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World leaders are gathering in Madrid this week for a UN conference on climate change. One subject they’ll be dealing with? What to do now that the US has begun pulling out of Paris Climate Agreement. Last month President Trump started formal withdrawal from the agreement — negotiated under President Obama–to prevent catastrophic global warming. 

On this episode of our podcast, Trump on Earth, we hear from the man who helped put the U.S. in the agreement in the first place. Todd Stern was President Obama’s chief climate negotiator and now he’s a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

Reid Frazier: So let’s start with the recent news that the U.S. is officially beginning its pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. What does that mean for the agreement itself right now? 

Todd Stern: Well, it’s a bad step, of course. It’s not a surprise because President Trump announced on January 1, 2017 that he intended to do that. What happened on November 4th is that the U.S. submitted their formal notification of withdrawal, which is what you have to do under the agreement to pull out. And that then lays over for one year. So that’s the technical part of it. But look, the U.S. is an absolutely central player with respect to the Paris agreement, with respect to climate action internationally in general. The process will be less effective and less ambitious than if the U.S. was there. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in the 1990s that the United States is the indispensable nation in international affairs. And in my slice of those international affairs involving climate change, I certainly think that she’s right.

There will be a tipping point politically in the United States —we’re not quite there yet— where it will be bad for the health of anybody running for office to be against climate change.

Reid Frazier: So let’s talk about what the U.S. being out of the agreement would mean. Does this mean that other nations won’t feel as compelled to lower their carbon emissions? 

Todd Stern: I think you will have some of that effect. I do not think that other nations are going to literally pull out. The United States would be the one country out of the 195 or so countries in the world that would not be in the Paris agreement. But when the United States is not acting, the leaders in China don’t feel the same positive pressure to act. The leaders in countries all over the world don’t feel the same sense of urgency. And indeed many of them will look and say, ‘well, why should we go to the max if the United States isn’t even doing anything?’

One of the things that’s important for those of us who are still trying to push (and I’m certainly one of them) to underscore for other countries is the tremendous surge of activity that has occurred since President Trump announced his planned withdrawal–surge of activity from our subnational players: governors, mayors, civil society, universities.

The U.S. Climate Alliance is an alliance of states that formed within days after that announcement by Trump in June. There are now 25 states that are part of that. And overall, if you look at the states and cities and so forth, you have forces in the United States that represent nearly 70 percent of our GDP, something around 65 percent of our population and 50 percent of our emissions. If you looked at that grouping as a country, it would be the second or third most important player in the world. So those things are important. It’s not the same as having national leadership, but it does make a difference to countries when they hear that.

Reid Frazier: There has been a lot of criticism of the Paris Agreement. One is that it’s non-binding. It relies on countries to do the right thing and a little bit on what we would otherwise call peer pressure. I imagine that was part of the negotiation of 195 countries. What would you have changed about the agreement if you could have? 

Todd Stern: Well, that’s an interesting question. Let let me tell you one thing I would not have changed. I wouldn’t have changed that structure that you were just talking about. And indeed, it was the structure that the United States was intimately involved in advancing along with other countries. But the most important elements of the Paris structure are, first of all, that it is a bottom up, not a top down arrangement, with respect to the actions that countries take.

There are top down elements also: there are goals that all countries sign up for. There are elements of accountability: most importantly, the whole transparency system–reporting on what you’ve been doing, reporting on your inventories, having those reports reviewed by expert committees. That’s top down. And those things are legally binding and affect everybody.

The most important thing that is not legally binding are the actual targets that countries put forward. And the reason for that is there would have been no possible way to get this agreement done on the basis of those being legally binding unless you went back to the Kyoto model, which is legally binding for developed countries, but not for developing. But we had been there and done that. That failed for the United States.

The only other thing I would say on this point is I always kind of resist the word “voluntary.” Once you take on a target, that target is not legally binding, but you are expected to fulfill it and you get scrutinized through the transparency mechanism, which, as I said, is legally binding. So the expectation is you follow through, although it is not legally binding, as they say.

Reid Frazier: And on that point, are countries more or less following what they said they would or are they falling short so far? 

Todd Stern: Well, it’s a mix. I mean, I think that the United States, if we had not had President Trump in office, would have been meeting our target. I think China’s going to meet their commitments. Countries regard those targets in a completely serious way.

UN Secretary General António Guterres on climate change: Governments need to do more

Reid Frazier: So give us two scenarios. The 2020 elections go for Trump. What happens there? And if a Democrat wins and wants to get the U.S. back into the agreement, what happens there? 

Todd Stern: So let’s start with the second one, which to me is the happier scenario. A new Democratic president could get us back into the agreement quickly. So assuming that the withdrawal does take effect on November 4th of 2020, the day after the election, we would then be officially withdrawn. But a new president could essentially file the paperwork to get us back and it would take about 30 days.

I think if you look at what’s going on in the fractious multi-candidate Democratic primary, one thing that you see that is consistent is everybody talking about strong action on climate change. And that, by the way, is very different from the Democratic field in 2016. The sense of urgency in this issue has not just ticked up, it has gone up quite significantly. And by the way, among Republican voters also.

Scenario number two is President Trump gets reelected. Then I think that there’s no reason to expect anything particularly positive from the federal government. I think what you would see is probably even more intensive action from the states and cities, maybe even more intensive coordination. At some level there has been the sense that we just have to make it till 2020. And if it’s now clear that that’s four more years, I think you’ll see that much more intensive action by state and local and hopefully by the public.

You have seen action all over the world, some of it led by children, right? I think people are getting very worried increasingly about climate change and they’re going to demand action. There will be a tipping point politically in the United States –we’re not quite there yet– where it will be bad for the health of anybody running for office to be against climate change.

Reid Frazier: There’s a lot of bad news about climate change. I mean, just with wildfires and things like that. Are you optimistic? Do you consider yourself a realist? It must have been very disappointing when President Trump announced he would pull out. 

Todd Stern: Well, of course, it was very disappointing. In situations like that, I tend to get angry before I get disappointed. It’s probably a useful trait for somebody who was in my position of trying to negotiate this whole thing for 7 1/2 years. I try to always keep my eye on the ball. Ok, this is our situation now, whether I like it or not. What do we do to move the ball down the field? We were trying to go straight down the field. We can’t go straight. We have to zigzag. How do we do it? What’s the next step? What do we do domestically? What do we do internationally? And just try to keep on fighting because there’s no choice. We have to do that.

The intense and extraordinary extreme events we see here in the United States, we think California, we think Houston with Hurricane Harvey –it’s going on like that all over the world. It’s going on like that in Pakistan and Thailand and India and China and Africa and Latin America. You know, temperatures of 125 degrees in India, things like that. It’s getting more and more as the big authoritative science reports have pointed out. So there isn’t a choice here.

Reid Frazier: I want to ask you about the reaction to these climate plans in the home countries. We saw with the yellow vest movement in France in particular, sort of a backlash to climate policies. There was a lot going on with those movements. But what’s your reaction when seeing those kinds of policies put in place and not getting the kind of popular support that you think might be necessary? 

Todd Stern: Well, two things. First of all, I don’t think that the yellow vest movement was mostly about climate change. I think the yellow vest movement was mostly about people in the rural areas feeling that they were not being seen and not being heard by the leaders in Paris. And I think that’s why the symbol was the yellow vest, which is the bright vests you wear so people can see you on the side of the road where they otherwise couldn’t see you. I think it took the form of, okay, you’re putting a tax on something–turns out it’s climate change–that’s going to affect us more than it’s gonna affect the people in the cities. You don’t hear us. You don’t see us. I really don’t think that’s fundamentally about climate change.

Your question, though, is still valid. I think that at all times policymakers have to think very seriously and take very seriously the impacts on people. If we’re in the process of the transformation of our economies from high carbon to no carbon, which is what’s going on here, there’s people who make their livelihoods in the fossil fuel business. They’re coal miners. There has to be really serious effort and I think more generous even than you might think because people they haven’t done anything wrong. They’ve been helping to build this country. It’s just that now we have to move to another system.

Reid Frazier: Well, Todd Stern, thanks so much for talking with me. 

Todd Stern: Thank you very much.