Last-Minute Hiccup Nearly Sank Climate Deal, Stern Says

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By Anthony Adragna

Dec. 15 — Switching one word in the final draft agreement of the international climate change agreement that ultimately emerged in Paris very nearly derailed the deal, the lead U.S. negotiator said Dec. 15, because allowing the swap would have resulted in an accord requiring Senate approval.

Todd Stern, speaking at the Center for American Progress in his first remarks since the deal's approval, said the final draft agreement contained a clause (Article 4.4) stating developed nations “shall” continue undertaking economy-wide emissions reductions measures. That word, switched from the previously agreed upon “should,” would have effectively made the agreement legally binding and required Senate ratification.

“Somehow or other, a gremlin got into the French typewriters and computers, and the word popped out,” Stern said. “It is a very interesting mystery as to what happened because somebody, somewhere in the French or [United Nations] Secretariat system decided to do that. You don't autocorrect from should to shall.”

Stern said he first spotted the word switch and then immediately contacted French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius, president of the summit, to say the U.S. could not support the emerging deal unless the switch was undone.

“I couldn't imagine that it would all far apart over this, but still there's a history of a tremendous amount of distrust and skepticism in these negotiations,” Stern said. “For some of those negotiators, whether it was a mistake or not a mistake, it was there. It was an opportunity. ‘OK, you want me to agree to let this be fixed, what am I going to get?' That would have unraveled the whole thing because you wouldn't have been able to stop that.”

After 90 minutes of frantic negotiations on the floor involving Secretary of State John Kerry, Stern said negotiators fixed the issue. Nations ultimately approved the 12-page, first-ever global climate agreement Dec. 12 after more than two weeks of United Nations negotiations (239 ECR, 12/14/15).

Stern Briefs Senate Democrats

With the ink barely dry on the agreement, Stern traveled to Capitol Hill following his remarks at the Center for American Progress to brief 10 Senate Democrats on details of the deal and to look ahead to how lawmakers might maintain momentum for climate action going forward.

Senators had warm words for the U.S. negotiators, especially Stern, for striking the deal in Paris. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who spearheaded a trip to Paris for senators, told Bloomberg BNA after meeting with Stern that the deal had “pretty much everything we wanted” in it.

“We still want to show U.S. leadership,” Cardin said. “We really want to be aggressive moving from this day forward, not slowing down.”

Attending the briefing with Stern were Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Ed Markey (Mass.) and Cardin, according to an aide in the room.

“There's no doubt this wouldn't have happened without American leadership and that has to continue,” Schatz said. “We need to take care of our own house, which means we need to fully implement the Clean Power Plan and maintain American leadership on clean energy, but there's also a fair amount we need to do in the international community to make sure the accountability regime that's been established gets followed and that we assist all the partner countries in developing and implementing their own plans.”

Next Steps for Stern

Transparency and verification requirements in the final deal are among the most significant areas that will require additional work in the coming years to successfully implement, Stern said (239 ECR, 12/14/15).

“We got what we needed—and then some—I think in terms of spelling out enough detail, but you'll still need to do more than that,” Stern said. “There will be guidelines that will need to be negotiated there and in other areas. And those will be important to make sure that the world is still watching.”

Stern said his team will now assess what particular areas of the deal will require additional attention to implement, including how the world can meet its pledge of $100 billion annually in combined private and public money beginning in 2020 to help developing nations adapt.

Despite the remaining challenges, the lead U.S. negotiator said the architecture in Paris would enable countries to take action on the problem.

“That's now for the first time ever established,” Stern said. “And now it's game on. Now everybody's got to go, and under this structure, take action.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at aadragna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com