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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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Yvo de Boer, the U.N. official who oversees the climate change talks, said Stern's negotiating style suits the compressed timetable. "He's very clear, he's very concrete, and that makes understanding much easier," said de Boer. "If you spend a lot of time in the trenches you tend to be traumatized, so in that sense it's refreshing that he hasn't been in the trenches in recent years."

An unabashed booster of his home town, Stern peppers his speeches with Chicago sports references to drive home the point that the United States "is in the game" now when it comes to climate change. In a speech last month on Capitol Hill, he invoked the famous two-word press release Michael Jordan issued in 1995 after having not played professional basketball for nearly two years: "I'm back."

Stern's allegiance to the Bulls, and all other Chicago sports franchises, is not merely bombast: As a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer, he shuttled between D.C. and Chicago to monitor Jordan's play during the NBA finals.

And while Stern's background features several of the attributes that have come to define senior Obama appointees -- multiple Ivy League degrees, Chicago roots and coming from a family of three accomplished brothers -- he doesn't appear consumed with the kind of sibling rivalry that dominates the psyche of say, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel or Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orzag. Stern's older brother earned a PhD in English before becoming a psychoanalyst, while his younger one is the successful Hollywood producer of films such as "Proof" and "Every Little Step," a documentary of the musical "A Chorus Line." Stern attended the film's premiere in New York this week and managed to get back in the office by 8 the next morning.

"We like each others' worlds, but we're not in each others' worlds," Stern said.

In his professional life, Stern is known for marrying substance and political calculations. "He is equally obsessed with both public policy and politics," said Donilon, now Obama's deputy national security adviser. And Stern applied that approach in Bonn, telling the delegates that "my central belief is this: To succeed in containing climate change, we must be guided by both science and pragmatism."

He's made it clear that whatever greenhouse-gas targets the United States adopts will determine what he can push for in Copenhagen: "I don't want to repeat the experience of Kyoto, agreeing to something that has no, or an inadequate amount, of domestic support."

But the short-term goals he and the administration espouse -- bringing U.S. emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020 and cutting them by roughly an additional 80 percent by midcentury -- are disappointing both environmental groups and some European officials, who have told Stern the European Union will not make as deep cuts if Washington sticks to its current targets.

"It encourages other countries to lower their level of ambition," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group. U.N. Foundation President Tim Wirth said foreign leaders welcome Stern's overtures, but "I've been surprised at how stubborn the skepticism about the U.S. administration has been."

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (Wis.), the top Republican on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, voiced a different concern in an interview, saying the U.S. risks engaging in "economic unilateral disarmament" if it joins in a global pact that does not include commitments by major developing countries.

"I wish him well in trying to get the Chinese and Indians, in their absolute stonewalling, that they will ever agree to an international treaty that forces them to reduce their emissions," said Sensenbrenner, who opposes having the U.S. help finance these countries' carbon reductions. "Good luck with getting Congress to pass that."

John Podesta of the Center for American Progress enlisted Stern to work on climate change at his think tank in 2004. Later, as the head of Obama's transition team, Podesta strongly backed Stern for the climate envoy job. Podesta said no one should underestimate his former colleague's commitment to an issue Stern first took on 12 years ago out of a sense of duty.

While Stern himself does not exude a tree-hugger vibe, he has made some effort to limit his own carbon footprint, driving a Toyota Camry hybrid and weatherizing his home for energy efficiency.

"He comes to it with the sense, which might not be appreciated by the public, that the state of the planet quite literally hangs on the success of making this transition," Podesta said.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.


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