State Dept.'s Todd Stern Works on the Obama Directive to Reduce Global Warming

Stern is heavily involved in international talks about how to address global warming.
Stern is heavily involved in international talks about how to address global warming. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

When Todd Stern was working in private law practice, the State Department's top climate-change negotiator was known for dispensing blunt political advice. When a client said he was planning to defy the entire Illinois political establishment on an issue affecting Lake Michigan, Stern brought him up short.

"Todd basically said: 'You have got to be kidding -- Mayor Daley, Rahm Emanuel, Dick Durbin -- do you have any idea what you're up against here? That will never happen,' " said Jamie Gorelick, one of Stern's former colleagues at the WilmerHale law firm.

Now Stern, whom Democratic power broker Vernon Jordan describes as someone who can "tell you to go to hell in a way that you look forward to the trip," faces his most challenging assignment yet: persuading Americans and the rest of the world to agree on a binding cap on greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate change.

He knows it will be a tough sell.

"Look, it's a big, big deal. It's a big thing that affects every part of the economy," Stern said, sitting in his spartan office on "envoy row" at the State Department, where foreign-policy heavyweights Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke have also set up shop. "It's not a big surprise that something of this scope and size would be a big fight."

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are overhauling U.S. foreign policy on multiple fronts, but few breaks from the Bush years have been as swift and radical as the new position on global warming. Just last month, Stern journeyed to Germany to tell U.N. negotiators: "We are very glad to be back. We want to make up for lost time, and we are seized with the urgency of the task before us."

He was greeted with enthusiastic applause there, but back home his comments prompted an immediate backlash: On April 2, Washington Post columnist and global-warming skeptic George Will published a column mocking Stern for saying in Bonn that Washington will be "fervently" engaged in international climate talks. Will questioned the wisdom of efforts to reduce carbon emissions that "supposedly will reverse warming, which is allegedly occurring" because of human activity.

"I guess I've arrived," Stern said with a wry smile.

It's an unusually public role for Stern, a 57-year-old Chicago native who built his Washington career largely behind the scenes. Straight out of Harvard Law School, he worked for two years at the Legal Aid Society, then joined the New York firm Paul Weiss for several years before taking a job on the Judiciary Committee staff of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Bill Clinton ally Thomas Donilon brought Stern to Little Rock to help prepare the Democratic presidential hopeful for the 1992 debates. By 1993, Stern had landed a White House job.

Working for Clinton produced what Stern describes as his "single greatest accomplishment": his marriage in 1995 to Jennifer Klein, who was Hillary Clinton's domestic policy adviser. ("I married into Hillaryland" is the way he puts it.) The couple now has three boys ages 4 to 12, and Stern finds himself traveling the world with Klein's former boss.

As Stern works frenetically to shore up support for a global deal to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol -- a pact he helped fashion that the United States never ratified -- he must convince Americans and foreign nations that they have no choice but to make serious cuts in global warming pollution, fast. Since he started work Feb. 12, a parade of foreign officials has trooped to Washington to discuss the outlines of an agreement set to be finalized in Copenhagen in December: nearly 25 officials, by Stern's count.

For the most part, they have been impressed with Stern's directness. "You can avoid all the gentle talk," said Norwegian Environment Minister Erik Solheim, who met with him last month.

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