Todd Stern: Half Right, All Wrong

There was a bit a firestorm in the climate world a few weeks back.  It started after Todd Stern, the US special envoy for climate change made a speech that included the following comment:

“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.”

The firestorm?  Basically, Stern was attacked for turning his back on the 2C target.  See for example, Kate Sheppard in Mother Jones here, and Foreign Policy here, and all sorts of other public and list-bound communications, many of them from the South.  Even the EU was upset.

Stern then issued a clarification, which did in fact clarify.  The emphasis here is mine:

 “There have been some incorrect reports about comments I made in a recent speech relating to our global climate goal of holding the increase in global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius.  Of course, the US continues to support this goal; we have not changed our policy.  My point in the speech was that insisting on an approach that would purport to guarantee such a goal — essentially by dividing up carbon rights to the atmosphere — will only lead to stalemate given the very different views countries would have on how such apportionment should be made.  My view is that a more flexible approach will give us a better chance to actually conclude an effective new agreement and meet the goal we all share.”

All told, it was an interesting episode, and a bad sign.  We’re heading into the next round of negotiations, but people are scrapping for a fight.  Was this one justified?   I think it probably was, but I also think that the criticism of Stern was by and large as unhelpful as Stern himself.

First up, is there anything new here?  What’s changed between the US’s push for pledge and review in Copenhagen and Stern’s position today?  Nothing, as far as I can tell.  Stern’s argument, very clear in his clarification, is that any top-down allocation would only breed strife and deadlock.  This has always been the crucial argument for pledge and review.  The problem now is to understand when it’s actually correct, and when it’s just smoke.

In any case, the question isn’t if Stern was “clumsy,” or sending “political signals,” or whatever.  The question is what’s the best strategy for the next three to five years.  I don’t know the answer but I can’t see how Stern’s imperial tone-deafness helps.  But neither do I think it does us any good to misconstrue his argument.  He’s saying that being “flexible” may get us farther in the end.  It’s not a new point by any means.  Mainline theorists like Dan Bodansky have been making it for years.  To be sure it’s an argument that many people don’t trust, and I count myself among them.  Good points can and often are used to justify bad policies, and this is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Todd Stern.  But, still, Stern’s making a claim about the politics of effort-sharing, not about 2C per se, and it needs to be understood for what it is.

The real problem here is that the Kyoto negotiations haven’t ended, and the next round is already beginning.  Still, at some level we should grant the point that – relative to the frozen Kyoto Annexes – some sort of “flexibility” is going to be necessary.  Though “flexible” isn’t the right word.  The right word is “dynamic.”  Because what we need is a dynamic regime that evolves and re-balances along with the global economy.  A Fair, Ambitious, and Dynamic regime.  A FAD regime.

Stern, for his part, has absolutely nothing to say about fairness.  For him it’s all about a flexibility.   Which is an utterly pointless place to stand.  Flexibility won’t work on its own, not if “working” includes delivering a high-ambition outcome.  If fact, the lesson I draw from this affair is that Stern’s advocacy of flexibility without fairness is quite likely to do more harm than good.

The way forward is to accommodate both dynamism and fairness, in the context of high ambition. In this regard, the Climate Action Network’s notion of an “equity corridor” is far more promising than Stern’s rather disembodied call for flexibility.  To quote the latest CAN International newsletter:

“An ‘equity corridor’ should be established to inform the political negotiations – establishing the parameters of what can reasonably be expected of different Parties. While it is very unlikely that any single formula, indicator or metric will ever be agreed to determine the fair shares of different countries, there is a critical role for a range of objective indicators/metrics and agreed principles to inform the political negotiations and shape Parties’ perceptions of what can reasonably be expected of others.”

(For more on the “equity corridor” idea, see here).

“Flexibility” is not enough.   Mr. Stern would like us to believe that it is.   This is the real problem.

— Tom Athanasiou