Todd Stern is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Distinguished Fellow at the World Resources Institute. He previously served as the Special Envoy for Climate Change at the State Department, leading the U.S. effort in negotiating the Paris Agreement.
ODP: You have remained active in the implementation of the Paris Agreement over the last two years. How are we doing now? Better or worse than you anticipated?
TS: COP 24 in Poland this past December was fundamentally about the implementation of Paris – completing the so-called “rulebook” of guidelines and rules meant to take Paris from being an agreement on paper to a working, operational regime. The result at COP 24 was quite good – better than I expected. The challenge was always going to be to put in place a rulebook that is robust enough to support ambition and that would not go backward from some of the key achievements of the Paris agreement, as some countries had wanted. The outcome in Poland was an important step forward, especially given the lack of U.S. participation at a senior, political level.
ODP: What is your view now about how China is doing on climate change?
TS: I think at the end of the day they did relatively well in the COP 24 negotiations. Beyond that, I think it’s a mixed bag. For example, they have made impressive gains at home in deploying renewable energy and reducing their reliance on coal, but at the same time they are financing and building huge amounts of new coal power abroad in their “Belt and Road Initiative,” which is completely inconsistent with meeting the Paris goals.
ODP: How do you assess climate politics now in the U.S.?
TS: Well, they’re obviously bad at the level of the executive branch, given the posture of President Trump and his administration. And most Republicans in Congress still regard climate change as a third rail they’re unwilling to touch. At the same time, state and local governments and civil society mobilized impressively after Trump’s June 2017 announcement of his intention to withdraw from Paris. And recent polling indicates that Americans are getting more and more worried about climate change — which is hardly surprising after the steady drumbeat of both extreme events and recent reports about the dangers we’re facing. Trump is obviously on the wrong side of history and also on the wrong side of the American people.
ODP: What do you think about the Green New Deal (GND)?
TS: The specifics will need to be worked out and those will be important. But I have high hopes for the GND. I think much of the framing is good and smart, connecting the action we need to take on climate change to large-scale economic development. Even more important, the GND is really the first initiative I’ve seen that recognizes the urgency of what we’re facing and the scale and speed of action required to meet the threat.
ODP: How does the absence of U.S. presidential leadership hurt going forward?
TS: Our single biggest global problem on climate is a lack of political will around the world. We can do what we need to when it comes to innovation, policy, and financing. But the requisite will to get things done is missing. Leaders in most cases have not internalized the scale and speed of action we need. Solving this problem demands full-on U.S. leadership. That won’t happen until we have a new president. And that is just what we in the U.S. — and the world — truly need.
Thanks so much, Todd! We agree with you that while the climate challenges we are up against are huge, the GND and progress in Poland on implementing the Paris Agreement are reasons to be hopeful.