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.
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.