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Todd Stern, the chief U.S. climate negotiator, said at a Capitol Hill symposium yesterday that passing U.S. climate legislation before the international conference on climate change in Copenhagen in December would be the best way to ensure global action to slow global warming.

"The optimum would be legislation that is signed, sealed and delivered," said Stern, who was appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as the U.S. envoy for climate negotiations.

"It's been a long time now that countries have been looking for the United States to lead and take action," Stern said. "I think nothing would give a more powerful signal to other countries in the world than to see a significant, major, mandatory American plan."

Stern's comments were echoed by international leaders attending a symposium in Washington on climate policy. These leaders urged the U.S. to act despite a faltering economy.

"We are also being provided with an opportunity now to rethink business as usual," said Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister for climate and energy. "Tackling global challenges, like that of the economy, we cannot do that without the United States. So we need the U.S. to engage."

The day-long symposium, U.S. Climate Action: A Global Economic Perspective, was organized by three Washington-based think tanks—CGD, the World Resources Institute, the Peterson Institute—and the UK-based Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. It began with a morning meeting of senators, governors, business leaders and international experts who discussed the prospects for U.S. domestic action on climate change. Speaking at a press conference after the private meeting, many of the participants stressed that action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should not be delayed by the global economic downturn because it provides an opportunity to lay the foundations for a sustainable recovery based on low-carbon growth.

Todd Stern’s remarks kicked off the afternoon session before an audience of some 200 people that included senior Congressional staff. Other speakers included Lord Nicholas Stern, the author of the landmark Stern Review of Climate Change, CGD president Nancy Birdsall, WRI president Jonathan Lash, and Peterson Institute director Fred Bergsten.

Although much of the symposium focused on the minimizing the costs and maximizing the benefits of U.S. action, the timing of U.S. legislation vis-à-vis Copenhagen was also a recurring theme. Todd Stern acknowledged that passing such a major piece of legislation before the end of the year would be a tough challenge.

Toward the end of the afternoon, Nigel Purvis, a former U.S. climate negotiator, suggested an alternative that could demonstrate Washington’s commitment while still leaving U.S. negotiators leverage for a stronger agreement. His idea, which he termed Climate Protection Authority, would be modeled after the Trade Promotion Authority, also known as “Fast Track,” that Congress has granted to successive U.S. presidents to negotiate trade pacts. Under such Fast Track arrangements, the Congress sets broad guidelines in advance of negotiations and agrees to give the resulting international agreements a simple up-or-down vote. Purvis also suggested that an international climate agreement be considered under the same rules that apply for trade agreements—meaning that instead of the two-thirds Senate majority (67 votes) needed for treaty ratification, a climate agreement would need only 60 Senate votes, plus a simple majority in the House.

Of course, getting a simple House majority might turn out to be not-so-simple. But the fresh ideas at the symposium, and the broad consensus on the need for action and for U.S. leadership, helped to ensure that climate issues remain on the agenda even as political leaders struggle to respond to the global economic crisis.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.