundreds of Yale students and 400,000 people stormed Manhattan for the New York City climate summit, Stern detailed the government’s new diplomatic model for international climate order. Stern outlined a potential global pact for the 2015 United Nations climate summit that touts flexible standards, an effective accountability system and financial assistance for developing nations. While Stern praised marchers for giving exigency to the climate negotiations, he cautioned the country against a plan that is not inclusive of all nations.
“The usual brinkmanship of holding cards until the eleventh hour is a bad bet because too much is riding on this negotiation,” Stern said. “We can’t afford to miss the opportunity to establish an ambitious, workable, new international climate order.”
Stern recognized that even developed nations must keep developing countries in the front of negotiations, or risk leaving them behind. He said the United States would be willing to temper its demands for foreign emissions reductions in order to ensure inclusiveness of all countries. Abandoning 1992 distinctions between developed and developing nations, America’s climate mitigation strategy would permit each UN member state to decide on its own nationally determined contribution by which it could reasonably reduce its own emissions by 2025.
Many developing nations in the UN advocate for a shared but variable responsibility to protect the environment between UN states, as determined by each state’s circumstances. The U.S. would embrace the flexible standard, but proposes holding nations accountable with quantifiable metrics, Stern said. An imperative in the climate talks, Stern said, is to quiet developing countries’ fears that cutting emissions would poison their growth models.
After walking through the history of weak climate negotiations from Kyoto to Cancun, Stern identified clarity, domestic targets, unconditional baseline emissions goals, clear norms of measurement and a non-punitive review system as solutions.
“Taken together these measures would add up to a coherent accountability system that would be clear by virtue of upfront information, real by virtue of being unconditional and credible by virtue of being buttressed by domestic measures,” Stern said.
Faculty members interviewed concurred on the pivotal nature of the speech.
Stern’s speech was in part a diplomatic play itself, said law professor and former Law School Dean Harold Koh.
“You have to remember that hundreds of people signed off on this speech, and that there are hundreds of audiences outside this room,” Koh said.
Koh flagged a distinction between the concluding question-and-answer session, during which Stern conceded to a doctrine of common but different responsibility, and the hard lines of Stern’s speech, where he rejected the 1992 development characterizations.
“[This] is a clear signal that we’re beginning the public aspects of the negotiation now,” Koh said.
Monday’s speech achieved unprecedented openness and pragmatism, law professor Douglas Kysar said.
By going on the record that the U.S. is the largest historical greenhouse gas polluter, Kysar said, the Obama administration did something no previous administration would.
“Not because they didn’t believe it to be true, but because they didn’t want to acknowledge that as a valid, relevant detail in the negotiations,” Kysar said. “So, that, for me, was a very eye-opening and important moment.”
Students in the crowd did not express the same optimism.
Philip Kunhardt FES ’16 said there were “no real surprises” in Stern’s talk.
“I’ve heard from many students say, you know that was a long talk, there really wasn’t anything new,” he added.
Kunhardt did, however, give credit to Stern for recognizing the innovation and activism of citizens on the ground.
As the nations of the world head into a U.N. climate framework convention in Lima, Peru, this December, Kysar articulated his own vision of a clear victory for Stern on climate policy.
“If he can get a handshake agreement on what we’re calling now [nationally-determined contributions] by 190-plus countries, and also get early release of targets, that’s huge,” he said. “And that also can be communicated out there to civil society … in ways that feel hopeful, rather than just a repeat of ‘Nopenhagen,’ which is what we all thought of Copenhagen,” Kysar said.
Following the United Nations framework convention in Peru, heads of state will attend a climate convention in Paris in 2015.