Obama’s Climate Change Envoy Urges Global Warming Treaty, Offers Few Specifics
April 22, 2009President Barack Obama's special envoy for climate change told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday that the United States urgently needs to sign a new international treaty to control global carbon emissions in the name of fighting global warming.
However, other than indicating that the administration is committed to imposing a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions within the United States, he gave few specifics about the sort of international agreement the administration is seeking.
The envoy, Todd Stern, had just returned from climate-treaty negotiations in Bonn, Germany.
Meanwhile, the administration faces a deadline of Friday to submit input for the draft of a new climate-change treaty that is scheduled for finalization at a United Nations conference—Conference of Parties 15, or COP15—that is set to take place in Copenhagen, Denmark Dec. 7-18.
“I have to tell you that other than this hearing happening to time with Earth Day, this is sort of a nothing burger presentation today,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told Stern.
“I have no earthly idea what you are planning to submit, and I was hoping that today we would get some details,” said Corker, “because I think – as has been mentioned by others – understanding where this administration is going very much relates to domestic policy that we might put in place here.”
“I have absolutely no idea – and yet the submission is due in 48 hours – as to what the administration plans to do,” Corker continued. “Without going into that, I guess what I’d like to understand is [whether] you don’t know or that the administration is not willing to share that yet.”
“We will certainly be working very closely with you and others on the committee, among others in Congress,” Stern responded. “We will be continuing to work on other issues. The reality is, as I said, it is something to bear in mind that we came in about two months ago. The world had two years (to prepare for the conference), and we had a lot less time than that.
“We are very much on schedule,” Stern said.
“Just give me a specific answer,” Corker said. “When will the administration have a firm guideline on what they hope to accomplish in Copenhagen that they can submit to us to look at? I think that very much needs to be understood.”
“Sir, as I’ve said, I don’t think there’s a lot of suspense in respect to the main outline of what we’re talking about,” Stern said, an apparent reference to the domestic cap-and-trade system he had mentioned in his testimony. He also said that the administration would like to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 80 percent by 2050.
In his own introductory remarks, however, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) was clear about why he called for the hearing and why Stern’s testimony was vital.
“Today’s hearing comes at a really critical juncture in our global effort to address climate change,” Kerry said after wishing everyone Happy Earth Day. “The clock is literally ticking on the best chance that countries of the world will have to marshal an effective global response.
“I know that our team, under Todd Stern’s leadership, is hard at work drafting our input,” Kerry said. “Our submission this week represents a crucial opportunity to ensure that America’s perspective, on financing, on the structure that mitigates commitments and countless other issues are maintained and reflected in the draft document.
“The time has come for the United States to reclaim its rightful role as a diplomatic leader within the U.N. framework of climate change,” Kerry said.
At the end of the first panel, Kerry defended the lack of detail in Stern’s testimony.
“In fairness – I said this to Sen. Corker – Todd Stern made it clear to me prior to coming up here that not all of the T’s were crossed and I’s dotted,” the Massachusetts senator said.
“I knew he was coming here today without the ability to fully flesh out every single component,” Kerry said. “I still think (Stern’s testimony is) important, and I think it’s contributed significantly to people’s understanding of the process, where we’re heading and how we are going to get from here to there.”
The conference in Copenhagen has a genesis in the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change that dates back more than a decade and includes the Kyoto Protocol.
The Kyoto Protocol was opposed by the Bush administration because it required stricter sanctions on reducing greenhouse gas emissions for developed industrialized countries than developing industrialized countries, including China and India, both considered heavy contributors to global carbon emissions.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Stern’s selection as climate change envoy earlier this year, she confirmed the administration expected dramatic departure from the Bush administration’s climate policy.
“With the appointment today of a Special Envoy, we are sending an unequivocal message that the United States will be energetic, focused, strategic and serious about addressing global climate change and the corollary issue of clean energy,” Clinton said.
“Now our Special Envoy’s work will augment the ongoing work of this Department which has been our nation’s leader when it comes to international efforts on climate change since the late 1980s through the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and negotiations related to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as scores of other bilateral and multilateral climate-related initiatives,” she said.
“The Special Envoy will serve as a principal advisor on international climate policy and strategy,” Clinton said. “He will be the Administration’s chief climate negotiator. He will be leading our efforts with United Nations negotiations and processes involving a smaller set of countries and bilateral sessions.”
Stern has accompanied Clinton on her recent trips to China and Japan and also to the climate change conference in Bonn, Germany.
In remarks made in China, Stern spoke of this long-time relationship with the Clintons, including being the U.S. negotiator for the Kyoto Protocol.
“I have worked for two presidents, one also named Clinton, by the way, who liked to say about hard things, ‘We can do this,’” Stern said.
“And our new president, President Obama, likes to say about hard things, ‘Yes, we can.’ If China and the United States make common cause on building a low carbon world and put our collective talent, know-how, and inspiration to the task, we will get this job done,” Stern added.
As reported earlier by CNSNews.com, critics of the special envoy to climate change post say that the position can’t wield any real power in signing the U.S. onto international treaties, which have to be approved by Congress.
William Yeatman, an energy policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market group, said Stern and the State Department cannot act unilaterally to approve global agreements.
“No international agreement is going to be binding. No treaty is going to be binding unless the Senate were to approve it,” Yeatman told CNSNews.com, adding that the Senate has a history of voting against legislation that agrees to environmental standards that could harm the U.S. economy.
“The Senate has expressed in 1998, the Byrd Hagel Resolution, by a vote of 95 to 0, that the United States would not agree to any economically harmful international climate agreement that did not also include China, India and other major developing countries,” said Yeatman.
Stern might turn out to be, Yeatman said, a special “envoy of disappointment.”
Stern has a long history of championing environmental causes, including as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, described by The Washington Post as a “left-of-center think tank and refuge for Clinton administration alumni.”
Its founder, former Clinton Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, said about his organization in the same May 22, 2006 Post article, “The right describes us as Hillary’s think tank.”