The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2017
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a “deadbeat dad”—the top historic carbon polluter ducking its


Quest for a Deal “Applicable to All”

When President Barack Obama took office in January 2009

UNFCCC negotiators faced the looming expiration of the

Kyoto Protocol’s 2008-2012 commitment period. The chaotic

December 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen, dubbed a

failure by many, actually brought into bold relief a fundamental

truth: putting the onus for action only on developed countries

was no longer viable. Even if all developed countries met their

ambitious targets, we would still be endangered by unchecked

developing country GHG emissions, particularly driven by major

emitters like China and India.

Cobbled together by Pres. Obama and other heads of state

in a last-ditch effort to salvage the Conference of the Parties, the

brief “Copenhagen Accord” reset the foundations for interna-

tional climate diplomacy. It was the first-ever agreement calling

on both developed and developing countries to articulate GHG

emission targets for 2020, removing the first bricks from the

“firewall” that previously shielded developing countries from

setting quantified goals. In

so doing, Copenhagen set

the stage for the effort to

develop a new deal by 2015

for the post-2020 period.

Given domestic U.S.

politics, we had to have

an agreement that,

among other things, was

“applicable to all” and

that strengthened long-

term ambition, ensured

transparency with regular

reporting and review, and was based on country-determined

(“bottom-up”) targets and timetables rather than “top-down”

ones imposed by others á la Kyoto. Led by then-Special Envoy

for Climate Change Todd Stern, the State Department’s team

composed primarily of career civil servants carefully crafted a

new “pledge and review” approach that ultimately became the

basis for the Paris Agreement. Stern relied heavily on two career

civil servants—Office of the Legal Adviser’s lawyer Sue Biniaz

and Office of Global Change Director Trigg Talley, whom Stern

later tapped as his deputy special envoy.

The State Department climate team felt the impact when

long-time climate champion and then-Senator John Kerry

took the reins at State in 2013. Secretary of State Kerry elevated

climate to the top of our diplomatic agenda, issuing his first

department-wide policy memo focused on climate and includ-

ing the issue as a regular fixture in his public statements. He and

Pres. Obama pressed the U.S. agenda routinely in bilateral calls

and meetings, as well as multilateral fora. Likewise, other top

Obama administration officials lent their strong support on cli-

mate issues, including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Agricul-

ture Secretary Tom Vilsack,

EPA Administrator Gina

McCarthy and Science

Advisor to the President

Dr. John Holdren, among


Several years of out-

reach and bargaining set

the stage for the closing

run-up to Paris. At the 2014

U.N. climate negotiations

in Lima, UNFCCC parties

chose State Department

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment Daniel Reifsnyder to

co-chair the committee charged with drafting the Paris Agree-

ment. Thanks to his long history with the UNFCCC dating from

its first days, Reifsnyder offered much more than his negotiating

skills and his credibility as a fair arbiter. He also brought to bear

his encyclopedic knowledge of climate issues and the extended

tribe of UNFCCC players from around the world. With little

fanfare, Reifsnyder teamed with his Algerian co-chair, Ahmed

Djoghlaf, also a veteran climate negotiator, to shepherd the

fractious parties through an intense succession of negotiations

throughout 2015. In reconciling the incredibly diverse interests

of nearly 200 parties, they developed a balanced package that

Cobbled together by President

Obama and other heads of

state, the brief “Copenhagen

Accord” reset the foundations

for international climate


Secretary of State John Kerry confers with U.S. negotiators on

the final text of the Paris Agreement.