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U.S. Envoy Calls Deal An 'Important Start' In Fight Against Climate Change


We begin this hour with the chief U.S. negotiator for the climate deal that countries have just agreed to in Paris. When President Obama spoke from the White House about the deal, he thanked a small handful of people. One of them was climate envoy Todd Stern. Stern was in the room during those marathon talks in Paris, and he is in the room with us now. Welcome back to the program.

TODD STERN: Thanks very much, Ari - very happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: After endless talks, this deal, which has the buy-in of nearly 200 countries, aims to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius. It says carbon emissions will reach net zero by the second half of this century. In these negotiations, take us into the room. What was the most stressful moment?

STERN: There was an odd moment of stress at the end. There was a word mistake on a pivotal section of the agreement which we couldn't accept.

SHAPIRO: There have been reports about this incident you're describing.

STERN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: The word was shall versus should.

STERN: Yeah, it's...

SHAPIRO: Shall is legally binding. Should is not. Were you just flipping through? Did somebody just see this and say, oh, my God? What - how did...

STERN: I saw it.

SHAPIRO: You - it was you.

STERN: It was me, yeah. So the draft comes. It comes across. We print it. We all sit down. And I'm flipping through it, and I go, what happened here because I knew the provision inside and out. I helped negotiate it. We discussed it with the French and the Chinese and others. And it was just a mistake.

SHAPIRO: Do you think about what would've happened if you hadn't spotted it?

STERN: No because of course we were going to spot it...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

STERN: ...Because we're careful. Well, we're careful. I'm not - I mean, we - you know, it - we have a team of 25 people, and they're looking. And I happen to see it first, but if I hadn't seen it, somebody else would've seen it.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about what specifically is in this agreement. In terms of accountability, if India or China or Russia or any other country fails to live up to the promise that it has made to cut emissions, is there any real consequence?

STERN: This is not built on punitive consequences, and you never could've negotiated an agreement with 195 parties that was built on putative consequences. But the transparency system that we agreed to I think is very important. It is - first of all, that is legally binding.

SHAPIRO: That, meaning the transparency.

STERN: The transparency - so let's just step back for a second. What are we talking about when we talked about transparency? We're talking about countries having to do inventories of your emissions and to do them every two years.

SHAPIRO: So, for example, if Brazil breaks its promise and cuts down trees, we'll know it.

STERN: We'll know it, exactly. It's a really - a very important start and a very important structure, I think, and it applies to everybody.

SHAPIRO: In terms of the pledges that the U.S. has made, Republicans say this deal won't last. A Republican president will overturn President Obama's executive actions. How confident are you that the U.S. can meet its pledges?

STERN: It is extremely rare for a Democrat to follow a Republican or Republican to follow a Democrat and pull down what has happened in terms of international agreements. And this is an international agreement with enormous, enormous buy-in all over the world. It would be a huge step to take, and I don't think any president - any new president would do that.

SHAPIRO: OK. Todd Stern, I want to give you a chance to take a victory lap because for all the challenges that lie ahead and for all the criticism of the deal, it is fair to say this is the most sweeping, ambitious climate deal that the world has ever reached. And you led the U.S. effort. It's like you finished an ultramarathon. How do you feel?

STERN: Well, so first of all, I will say what is absolutely true, which is that this is a - very, very much of a team effort with an extraordinarily committed administration. And my own team at the State Department has been tremendous all the way through. And having said that, I feel great.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Can you expand on great a little bit?

STERN: Everybody on my team, and that includes me, feels very, very gratified that we were able to take this step. And of course, there's a huge, long way to go now. This is the start. This sets the framework. I mean, we have a huge, long way to go to actually take the steps on the ground to transform our economies from high-carbon to low-carbon. That's the name of the game. But no, it's very gratifying, Ari - no question.

SHAPIRO: Todd Stern, the Obama administration's chief negotiator at the U.N. climate talks in Paris, thank you.

STERN: Thanks so much, Ari. It's great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.