A Tale of Two Sterns … But Only One Planet

Among the cacophony of voices in the debate over how to avoid full-fledged climate change and green the world economy, two mainstream protagonists are prominent: Stern and Stern. No, they are not partners in a law firm. They are Nicholas Stern—principal author of the widely discussed Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change, released by the British government in 2006, and Todd Stern—Special Envoy for Climate Change in the Obama administration.


But the two namesakes seem to be headed in opposite directions. Having put the world on notice about the immense economic costs of climate inaction, Lord Stern acknowledged last year that his 2006 report was, if anything, too cautious. Now chairing the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, he continues to warn governments that delaying far-reaching action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not an option. And in an April 2009 report published jointly with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, he laid out a strategy for greening the economy at a time of deep financial and economic crisis.


Todd Stern has impressive climate-related credentials. He served as Bill Clinton’s senior White House negotiator at the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, advised Hillary Clinton on environment and climate during her presidential campaign, and continued to work on these issues at the Center for American Progress prior to his current post.

But as the administration’s climate front man, Stern has repeatedly downplayed expectations. On climate, “yes we can” seems to have morphed into “no we can’t.” Earlier this year, he rejected calls for industrialized countries to cut their emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Todd Stern not only opposed such cuts as “not feasible” for the United States, but strikingly called them “unnecessary.”

Todd Stern’s statements reflect the Obama administration’s decision to let Congress be the de facto driver of climate policy. Predictably, that has led to stalemate and back-pedaling as special-interest dynamics and the influence of money in politics take precedence over the demands of climate science. But if the United States comes to Copenhagen in December empty-handed, deadlock and mutual recriminations may result.

To be fair, similar pressures are on display in other countries. Europe has long claimed the mantle of climate leadership, but has grown reticent when it comes to committing resources for adaptation in the developing world. Following the September German federal elections, the incoming governing coalition is considering pruning the country’s generous subsidies for solar energy development, in effect slowing the transition to a low-carbon economy. India—belatedly recognizing that pointing to Western countries’ historic guilt in pushing the world to the edge of the climate abyss will not save it from the repercussions of climate chaos—is attempting to set its Copenhagen compass even as an intense internal debate unfolds among climate “stonewallers,” “progressive realists,” and “progressive internationalists.”

The “Tale of Two Sterns” plays out worldwide. But there is only one planet, and it will have the last word. Will Planet Earth be stern with us?

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