As climate change accelerates, it appears the Obama administration is in retreat. In an address on Thursday, the top climate negotiator for the United States rejected the administration’s formal commitment to keeping global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. This about-face from agreements endorsed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010 indicates a rejection of the United Nations climate negotiations process, as well as an implicit assertion that catastrophic global warming is now politically impossible to prevent.
Speaking before an audience at his alma mater Dartmouth College, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern argued that treaty negotiations based around “old orthodoxies” of a temperature threshold ”will only lead to deadlock”:
For many countries, the core assumption about how to address climate change is that you negotiate a treaty with binding emission targets stringent enough to meet a stipulated global goal – namely, holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 2° centigrade above pre-industrial levels – and that treaty in turn drives national action. This is a kind of unified field theory of solving climate change – get the treaty right; the treaty dictates national action; and the problem gets solved. This is entirely logical. It makes perfect sense on paper. The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible… . These basic facts of life suggest that the likelihood of all relevant countries reaching consensus on a highly prescriptive climate agreement are low, and this reality in turn argues in favor of a more flexible approach that starts with nationally derived policies… . The keys to making headway in this early conceptual phase of the new agreement is to be open to new ideas that can work in the real world and to keep our eyes on the prize of reducing emissions rather than insisting on old orthodoxies… This kind of flexible, evolving legal agreement cannot guarantee that we meet a 2 degree goal, but insisting on a structure that would guarantee such a goal will only lead to deadlock. It is more important to start now with a regime that can get us going in the right direction and that is built in a way maximally conducive to raising ambition, spurring innovation, and building political will.
Stern is absolutely right that the political challenge of achieving a 2°C goal is extremely high, but what is the “flexible, evolving” regime he proposes?
Stern argued in favor of a treaty structure without any overall emissions or temperature goal, but one that allows individual countries to pick their own targets without a requirement that they be internationally binding. (This structure resembles what the Bush administration favored, although the non-binding Obama administration goal for the United States of achieving 1990-level emissions by 2020 is much better than the non-binding Bush goal of having US emissions peak in 2025.) He recognized that “the risk of a system like this is that the policies and targets countries submit prove to be too modest,” and admitted that “[h]ow to encourage ambition in an agreement that is broadly inclusive will be one of the fundamental challenges in designing a new system.” In other words, he has no idea how a climate emissions treaty with no target or enforcement mechanism would do anything to prevent catastrophic global warming.
Scientific organizations first began recommending a 2°C target in the late 1980s, based on risk assessments of the adaptive capability of forests, long-term sea level rise, and the climate history of the human race. (Our species has never experienced an Earth more than 2.5°C warmer than pre-industrial times.) The Kyoto Protocol established pollution reduction targets consistent with the warming limit, but political opposition in the United States, the world’s greatest carbon polluter, eviscerated the effectiveness of the treaty.
On July 9, 2009, after a decade was lost under the climate denial of the Bush administration, the member nations of the G8 officially recognized the 2°C goal: “We recognize the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2C.” The Cancun agreements in 2010 codified the 2°C goal: “[W]ith a view to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions so as to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C above pre- industrial levels … Parties should take urgent action to meet this long-term goal.”
Last year in the Durban round of international climate talks, Stern hinted at this new stance when he described the 2°C target as just a ”guidepost.” His comments last week make clear that the Obama administration has fully abandoned the president’s commitments made just two years ago.
Meanwhile, the impacts of global warming are coming faster than scientists predicted when the 2°C threshold was set. With only 0.8°C of warming, Arctic sea ice and polar ice caps are melting decades ahead of predictions, oceanic warming and acidification are degrading ecosystems in unforeseen ways, and extreme weather has increased in stunning fashion. Civilization itself is at risk from the exponentially accelerating decline of the planetary support system.
Politics may be the art of the possible, but climate change is an inflexible reality. With its new stance on international climate policy, the administration has abandoned slim hope for none.
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.
Stern was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank run by John Podesta, the chair of the Obama transition. Stern was a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, as Vice Chair of the firm’s Public Policy and Strategy practice. Stern wrote on international climate change policy for CAP, promoting the creation of the E-8, a coalition of nations “focused on global ecological and resource problems” – (United States, China, India, Russia, South Africa, Brazil, Japan, and the European Union).
Stern was Assistant to the President and Staff Secretary in the White House from 1993 to 1998. He also coordinated the Administration’s Initiative on Global Climate Change from 1997 to 1999, acting as the senior White House negotiator at the Kyoto and Buenos Aires negotiations.
Carbon Control News reports that Georgetown Law professor Lisa Heinzerling will be joining the Environmental Protection Agency “to advise incoming Administrator Lisa Jackson on how to address climate change.” As Bradford Plumer notes at The New Republic, Heinzerling “was the lead author of the plaintiff’s brief in Massachusetts v. EPA back in 2007, in which the Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs that the EPA did, in fact, have the authority to regulate carbon-dioxide.”
Although the administration has not confirmed the appointment, Gristmill’s Kate Sheppard reports that Heinzerling’s voicemail recording at Georgetown says she is on a two-year leave from the school because she has “taken a position in the new administration.”