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Can Hillary's New Climate Envoy Move Beyond Kyoto?

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton picked Todd Stern as her special envoy for climate change. He'll be the administration's top negotiator at both the Copenhagen climate talks later this year and any other discussions the United States might wade into. Stern has ambled around this block before, as the senior White House negotiator during the Kyoto Protocol talks in the late 1990s. But that doesn't mean he's planning to resurrect the old Clinton administration approach. As Josie Garthwaite notes, Stern recently wrote a Washington Quarterly essay with William Antholis about how it's time to get beyond Kyoto:

This is no time to indulge in orthodoxies or in the kind of overextended discussion that marked too much of the six-year Kyoto Protocol negotiation. As the United Kingdom’s climate envoy, John Ashton, said recently, "We now need to stop talking about talking and start deciding about doing." The next president should approach this issue the way President Franklin Roosevelt approached the Great Depression: in a spirit of restless experimentation.

And what would restless experimentation look like? Well, first, the United States has to crack down on its emissions, or no one else will listen to us. Stern and Antholis then suggest pursuing climate negotiations on a variety of fronts—not just taking part in UN talks, but also initiating talks "core group of major emitters," and working on bilateral diplomacy with countries like China and India. That last one is especially crucial. Developing countries can no longer be excluded. If we want to stop global average temperatures from rising more than 2C above pre-industrial levels (we've already gone 0.8), it's never going to happen without countries like China making cuts.

It is by no means clear, for example, that critical developing countries, such as China and India, will make any significant commitments that they perceive as being imposed by the UNFCCC. Nor will this reluctance necessarily disappear just because the United States enacts its own mandatory domestic climate program. ...

How then should the United States approach China? It should start by seeing China as a partner. The United States and China are the two 800-pound gorillas in the room and have a profound common interest in working together. Energy and environment should become an area of constructive cooperation in a relationship that will inevitably have its share of friction. Such a partnership will require treating these issues as a top priority. If they are relegated to their traditional place in the second tier of mutual concerns, Beijing and Washington will not succeed.

Stern and Antholis go on to suggest ways in which the United States can actually convince China that tackling climate change will help the country's development, rather than hinder it. As Rob Inglis points out below, many of the steps China could take to curb air pollution (and reduce the 750,000 respiratory deaths it faces each year) would also curtail greenhouse gases. And, as I've written for TNR, China actually has a number of solid environmental laws on the books already; the problem is that Beijing has struggled to enforce them in the provinces. Helping the country bolster its regulatory system would go a long way.

In any case, I don't envy Stern his job—he's got a mammoth task ahead of him. But it's nice to see an experienced hand at State who's thought through these issues seriously and will be pushing to make climate change a top foreign policy priority.

--Bradford Plumer