Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing are President Obama's diplomatic climate change negotiators, charged with representing America's interests in the tumultuous U.N. global warming negotiations.
They are described by environmentalists, fellow negotiators and former colleagues as smart, pragmatic and occasionally didactic. Nearly all used similar language to describe the tough political and diplomatic obstacle course Stern and Pershing have had to navigate over the past four years.
They were: "constrained" by Congress. "Hands tied" by the domestic policy and "walking a tightrope" between moving the U.N. negotiations ostensibly toward a global treaty while avoiding promises to cut emissions or deliver money that the government cannot keep.
With President Obama winning a second term Tuesday, activists are hoping for a more productive environment. Now is the time, they insist, for the White House to embrace climate change as a priority, lay the foundation for domestic legislation and prepare the United States to join a treaty that will keep the global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
"There seems to be a little bit of an opening here," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He pointed to Superstorm Sandy, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's eleventh-hour presidential endorsement of Obama based on climate change, and Obama's own victory speech, in which he envisioned an America "that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."
But Meyer and others said significant action will require Obama to do what he didn't in his first term: expend political capital.
"I think the question for the White House is, does the president want to make this a legacy issue?" Meyer said. If so, he said, that requires a "major effort" from the administration, starting at the very top.
Starting out with applause
Cheers greeted Stern at his first U.N. climate meeting in 2009 after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tapped him to lead the negotiations. "We're back," was Stern's message in those first heady days, along with a promise to "make up for lost time" -- specifically, time lost under the George W. Bush administration.
So happy was the United Nations to end the Bush era, in which the Kyoto Protocol was declared "dead" and the very words "climate change" verboten, that, as one developing country diplomat recalled, negotiators applauded Pershing -- a scientist who headed the delegation of the World Resources Institute before joining the U.S. team as Stern's deputy -- as he walked into a meeting hall.
"I remember Jonathan being applauded as he came in. It wasn't even a COP [Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change]," the diplomat said. "Then things started to get difficult. Not in the first moment. In the first moment, it was positive."
Things soured quickly, from the perspective of European countries and developing nations. The United States put forward an emissions pledge most considered too weak. Meanwhile, the realization that carbon cap-and-trade legislation was simply not going to pass the U.S. Senate slowly snowballed through the international consciousness.
Still, the United States promised to cut carbon 17 percent below 2005 levels this decade. All the while, Stern and Pershing insisted China and other emerging countries be held to the same legal terms as industrialized ones -- a massive change from the status quo under Kyoto in which only wealthy countries were expected to act on climate change. They also pushed for what would become equally controversial: voluntary targets rather than legally binding ones.