Skip to Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues Full Site Menu Skip to main content
Todd Stern
Todd Stern
August 26, 2019

Todd Stern

Podcast Series:

U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast

Listen to Audio

Also available on Stitcher LogoStitcher

How could the major powers get China to sign on to an international agreement to address global warming?

Like many international issues at the outset, Chinese officials initially dismissed controlling domestic greenhouse gas emissions as a problem for wealthy countries to solve. After the benign neglect of the George W. Bush administration, the Obama team came into office in 2009 with a goal of reaching an international accord on limiting greenhouse gases to slow global warming -- and put China at the center of these international efforts. China remains the largest emitter and would have to be inside the tent for the world to have any hope of addressing global climate change. Todd Stern served as the U.S. special envoy for climate change from 2009 to 2016; in this episode of the U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast, he explains how the U.S. administration used White House meetings, presidential summits, and access to the Chinese State Council to align Chinese climate and environment policies with those of the United States to successfully reach a global climate agreement in Paris in 2015.

James Green: Welcome to the U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast from Georgetown University.

This podcast series explores diplomacy and dialogue between China and the United States during the four decades since normalization of relations in 1979. We'll hear from former ambassadors, Cabinet secretaries, and White House advisors, who will share how they shaped the course of the most complex relationship in international diplomacy today.

I'm your host, James Green. Today on the podcast, we talk with Todd Stern.

The basic question facing all international relations theorists and practitioners is: how do you get a foreign country to do something for you? Most countries only do things that their leaders perceive are in the country's interests. These are sovereign nations, after all, even if many capitals around the world want, or need, to have close relations with Washington. On the margins, maybe a foreign government can tweak a domestic or international policy. But big diplomatic breakthroughs happen when the key actors recognize their interests converge. Nixon's historic visit to Beijing in 1972 was the public manifestation of a change in U.S. and Chinese policies recognizing that cooperating together against the Soviet Union was in both nations' interests, that working together was better than being apart.

Fast-forward several decades. In 2008, part of Barack Obama's successful campaign for president was to acknowledge the threat from climate change and, once in office, to implement domestic and international policies to stem global warming. But by then, China had already surpassed the United States as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases that are warming the earth. For that reason, any international climate deal would have to include China in a meaningful way; that is, with real commitments on CO2 emissions. And after several years of arduous negotiations, in 2015 global leaders gathered in Paris to ink an international climate accord. The U.S., EU, China were all there. Here's President Obama then:

President Obama audio: Nearly two hundred nations have assembled here this week, a declaration that for all the challenges we face, the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other. And what should give us hope that this is a turning point? That this is the moment we finally determined we would save our planet?

James Green: The U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change during that time was Todd Stern. In our conversation, Stern talks about his pivotal trip to China with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in early 2009, about how the White House relentlessly pushed progress on climate change at senior levels, and about how his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua helped shift Chinese climate change policies. Since Deng Xiaoping's market-friendly "reform and opening" efforts in 1970s, Chinese officials largely blamed wealthy countries for the problems of environmental degradation and climate change. This episode, then, is the story of how planning, persistence, and high-level nudging can get a foreign power to do what's in Washington's interest and its own interest. And now, Special Envoy Todd Stern on China and climate change.

Todd Stern, thanks so much for joining us. Great to see you here. I wonder if I could just ask before we get to your time in the State Department and working with the Chinese government if I could just ask at a personal level when was the first time that you went to China, was it while you were with the State Department or was it before that?

Todd Stern: Oh, the very first time I went, no. It was late in the Clinton administration and I had been in the White House for six and a half years with President Clinton. The last year and a half I went over to Treasury to be Larry Summers' counselor, just when Larry was starting. Bob Rubin still had a couple weeks left when I got over there.

Counselor in the sense of his senior political adviser, not lawyer. And there was a big issue that was going on in…I'm trying to think if it was '99 or 2000, but in any event one of those two years, having to do with China's joining the WTO. And Larry was interested in going to talk to the Chinese about that a bit. USTR had the lead but Larry's Secretary of Treasury so he had his own interests.

We got to Beijing. I have just the vaguest recollection of what Beijing looked like, which was nothing like what it is now. We were in some hotel. It was not a very swanky … I don't know if they had swanky hotels and it was not at all swanky then. And we were there for a bit, and then flew on a Chinese military plane to, I couldn’t even-

James Green: That's right. Yeah.

Todd Stern: The place, Lanzhou-

James Green: Lanzhou. In Gansu Province. Yeah.

Todd Stern: And Larry met with Zhu Rongji and I remember it was a very interesting ride from the landing place to where Zhu Rongji actually was. It was a fairly long ride. I'd say an hour at least, past some very primitive houses, past caves which I don't think were still being used but, it was an interesting little glimpse into some part of, I guess what sort of is north-central-

James Green: That's right.

Todd Stern: … China.

James Green: Kind of almost northwest China. Yeah.

Todd Stern: Northwest. Yeah. And so, that was the first time. And then we went back. I think we left for the U.S. the next day. I mean it was basically a one-day trip.

James Green: Yeah. It was … Wow. It's fascinating. Yeah. I went out there a week beforehand to set up that meeting and Zhu Rongji was there, and so the Chinese agreed after we bombed the Chinese embassy mistakenly in Belgrade, they cut off all contact if you recall and that was the meeting that kind of restarted it. Zhu Rongji wanted to talk to Secretary Summers and so.

Todd Stern: So that was the first trip and it was the only trip I had had before going there with Secretary Clinton in February of 2009.

James Green: And what was your impression? It was a short one and you were getting ready for meetings and understanding you didn't have a lot of time to wander around.

Todd Stern: Yeah.

James Green: Did you have any other impressions either in terms of climate, level of developments, the air quality, those sorts of things? Anything stick out of you?

Todd Stern: Well, I mean, it was enormously more developed. Again, I don't have even that clear a recollection of what it was like except that just the whole skyline was just … It didn't exist as I recall, back in '99. So, it was huge, it was very interesting and had … And I still sort of think this about Beijing. I'm sure there's other places in China where this is not true and there's even pockets of Beijing where this is not true, but to my eye, it had absolutely no charm.

It was large. It had these huge ring roads. It had huge buildings. Again, maybe in little pockets where you would just have wander around little streets and find shops, you had like shopping malls. The whole style of it was interesting, but not for somebody whose favorite cities are London and Paris and Rome and Barcelona, it's like a very different deal.

And the pollution was terrible. I was in China every year during my tenure and I have pictures outside of my hotel where you almost can't see across the street.

James Green: And this is you're talking about in the Obama administration later on-

Todd Stern: In the Obama administration. So, that means that just as a physical impression. I had a very positive impression of, not so much on the Clinton trip because I didn't really start having my own meetings, at that time, but as … but even a bit then watching the senior leadership who we met with.

And then also with my own counterparts, a great deal of a kind of intellectual capacity and ability, people very smart and people very tactical and strategic and so impressive in that sense. With Secretary Clinton, I remember the first meeting was at Diaoyutai with Dai Bingguo and it was all quite interesting.

I mean, she took me for a reason. It was her first trip.

James Green: So, this is 2009?

Todd Stern: It was 2009 in February. She was breaking the tradition of Secretaries of State going to Europe first and so there was-

James Green: Or Latin America.

Todd Stern: Right. Okay. This was to signal something of a pivot to Asia. And so, we went to Japan, China, South Korea, and Indonesia. She had an agenda. In each place, she talked about … I think she had three priorities and one of them was climate change. One of them particular with China was sort of hot spots, North Korea and things like that.

This was my first trip, so I didn't even have experience of this, but this stuff is very protocol conscious, like where you are in the line, how close you are to the armchair, where the principles…All of these things kind of matter. And they-

James Green: And they're very well scripted. It's not loosey-goosey.

Todd Stern: They're scripted. Completely scripted. It's not like go find a seat. You go find the seat you're assigned, and so she had me quite high up in the protocol chain. I think not just because she was trying to be nice to me, or even at all for that reason, but because there was a message to be sent, which was actually consequential and useful. The Chinese, in a way which is completely consistent with just being smart and careful and doing your job well.

They really want to suss out who the guy is, who's the right guy or woman? Who's the right person for them to be dealing with? Who's the person with authority? Because titles are titles and, there have been special envoys of the state who still are who are relatively mid-level.

I was basically our Climate Minister, right? That's the position that I had been picked for. And so, the Chinese needed to see that. And they were in fact in the early days kind of asking, right? "Is Stern the right guy?" Right? Is he speaking with authority or is somebody gonna overrule him?

James Green: Could you just describe, I want to step back a little bit and have you just talk about a strategy that the administration had coming in on what to do about climate change, but since you brought up that first trip, I was working in Policy Planning at the time and my transition memo that I wrote was why the new Secretary of State- This is before the election.

Todd Stern: Yeah.

James Green: The new Secretary of State should visit Asia, whoever he or she is, as the first visit, for the reasons that you just laid out-

Todd Stern: Right.

James Green: …that traditionally the Secretary of State has gone to Europe or Latin America and no one had been to Asia, and so, super excited to then have that actually be the decision of the new team and have her go there.

So, could you just step back and just talk a little bit of how you got to the State Department in that job, and-

Todd Stern: Oh, sure.

James Green: … what you were asked to do and maybe even one a little bit further as well just talk about what the Obama administration's policy was towards climate change and how you were part of that?

Todd Stern: Sure. Well, I'd swerved into the…I'm a lawyer by training. I was interested in politics. I sort of swerved into politics back in the late 80s in a presidential campaign, and then stayed active and engaged and worked for my summer vacation in 1992 in Little Rock for Clinton and worked on his debate prep team and did various transition memos and whatnot. In any event, and I had gotten to know John Podesta quite well and-

James Green: And so, were you working on economic or…

Todd Stern: No. You know, I was a real generalist.

James Green: Policy?

Todd Stern: Yes, a generalist on policy. And I did not have any particular background on environmental stuff for climate change ever until I was tabbed to help during the Clinton administration, but I got to know John, and Clinton won. I went to the White House as, John Podesta's deputy.

He was a staff secretary, and then I moved up to be the staff secretary when John left after a couple of years and, as I said earlier, I ended up in the last year and a half going to Treasury. I got pulled into climate change. Both John and I from that staff secretary platform were sometimes asked to do special assignments outside the four corners of the job, which ranged from anything from dealing with problems like Whitewater or the travel office to dealing with confirmation hearings that were hard or substantive things.

So, I was asked in '97 to jump in and help on climate change as the administration was preparing for Kyoto and that's how I got into it. And after Kyoto, they asked me to be the point person in the White House, administration-wide, and I did that for another year. So, basically spent a year and a half, almost two years doing climate and then went to Treasury. So, I had that climate background.

James Green: While you mentioned Kyoto, could you just set the table on what Kyoto is and was and what you were doing?

Todd Stern: Sure. Well, okay, let me give you two seconds of history. The granddaddy treaty for climate change is a 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. It didn't lay out very specific, really did not lay out specific obligations, but it laid out a framework, goals, generally what countries ought to be doing, but not more specific than that.

It was agreed to under President Bush. It was a Senate-approved either unanimously or by a voice vote. There was really no opposition. That was ‘92, parties pretty quickly after that decided that there needed to be more specificity if we were actually gonna make progress on climate change.

That gave rise to a mandate in '95 to negotiate what became Kyoto. Kyoto in '97 was notable for having countries take on specific targets by a specific time period and a whole set of pretty rigorous rules and procedures for reporting and compliance and all sorts of things, but all of that only for developed countries.

The framework convention had basically split the countries of the world into developed and developing. There was a more technical term, but that's basically what it amounted to. So, all of that Kyoto stuff was for developed only and there was no limit put on that division.

In other words, there was nothing built into Kyoto that said, "In X year, the more advanced developing countries would"

James Green: Get to graduate.

Todd Stern: Either that you had graduated into the developed level or that you would start taking on your own commitments of some sort.

James Green: That might be a little lesser, but they'd be some sort of obligations.

Todd Stern: Yeah. Exactly. As an example of a different agreement where that happened. The Montreal Protocol, to control chemicals that were creating a hole in the ozone layer, set forth a set of obligations for developed countries and more or less the same, some differences but quite similar obligations for developing that started ten years later. Right? So, there was a ten-year grace period.

James Green: There's a phase-in.

Todd Stern: And some differences in addition to that, but sort of like that. And there was absolutely nothing that time-limited this complete firewall between the two groups of countries. So, that was Kyoto. Significantly for that reason—not only, but significantly for that reason—it was dead on arrival in the United States. It was the kind of international agreement that required Senate approval, under the advice and consent clause. Some do, some don't, that one did, and it was dead.

President Bush, George W. Bush, within the first three months of his administration, officially withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto process.

James Green: So, under the Clinton administration the agreement was reached in '97 and-

Todd Stern: It was reached in '97. There were follow-on things that had to be done within the international negotiations to get it finished and that actually didn't happen for about another five years or so. They kept working on that. But even though you had Clinton and Gore, both super committed to climate change, there was no traction, even among Democrats.

James Green: You’re saying at that time the politics just wasn't there. It wasn't Congress- administration push and pull on a political level; it was really on the substance of the agreement that there were objections mostly in Congress, or was it a mix of politics and policy?

Todd Stern: I would say it was very heavily on politics. I mean, there were two issues. Even if you hadn't had that particular developed-developing country and particular China problem because China was always the developing country that caused the most angina in the U.S. Congress, you still had a lot of opposition, tons of opposition to the whole idea of doing a climate agreement.

And there was a famous resolution by Senators Byrd and Hagel, that basically said—it was done in the summer of '97, maybe six months before Kyoto—basically saying, "Thou shalt not enter into a Kyoto agreement that, a) would hurt the U.S. economy, which they vociferously argued it would; or b) failed to include all the countries."

So, we certainly violated B and there was debate about the economic impacts, but there was a lot of opposition. There really was a difference between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats fundamentally supported action on climate.

It's quite possible that, in fact likely, the Democrats would have, if you had 67 democratic votes in the Senate, you might well have been able to get that done even given that split between developed and developing, but it's also true that that was very hard for Democrats to defend.

James Green: Okay. Thank you that's very helpful. So, then you were brought in, you had worked on the Obama campaign or you had worked on Hillary Clinton's campaign?

Todd Stern: In the period after the Clinton administration, I joined a law firm. I was a partner in a law firm in Washington and I was also a fellow, not right not at the very beginning, but after a little while I became a fellow at the Center for American Progress that my old colleague John Podesta had started, and so I wrote a few articles on climate change.

I worked on a couple of long reports for CAP. So, I kind of kept my hand in on climate during that period, particularly probably in the 2004 to '08 or so period. And countries at a certain point after the Kyoto effort had finally gotten finished in the early 2000s, it didn't take too long for countries to figure out that it really wasn't a sustainable platform because it basically was covering about 25% of emissions.

James Green: And these are, just stepping back to the very basic science, emissions, these are-

Todd Stern: Greenhouse gas emissions, and mostly carbon dioxide, caused mostly by burning fossil fuels. Also cutting down forests and things like that, but overwhelmingly burning fossil fuels to run economies.

The overarching treaty is UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It's also the name for the body.

The UN body of all the countries in the UN, 195 countries or so, the deal with climate change is also called the UNFCCC. It meets at a ministerial level once a year, basically December, sometimes November, but toward the ends of every year. There is a so-called COP, for Conference Of the Parties, and each one has a number.

And Kyoto was COP 3. This whole process really started in '95. And so, at the COP in 2007 in Bali, it was decided that countries would try to negotiate a new agreement that in effect—they didn't say it like this but that's what was going on—that the U.S. would get in and that developing countries would be in for real, not just-

James Green: Would have some obligations?

Todd Stern: Yeah, would have some expectations, whatever. Would be expected and committed to taking action as well. So, that produced a mandate which was designed to then in, in turn produce an agreement in 2009, at the end of 2009.

So, when we got in, when the Obama administration started in late January of 2009, we were getting in in midstream. The negotiation had been kicked off, fourteen months earlier and there were ten months to go basically.

James Green: And so, then you were brought in and Secretary Clinton-

Todd Stern: I had been not very active in the campaign, but a little bit active early on during the primaries for Hillary Clinton. I mean, I'm a Chicago guy. We believe in loyalty. And the Clintons gave me my chance in the White House, so I was supportive of her. I didn't do that much, but I probably … I don't know, three, four, five times, did surrogate debates or sessions, on her behalf and I did a bit. I always liked Obama though, I have to say. When he came out on top then, I was quite supportive of him. And my old friend and mentor, John Podesta, was asked by Obama to run the transition and John asked me to be his deputy in running the transition.

I basically at a certain point started in the fall was pretty much spending all my time on transition work, which was sometimes personnel, sometimes troubleshooting, but I also worked on the policy side of climate stuff. And the various powers that be decided asked me to be—and I knew her all the way back to '93—they asked me to be her special envoy. Somewhere along the line, she had decided that she wanted to structure things that way. So, I came in with her at that point.

James Green: And the idea of creating a Special Envoy, just to go back to the bureaucratics, was that the person would focus solely on climate change and would give them that specialization?

Todd Stern: Yes. So, Secretary Clinton's hired a few special envoys, Dick Holbrooke on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Dennis Ross on Iran. Somebody for North Korea…

James Green: Bosworth?

Todd Stern: Maybe. Yeah.

James Green: Or that was later?

Todd Stern: I'm not sure. I don't remember for sure now but, and I never actually talked to her about this, but the way I read it was that, maybe to some extent so there was one person focusing on it, but I think also to not have that person go through confirmation because it was very time sensitive, right?

We had ten months ago till the thing that the world thought was going to be a huge big new treaty. And, I didn't think that, but the world thought that. So, we really didn't have any time to lose, and in different ways there was no time to lose on Af-Pak and Iran and so forth.

James Green: North Korea. Sure.

Todd Stern: Yes. So, I think that she picked a few people at a quite senior level, at a level that's certainly as senior or somebody who would be confirmed but that didn't need to be confirmed.

James Green: I see. Got it. And so, then you went on that first trip to China.

Todd Stern: Yeah.

James Green: From what you recall, honestly, I was working policy planning and I don't recall the messaging at a level other than these are important issues for the incoming administration. Was there any other kind of message at that moment that you recall was being sent to the Chinese other than climate change is important? Or did we have specific things we were asking?

Todd Stern: No. So, it turned out just by coincidence that my counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, who was the vice chairman of the NDRC, the National Development and Reform Commission. Arguably the most powerful agency in China.

James Green: Former Planning Commission.

Todd Stern: Yes. The agency that does the five-year plans and so forth. So, big powerful agency. He was vice chairman and he had the climate lead. He actually did domestic and international, but I think he wasn't in the country, anyway he was not available when I went there with Secretary Clinton.

So, I didn't really start my own meetings on that trip. She had wanted to do, and I encouraged it, a climate event in China. She spoke and I introduced her at a sort of efficient power plant. It was not that much later. Xie came to Washington in the middle of March, and that's-

James Green: I'm sorry. Did you know Xie Zhenhua beforehand from your work?

Todd Stern: No.

James Green: So, this was your first interaction when he comes in March, is your first, "Gee, I get to know you?"

Todd Stern: Yes. That's right.

James Green: And so, he came as a kind of follow-on to her trip or he was doing other things?

Todd Stern: Oh, I think he came to see me. My guess is he would have come whether she made that trip or not because I'm sure from his perspective, he needed to meet the new guy who was like what was the U.S. was gonna be doing now, what was going on with the US?

So, that was the time when I started to talk to the Chinese about climate change in any kind of more concrete way other than this is a big issue. We care about if the U.S. is committed, Obama's committed, I'm committed. It's gonna be a focus of our foreign policy. And like from my point of view, that's all that needed to be done. And that sent a message that the Chinese heard.

James Green: And so, then Xie Zhenhua comes here in March. Anything you remember from that meeting on how did it go? He's a very larger than life person in some ways. How was that first interaction if you recall?

Todd Stern: I think it was very good, actually. We got to be very good friends. There was substance in the meeting but the relationship building part of it was actually more important. I'm pretty sure we had dinner. I am sure, I just don't remember exactly where we went, but we also had a dinner.

He doesn't speak English, really. I mean, maybe a tiny bit, but he always has a translator. He's a real personality. He's not like a gray person. He’s very expressive. He gestures. He smiles. He laughs. He yells.

James Green: He's a human.

Todd Stern: Yeah. I think he's not as big as he... He presents large. He's got a kind of big round expressive face and I think he wanted to know early on what we expected and what we expected of China. We started that conversation. That didn't get that deep because, again, I had just gotten there, but I know that I did say to him, because it was something...I mean if you sort of drop back for one second, China and the U.S. were historic antagonists on climate change, right? China's the biggest developing country and the U.S. the biggest developed, and the U.S. more than anybody else, even well before I was there pushed back against this kind of firewall, didn't like it very much. Accepted it.

And I won't comment on the decision to accept it back in '95 before my time. But that was the sort of the history of the U.S. and China. And of course, the U.S. and China forever and certainly in 2009 and really all the way through the administration, just had a ton of issues that they were conflictual about, right? There were security issues on South China Sea.

There's human rights and the Dalai Lama. There was currency manipulation and forced disgorgement of intellectual property and on and on and on and on. And those things were true all the way back in 2009. And I very much had a view that I wanted to present to him the notion that climate change even though we were historically antagonistic on this issue too, we have to work together on this.

And this could be a kind of positive pillar in our bilateral relationship. So, important with respect to climate change for us and the world, but also good for us-

James Green: As a bilateral matter.

Todd Stern: As a bilateral matter. I started to kind of try to sell that. And he was pretty open to that and I very much noted if you fast-forward almost seven years to the bilateral meeting between Obama and Xi on the first day of the Paris meeting, President Xi said something not too different from that, that this is a positive aspect of our relationship.

James Green: So, you've been writing Xi Jinping's talking points-

Todd Stern: Well, no.

James Green: Or he had absorbed (laughs).

Todd Stern: But I think over time, I don't know if he thought that was a good idea right away, but I mean we kept kind of working on that. So, that's what I remember from the first meeting.

James Green: Yeah. Well. So, you had mentioned that the Copenhagen leaders meeting was coming up and you guys had ten months to prepare for it.

Todd Stern: Yeah, right.

James Green: There was a fair amount of press at that time about this unplanned meeting at the end in which President Obama goes to speak to some of the other leaders of the developing world. Mike Froman had kind of talked about some of that when we spoke with him. Can you talk a little bit about the preparation for must have been incredibly busy at the preparation for the leaders meeting, and then how China played into that at Copenhagen?

Todd Stern: So, there's a ton of preparation for Copenhagen all during the year, right? There's bilateral meetings. We took a grouping that the Bush administration had put together toward the end of the Bush administration which they called the MEM, the major economies meeting, seventeen developed, developing majors.

We rebranded a little bit because the Bush administration brand on climate wasn't particularly good, but I had had a belief after my experience back under Clinton that you do substantive business of the sort that you need to do to develop positions just relying on the COPs at the end of the year, which is a kind of a cacophony in a three-ring circus and all of that.

James Green: A lot of players, a lot of countries, a lot of-

Todd Stern: Yeah, there really needed to be a smaller grouping that could meet at a high level periodically and just quietly be able to talk. I actually wrote an article about this one in the articles I wrote during the period before Obama got elected. And so, then the Bush administration set something up.

We took the countries basically, gave it a different name, and gave it a mission to facilitate the negotiations or the secondary mission to see what clean energy collaboration there might be, but really focused on the negotiations. And so, we actually had six of those meetings during the course of 2009, including one at the leader's level.

James Green: And that was, generally at your level, you mentioned six. Was that at your level which for other countries was that a vice minister or-

Todd Stern: No, minister.

James Green: A minister level.

Todd Stern: It sounds funny in the, in the U.S. context, but I was genuinely seen as the minister. Meaning, ministers were my counterpart. There were other places where…Brazil is another place where there is an environment minister, but the person who really leads on climate, by and large, is effectively a sort of undersecretary in their foreign ministry.

India, for a while, their minister was somebody in the immediate office of their prime minister. So, it just depends.

James Green: Just before you get to the leaders’ part of it, do you remember what the U.S. top two or three positions were going into Copenhagen? What we were looking for just in some substantive way?

Todd Stern: Yeah. So, I'll give two answers to that question. I mean, generally speaking, we were looking for ... I mean if you step back and look at the U.S. posture, we wanted an agreement that was as strong and effective as it could be. We could not accept an agreement that was premised on the firewall. So, it could not be Kyoto redux.

James Green: Developing and developed country split.

Todd Stern: Yeah. I mean there was gonna be a developed and developing country split; that's built into the framework convention. But that doesn't mean that just developed do something and developing don't or that developed countries make legally binding commitments to do X and developing agree voluntarily that they'll do Y if they feel like it.

It couldn't be kind of badly asymmetrical. We expected that developed countries would sort of do more from the point of ... not even do more but do different things from the point of view of content because we were at a level of maturity economically that you could talk rationally about net reductions of our emissions. If our emissions are X, they should go to X minus Y.

If you're a country that's growing 9 or 10% a year, you can't do that without throwing your entire economy into an uproar. What you can do though is reduce as compared to what you are going to be. And that can be just as hard. So, that's why I said it's not that we were gonna do more, but we were gonna do different. That was fine, but you couldn't have these blatant divides.

And in some ways, it's maybe simplest to think about it as like legally binding rigorous rules for us and not for them; that kind of thing. So, that's kind of the, the general backdrop on issues.

There’s always a bunch of issues in these negotiations. There's issues that have to do with the nature of the so-called mitigation targets, how much reductions countries are gonna make. There's issues having to do with transparency, how they're gonna report on what they're doing and get reviewed. There's issues having to do with financial support, with something that's called adaptation which is how poor countries, in particular, cope with climate change that you can't avoid.

So, there's a slew of issues. The issues that were most difficult going into Kyoto all really revolved around the degree to which we and then others with us were trying to pull back from some of that sharp divide that I was telling you about. And that came up in different ways, both in particular with respect to mitigation and the transparency stuff. And so aspects of those things were unresolved all the way up until the very final, dramatic meeting.

James Green: Can you set the table? Can you kind of prepare us for how things were going and then the president arrives?

Todd Stern: The Danes had been trying during the course of the fall to work…the Danes had figured out correctly that there wasn't gonna be an agreement of the kind people had been anticipating with legally binding commitments. Developing countries wouldn't accept legally binding and we wouldn't accept if they didn't accept.

So, the Danes did some things wrong in terms of the actual management of the meeting and certain things, I suppose, in the fall, but the Danes were very, in many respects, very impressive in the strategic way they thought about this in the lead-up.

And they started to make a pivot which Prime Minister Rasmussen unveiled in the fall where they were talking about, “we can't get the whole agreement done yet. So, let's start with, in essence, an agreement where countries would politically commit rather than legally commit.” So, make strong meaningful commitments but not legally binding commitments as a start 'cause it's too serious. “We can't wait, let's get started” kind of thing, but that's really what was going on.

James Green: So, aspirational goals at a political level?

Todd Stern: I think I would say more than aspirational but real goals, but just not legally binding.

And they figured out that that there was no way to get us to do legally binding unless you were gonna get China and the others to do it, and they couldn't get them to do it. And so, you had that conundrum and they didn't wanna get locked out of anything. So, let's agree on mitigation commitments. Let's agree on transparency. Let's agree on finance. Let's agree on all these things. It's just gonna be in a kind of political commitment document rather than a legally binding document.

And then, we're gonna resolve to continue working on a legally binding one. And so, the Danes had already started. And, and the Danes had held a couple of meetings with groups of countries in the fall and lead-up. And on the second or third day of the COP, one of the developing countries, never been identified who did it, leaked the Danish document that they had prepared and circulated, in a week or two before the COP started in a meeting of forty or fifty countries. And the whole place went haywire.

And it was seen…There was this good deal of cynicism here because whoever leaked it had been at the meeting. So, it wasn't really such a surprise, but people, it was a little bit out of Casablanca. People were shocked, shocked that this had happened, but there were also lots of developing countries who didn't know anything about even those meetings. So, they actually were very surprised, and the tradition and the climate negotiations is very much "party-driven."

So, the notion that the, that the Danes as the presidency would be drafting something was just heretical.

And so, it caused a huge uproar and a lot of the next number of days was spent trying to put the thing back together. The Danes were trying for more than a week to pull together a kind of group of maybe thirty high-level developed and developing countries together.

James Green: So, kind of like what the U.S. had pulled together in the major economies?

Todd Stern: Yes, but it would have been broader than that. It wouldn't have just been the majors. It would have been representative from the islands from Africa. It would have touched everybody. But you can touch everybody with forty people.

Every time a meeting would be scheduled, generally the developing countries wouldn't show up. So, they really couldn't get it together. Finally on Thursday—thing was supposed to end on Friday night—on Thursday night at 11:00 o'clock after a dinner that was hosted by the Queen, the Danes had gone around and invited, thirty, thirty-five countries at the leader level to a meeting which started that night at 11:00, as a kind of last-ditch effort to salvage something because it looked like there would be literally nothing. I mean it looked like there would be nothing.

Hillary Clinton had arrived on Thursday morning with the agreement on the U.S. side that we would support a goal which had been, I think, first proposed by Gordon Brown in the U.K. and was very much the kind of cause celebre of Melesh from Ethiopia on behalf of developing countries to mobilize $100 billion dollars a year by 2020, so from private sources, public sources, but for development countries.

James Green: For mitigation or…

Todd Stern: For both mitigation and adaptation.

And she announced that at the press conference on Thursday morning when she arrived, and that started to breathe life into what seemed like a fairly moribund process at that point because then this idea was around, but the U.S. hadn't been supporting it. Mike Froman and I had been discussing it and working on that point for a while. But it got to the stage that the U.S. was ready to say yes.

So, the thing was breathing a little bit more on Thursday, but then Thursday night, the meeting starts. It goes basically all night. The leaders get let out by the Danes at maybe 3:00 in the morning or so, with the instruction to be back at 8:00. And, those of us who weren't leaders stayed most of the night, stayed in the center all night, but stayed working most of the night.

The meeting resumed around 8:00 or so. Obama arrived probably 9:00, 10:00. And then this meeting in this conference room went on in this room in the center went on for quite a while. That sort of stalled out at some point in the afternoon. The president wanted to ... He had met with Wen Jiabao earlier, but he wanted to meet with the Chinese again.

The Chinese and the Indians, I think, were the only ones who did not send leaders. At least the only ones who didn't send leaders when there were leaders there to be sent. I think just about everybody else, it was literally the president or the prime minister. India sent their minister. And the Chinese sent a bureaucrat.

James Green: This is the meeting that you're saying. Yeah.

Todd Stern: This is in the meeting in the center. And so, the president was getting ... I mean I think everybody was getting pretty impatient and the president really wanted to get back together with the Chinese and we're having a lot of trouble finding them. We had heard that the Indian leader, Singh, might have even left Copenhagen altogether.

I don't know who heard or how it happened, but somebody heard that there was a meeting going on Wen Jiabao was at such and such a conference room in a different part of the center. So, the President, Hillary Clinton, me and Froman and five or six other people all start moving over there and we get there completely unannounced.

There are a million press cameras, everything. The meeting is the leaders from China, India, South Africa, and Brazil which had formed a little mini bloc called basic countries. And, when the president walked in and said, "Here I am, basically. Can you make room for me?" And so, there was much shock and bustling around to rearrange the seats. And then began a meeting that went for 45 minutes or an hour which focused on two things really.

One was to get language that would provide for some form of international review of the reporting done by developing countries on what they were doing on their inventories, of emissions and that kind of thing as opposed to developing countries self-reporting full-stop.

And China had never agreed. Many of developing countries are fine with that, but most importantly, China had never agreed to that. And secondarily, that the commitments that countries make had to be "internationalized." I mean I say quote. That's a word that we came up with during the NEFF meeting, but not simply that you would put out a press release saying, "We're doing X," but that you're part of an international system that you're, that you're submitting your proposal to the UNFCCC. Chinese had not agreed either of those things. And by the end of the meeting, they agreed to both of those things. And there was lots of back and forth, back and forth, back and forth on the words that would be used to express what was gonna happen for transparency. And it ended up being that there would be international consultations and analysis of a country's own report.

And that was the thing that broke the deadlock on the Copenhagen Accord although there was still some more.

James Green: So, in this case, the personal intervention of the president having kind of face-to-face with the Chinese premier was the breakthrough apart.

Todd Stern: Absolutely. And he was there, and Hillary Clinton was right next to him. And Froman and I were standing right behind them or sometimes off in the corner trying to find words with the Chinese.

James Green: Scribble it down (laughs).

Todd Stern: Yeah, but that was the thing which got the Copenhagen Accord done. Of course, it still had to be adopted by the plenary, and it wasn't. It was the plenary revolted. Again, remember, this is a consensual. It's not formally, but it's essentially a consensus process. So, even though you have 195 countries, you can't really have anybody or at least not many bodies disagreeing. You had enough that it wasn't adopted, but at the end of the day, after much back-and-forth and wrangling and maneuvering, it was taken note of which kept it alive.

And that was actually very important.

James Green: Fascinating introduction of that. Can I move forward a couple more years to 2014? China is hosting APEC. And there was a bilateral meeting between President Obama and then President Xi. And there were four different areas of agreement, and one of them was on climate. Could you talk a little bit about the run-up and how you use their host year of APEC to push this issue?

Todd Stern: Well, sure. The way this started is that we'd had quite a good year with China in 2013. Secretary Kerry had come on in the beginning of that year. He had wanted to intensify. I met with Xie constantly. We had a lot of interaction; I mean, he took me to his hometown. I took him to my hometown, took him to a baseball game, had him over for dinner to our house in Washington. I mean, we interacted a lot.

James Green: The Cubbies or did you go to the Nationals?

Todd Stern: Cubs. Cubs, of course. I'm a Chicago guy.

But Secretary Kerry, to his credit, wanted to kind of pick it up. And we ended up, under his leadership, starting a U.S.-China climate change working group to collaborate on specific areas, clean energy type areas, always with the S&ED, the Strategic And Economic Dialogue, which was usually June/July as the action-forcing event each year to announce here's some new things we've agreed to. That became quite useful.

The other thing that happened in '13 is that, President Obama and President Xi had their first meeting in Sunnylands. And we negotiated...I started the negotiation with Xie, when I was in Beijing. And then we continued it for a couple of weeks by phone in the lead-up to Sunnylands to negotiate something, a short agreement on controlling an important industrial gas called HFCs, hydrofluorocarbons, and using the mechanism of the Montreal Protocol to control those gases which made sense because HFCs were a substance, a non-ozone depleting substance, devised as a substitute for an ozone-depleting substance and used in things like air conditioners.

People originally didn't realize that HFCs were a really bad climate change agent, but they were. So, we negotiated. That turned out to be the single biggest deliverable of the Sunnylands meeting, and then there was still a follow-up short agreement between the two of them in September on the margins of the G20. So, there had been a lot of positive stuff going on.

And Secretary Kerry called me up to his office in January of 2014 and basically said, "Okay, what are we gonna do next?" Right. Like that was good.

James Green: “Thanks for your work. What's next?”

Todd Stern: Now what? So, I said, "Okay. Let me think about that." And we've got together with my team. And we ran a bunch of ideas. And somebody on my team said, "Why don't we try to have the two countries jointly announce their targets for Paris when the two leaders are gonna be getting together in November for APEC."

James Green: And Paris is taking place the subsequent year.

Todd Stern: The following year. Yeah. I was initially a little skeptical that the Chinese—I liked the idea—I was skeptical that they would wanna do that because I just wasn't sure they'd wanna walk down the aisle with the U.S. when they have a lot their own developing country G77 equities, but I did think it was interesting. And I thought they might think about it in a kind of broader context that would appeal.

I accompanied Kerry to China to start talking about this in February, even talked to the White House, but obviously before we went. And John Podesta was, again my old mentor, at the White House at that point to work on climate. The president had given a big climate change speech at Georgetown in June or July of '13 laying out a climate action plan.

And John was brought in to kind of drive that interagency. Anyway, I went with Kerry. I first broached this with Xie. And then Kerry raised it with Xi Jinping and all the leadership, the foreign minister and others that he met with. And the Chinese were open to it. And it wasn't the done deal, but it was always understood that each country would have to be adequately comfortable with what the other one was proposing because you wouldn’t wanna walk down the aisle…

James Green: You're announcing it together, right? (laughs)

Todd Stern: If we thought the Chinese were laying an egg, we wouldn't want Obama to be wrapping his arm around it, and vice versa. There was about nine months of negotiation over this and meetings and discussions and back and forthing. And we managed to keep it quiet. It never leaked that this was going on.

When the announcement was made in November, it was quite stunning, actually.

James Green: As you said, none of this had leaked that the-

Todd Stern: Nobody knew.

James Green: …United States and China were working on something substantive on climate change.

Todd Stern: There were a million press in China for the event, right? And again, this thing had been going on with a lot of people aware of it for nine months and nothing had leaked. And so, the press was completely shocked which gave it even more adrenaline.

James Green: Can you just describe what was announced?

Todd Stern: Yeah. The Chinese announced their target for Paris. They had about a three- or four-part target that had to do with…Their main metric was reducing the energy intensity of their economy, but also they had a date for when their emissions were gonna peak and then start to come down.

They had a target for the amount of non-fossil energy, the percentage of non-fossil energy in their mix and so forth. And we had a target that was based on what we would reduce against the 2005 baseline by 2025. So, our target was 26 to 28% below 2005 by 2025 which was quite a stretchy target for us that was…

James Green: Level of U.S. emissions. Is that right?

Todd Stern: Level of U.S. emissions. And there was a tremendous amount of technical work to see what looked feasible. And then, there was a lot of sort of political debate and work about given that this is what looks feasible where should we be. And should we be even a little above that, et cetera?

So, that was a piece of it. And then there was a company kind of text where the two presidents talked about being committed to getting the agreement in Paris done and being committed to working together to work out any obstacles to that happening.

We worked hard on it. Paris went all the way at some level two days before it was over. We were still wrestling with them, but I think we knew, and they knew. We both knew that we had to get this done.

James Green: That that was really serious. And so I guess just stepping way back and looking at all this time that you spent with the Chinese and with all these other countries on climate, are there lessons to be learned on what works in negotiating with Chinese counterparts or with the Chinese government, or what doesn't?

Todd Stern: Well, it's a good question. I think that, again, the notion that we have a lot of areas of difference and friction and that climate is certainly not an easy issue, it was one that we could find adequate common ground, and it could be, as I said all the way back at the beginning, it actually could be a positive pillar. And it became that.

I think that we were…I think both Xie and I all the way through were mindful of really trying; you don’t just ask the question and get the answer. You've got to really-

James Green: Drill and drill and drill.

Todd Stern: Drill and drill and drill till you see that you're really hitting bedrock to understand what the other guy's redline really is. The Chinese are not gonna go there or the Americans are not gonna go there. So, what do we do to work within those parameters? It's a talking game. That's what diplomacy is. You spend a lot of time trying to understand those things.

I think it was enormously important that there was engagement at the very top levels of our government from both the president and the Secretary of State and others. The Secretary of Energy had his own role and EPA was important. They could see that this was an issue of that kind of high priority for us.

The other thing that we were mindful about is that whatever the other areas of friction were and are and I mean I think this is true now too. And we don't have an administration, unfortunately, that understands or cares about climate change, but the concerns that exist about China now go way beyond the Trump administration.

I mean, if you kind of follow the ... I mean, you're the China-phile and I'm not, but if you follow that China-phile world on the Democratic or the Republican side, there's a lot of disillusionment and unhappiness with a lot of Chinese conduct. And I happen to think some of that's legitimate, but we have no choice but to work with them on climate change even if you weren't thinking about this as the pillar, right?

I mean that's one point, but we simply have no choice because climate change is a deadly serious issue. China is somewhere between 25 and 30% of global emissions by themselves, right, and even back in 2009, they were probably a little less than that, but not so much less than that. At that point still rapidly rising trajectory, there's just no way to deal with this unless China is a serious part of it. And they won't be a fully serious part of it without a U.S.-China relationship.

So, you’ve got to. That's not what I learned from the negotiations with them, but that is a foundational principle that you've got to be aware of. You've got to find a way to work together on this.

James Green: Todd Stern, thank you so much for sharing today. I really appreciate it.

Todd Stern: Okay. Thank you.

James Green: Special Envoy Todd Stern speaking with me from Washington, D.C. You’ve been listening to the U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast from Georgetown University. I’m your host, James Green.