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The future of climate change policy relies on widespread political support to reduce carbon emissions over the next three decades, former U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern told an audience at the Yale Law School on Monday.

Former Yale Law Dean Harold Koh interviewed Stern about the future of global climate before an audience of nearly 60 faculty members and students. At the event — which was co-sponsored by the Yale Law National Security Group and Yale Environmental Law Association — Stern stressed the need for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, meaning that carbon output would equal carbon removal or would be eliminated altogether. In order to do this, it is important to elect a Democratic candidate in 2020, rejoin the Paris Agreement and develop new targets for reducing emissions, Stern said.

“Can we do it from an innovation standpoint? Yes,” Stern said. “Can we do it from a policy standpoint? Yes. Can we afford it? Yes. Do we have the political will? No. And that’s the problem.”

Stern, who served as special envoy from 2009 to 2016, was the U.S.’s chief negotiator at the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement under the Obama administration. He was also a visiting law lecturer at Yale in 2016, during which he taught a course on the international climate regime. He currently serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and is writing about climate negotiations during his tenure as special envoy.

Drawing on his previous experience in the Clinton White House, Stern said that a key Democratic strategy for winning elections is to appeal to Medicare, Medicaid, education and environment.

“One of the things that was compelling to the American people in the 1990s is that you shouldn’t let Republicans ransack the environment,” Stern said.

According to Stern, President Donald Trump’s environmental policies do not adequately address climate change. Stern added that he hopes Americans will recognize the impacts of such negligence and choose to elect a Democratic candidate who shows more concern for the environment.

Still, he said beating an incumbent president would be difficult and added that “you’d be crazy to just think we don’t have to worry about that.”

“What’s the best-case scenario?” Koh asked early in the talk. “And if you’re not too depressed, what’s the worst-case scenario, and how do you keep the ball up in the air?”

Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, there are key benchmarks that the United States must reach in order to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. According to Stern, these include returning to the Paris Climate Agreement and developing a new U.S. contribution, which is a target for reduction of emissions.

The U.S.’s current nationally determined contributions will last through 2025. By 2020, the US will release the NDC for 2030, according to the Paris Agreement. But in 2017 President Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from this agreement, which aimed to limit global temperature increase in the future.

Stern also addressed climate change from an international perspective and cited the importance of reviving the relationship between the United States and China to develop climate policy.

“You’ve got to reconnect with a group of progressive climate countries that are both developed and developing,” Stern said.

He said the Paris Climate Agreement and subsequent “Paris rulebook” represented “the architectural phase of international climate.”

But now, he said the United States must enact policies to achieve decarbonization — a feat that requires domestic and international cooperation.

“The paradigm here is a race against time,” Stern said. “Directional improvement is not good enough.”

Stern told the students in the crowd to prioritize the urgency of climate change.

Arnaud Nussbaumer LAW ’20 said that though he expected more concrete examples regarding how to impact climate policy, Stern’s talk reminded him that “there are a lot of good things that can be done right now” before the 2020 election.

Stern was appointed as Special Envoy on Climate Change under then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009.

Samuel Turner | samuel.turner@yale.edu

Ella Goldblum | ella.goldblum@yale.edu