February 19th, 2014


United States Special Envoy for Climate Change

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland last year achieved modest progress toward an international agreement on reducing carbon pollution. In 2015, the heads of nearly 200 nations will again meet, this time in Paris, and the hope is that they can seal a deal that would take effect in 2020. But rich and developing countries are still far apart on who should bear responsibility for increasing human impacts of severe weather. Even some of the most vigorous proponents of moving away from fossil fuels doubt the UN process will ever produce a treaty with teeth.
Ambassador Todd Stern is US Special Envoy for Climate Change, a position he also held during the Clinton administration.  Stern started his talk at the Commonwealth Club with a summary of where we are in a process that started two years ago:  “[At the] Conference of the Parties, the COP in South Africa, there was a decision to start a new negotiation that would cover the period of the 2020s, in which the parties would negotiate an agreement, legal in some way.” And its due date is 2015.  “As it turns out, the big climate meeting at the end of 2015 is going to be in Paris.  So we sit right in the middle of that process, about halfway through.”
Stern is optimistic that the Paris talks can yield an agreement that’s, in his words, “ambitious, inclusive and durable.” “Ambition is absolutely a critical part of any climate agreement,” he says.  “Inclusive - we have to get all of the players, all of the main players, and even players who are less than main to be part of the agreement to agree to take action.”   And by durable, Stern adds, “we’re looking to have an agreement where we don’t go through this process every five years, or really every ten years.”    
But Stern reminded the Commonwealth Club audience that real change begins here at home.  “The international agreement is important. But action, real action gets driven at the national level.” As a historically major emitter of carbon pollution, should the U.S. be doing more to clean up our act?  
While Congress battles over the Keystone Pipeline, auto efficiency standards and cap-and-trade legislation, “fundamentally there needs to be a transformation of the energy base of our economy to much less reliance on coal and oil in particular,” says Stern. “That's why renewable energy and energy efficiency alternatives, that's why natural gas, at least, as a transitional fuel, is important as well.  So clearly that's what needs to happen.”  
The bottom line is that change needs to happen on every level - state, national and global.  And while he encourages personal action to reduce our individual carbon footprint, Stern adds that we have a part to play as citizens too.  “The big ticket is that we've got to have a political system where our representatives recognize that this is something that needs to be acted on.  And so our legislatures, members of Congress, hearing the message that voters care about this is, at some level, the biggest thing.”
– Anny Celsi
February 19, 2014
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California