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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Climate Change and Energy Security

FPC Briefing
Michael Froman
Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs
Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change; and Todd Stern, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change
Foreign Press Center
New York, New York
September 22, 2009


11:15 A.M., EDT

MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us today. Thanks for coming to the Foreign Press Center. Given this is our first briefing with Administration officials during the President’s visit here, I’d like to thank Mark Thorn and his staff for supporting us so ably this week.

Let me introduce our three officials today who will be speaking to you about climate change and energy security: Mike Froman, the Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs; Carol Browner, the Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change; and Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change. There will be a brief opening remark, and after that, when you ask questions, just please remember to identify yourself and your outlet. Thank you.

MR. FROMAN: Thanks, Ben. I just wanted to give a little bit of a overview on the President’s comments. I think he made four important points in the speech. One is that he underscored U.S. commitment to move on this issue and to get a good agreement in Copenhagen.

Second, he took some time to describe the very significant actions that the United States has already taken, as well as to talk about the legislation that has passed the House of Representatives and is now pending in the Senate.

Third, I think the President laid out what essentially three different groups of countries need to be doing in order to get a deal done.

The first is the developed countries, who obviously have a historic responsibility, and the President recognized need to take the lead in making significant reductions in their emissions going forward. And indeed, as you know, it’s in the 2020 timeframe and beyond to 2050.

Second, he talked about emerging market, major developing countries, who also need to take commitments to make significant reductions. They need to make commitments to carry out actions that will reduce their emissions – not against a baseline like 1990 or 2005, but against a trendline, the so-called business as usual curve of where their emissions would otherwise go. And the President made it very clear that both of those groups – developed countries need to stand behind the commitments they make, and developing – those big emerging market developing countries need to stand behind their commitments in the same way.

Finally, he talked about the smaller developing countries, who are in a different place, who don’t need to be making those kind of commitments at this stage, but who need to be putting themselves on a low-carbon path with a lot of technical, technology assistance from the big developed countries.

So that was, I think, a third important point that the President laid out – those three groups, and then finally, I think the President made it clear that we need to get a deal done, we need to be flexible, pragmatic, and get a good start. So I think those are the four key takeaway points from the speech.

MODERATOR: We can go straight to questions. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Lane Green (ph) from the (inaudible) magazine. There weren’t any new policy commitments that I could see in today’s speech. And I understand that the policy is being led by Congress at this point, but there also is the perception that time is short, and I think there was some expectation that we might see a nudge in some new direction. So maybe if I missed anything, could you let me know if there was any hint at some kind of new policy, like, for example, the notion that regulatory powers might be used by the Executive Branch rather than letting a full bill take its time to make its way through Congress? Thanks.

MS. BROWNER: One of the things that – let me back up and start over. We remain committed to comprehensive energy legislation. The President asked Congress to do this in his first address to Congress. A bill has passed out of the House. Many people said it would never happen. We have done that. We are now working in the Senate. There are five, six committees with jurisdiction: one committee has already acted; the others are in the process of acting. Obviously, the healthcare debate has gone on longer than was anticipated.

We also remain committed to using our executive authorities, our administrative regulatory authorities. Earlier this year, the President announced a proposal that will set the first-ever greenhouse gas emissions on cars, the toughest fuel efficiency standards – 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016. Congress had given us until 2020 to get to 35. So we’re getting there four years earlier and we’re putting greenhouse gas emission standards on cars for the first time.

We’ve rolled out a whole list of efficiency requirements, new regulations. There’s another round coming – very significant reductions associated with those requirements as people turn over the equipment and buy the new, more efficient. And today, the President mentioned that Administrator Jackson at the EPA will sign the first-ever mandatory reporting requirement so that we will have a detailed picture of greenhouse gas emissions.

There are other authorities that we will be looking to use in the coming weeks and months. There is a debate unfolding in Congress this week about the use of those authorities. We have said repeatedly to Congress that what you need to do is give us comprehensive legislation and don’t try and put some sort of limitation on using these executive authorities, focus instead on passing comprehensive legislation.

The other thing that happened yesterday is that the federal court, the 2nd Circuit, issued a decision. For the first time ever, you can – parties can sue – the Attorney General of New York was one of the parties to the lawsuit – claiming that greenhouse gas emissions are a nuisance. And so instead of using the Clean Air Act or other laws passed by Congress to reduce greenhouse gasses, this is using our common law, and I think will further help to compel Congress towards action, because what will result from this – what could result from this court decision is that you would have judges across the country setting different standards on different facilities. And what we need is a guaranteed level of reductions and we need to give our business community the kind of certainty and predictability of what is expected of them so they will start to make the right investments so that we can get the new technologies and get the very best reductions.

So we have a lot of things going on. I think sometimes it’s hard to see inside our Congress how things are working, but we are up there virtually every day working to make sure that we get the right kind of legislation that will allow us to do the things that the President has been talking about.

QUESTION: (Inaudible), La Republica, Italian daily. Did you hear any significant new openings in the speech by Chinese President Hu Jintao? I wonder especially there was one sentence where he mentioned limits that they would, on their own, fix for their emissions.

MR. FROMAN: I didn’t hear new initiatives so much. I think that the Chinese are in the process, as are many countries, of looking to see what actions they can take in this next period. Many of the things that he talked about are a form of actions that they are already taking in their current five-year plan; for example, the current five-year plan from 2006 to 2010 includes a pledge to reduce energy intensity by 20 percent. And he talked about – he did mention using a carbon intensity metric, rather than energy intensity. That can be fine. It depends on what the number is, and he didn’t indicate the extent to which those reductions would be made.

But it’s certainly nothing negative. Just I don’t think that there was any great new ground plowed. He was more reiterating the kinds of things that China has embarked on.

I think what is important – and I’ll just reiterate something that I said at the beginning. It’s very important that countries like China and India take important steps domestically of the sort that President Hu is talking about. It will also be essential for our capacity to get an international agreement that they commit in an international context to carry those actions out, that they stand behind their actions, just the way developed countries are prepared to stand behind theirs. So what they’re doing domestically is very important; it’s got to get internationalized, if you will; it’s got to be committed to an international context by the developed countries and the major developing countries both.

QUESTION: Christine Buurma from Dow Jones Newswires. Can you give a sense of when we might get an endangerment finding on greenhouse gas emissions from the EPA, and if that would come before the Copenhagen talks?

MS. BROWNER: That’s a question that we will refer you to EPA for the answer. It’s – they control that schedule, and so we’re happy to make sure you talk to the right people.

QUESTION: I.K. Cush with New Africa Magazine. There are some critics of the U.S. policy on climate matters who argue that the United States produces more carbon emissions per capita compared to, let’s say, China, and that the U.S. should take more steps. I mean, President Obama has outlined some initiatives that the United States will take to reduce carbon emissions, but some critics are saying that it doesn't go far enough in terms of reducing emissions per capita. The U.S. population is 300 million, China’s population is 1 billion, India is 1.2 billion or something like that, and so if you compare the two in terms of what India and China are doing compared to the U.S., they are doing much more in terms of reducing carbon emissions per capita than the United States. Do you have any comments about that?

MS. BROWNER: Two comments, and then I’ll turn it over to my colleagues. One is we came to office eight months ago and we have used all of the administrative tools, the laws on the books, to take very important steps, steps that could have been taken previously that hadn’t been. The first thing we asked Congress for was the largest energy investment package ever as part of our recovery act – $80 billion that we are investing in clean energy, advanced battery technology, wind, solar. Secretary Geithner and Secretary Chu made an announcement earlier today that we have spent over a billion dollars to support through tax credits the renewable industry. And we are continuing to use those regulatory authorities. I mentioned what we’ve done on cars, what we’re doing on appliances.

The second thing we have to do is we need a new law, and that’s what we’ve asked Congress to give us. And so we do want a cap, a domestic cap on how much greenhouse gases can be in the air, so that we can use mechanisms to find the most cost-effective solutions, to find the right technologies, and to ensure that we get the kind of capital investments that will give us the right technologies.

But I think it’s important to remember, and I know you do, that we’ve only been there eight months and we’ve already achieved so much and we’ve already made significant progress on the legislative front in terms of we’re out of one of our two chambers and now we’re working hard to get out of the other. I think all of us standing here would like nothing better than to be going much, much faster, but our Congress decides their schedule and they’ve got a lot on their plate as well. And we feel quite confident that as they move through healthcare and they turn to the rest of the year, this will be high on their priority list.

MR. FROMAN: Let me just add a couple words. China and India’s per capita is certainly considerably less than the United States, but they are rapidly – particularly China – rapidly increasing. The premise of your question that they’re doing more to reduce their per capita is actually not right. China’s per capita emissions is now between 5 and 6 tons per person, India is still about 2, the U.S. is about 20. But China’s emissions have tripled since the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. They are in a track to have per capita emissions go zooming past a lot of developed countries if they stay on their same track.

If the United States passes the legislation that Carol just talked about, our per capita emissions over the course of the next several decades would go from the roughly 20 they’re at now to probably in the neighborhood of around 3. And so we’re talking about, in our legislation, would reduce emissions 17 percent by – against 2005 by 2020, and 83 percent by 2050 – not a goal, not an aspirational aim, but law. So you’re not going to eliminate the spread overnight, but ours would go down significantly. China’s are going up at a very rapid pace, India’s not as rapidly but also rising.

QUESTION: Just on the (inaudible) to achieve that decline (inaudible) timeline? I mean – oh, I’m sorry.

MS. BROWNER: As the President has said and as all of us have said repeatedly, we would hope sooner rather than later. But Congress sets its own schedule. There are some reasons why they will want to act, we think, more quickly. I mentioned this recent court decision yesterday, which will create a lot of ambiguity for regulated interest. There are some other instances where the executive authorities – which can be well used and used in thoughtful and important ways, but still a cap would be preferred.

So I think there are some forces beyond just the Administration saying, please give us comprehensive legislation. Beyond our environmental community, our business community very vocal in favor of comprehensive legislation. You now have some other things that are starting to happen, which I think will further encourage Congress. But they do get to set their schedule. We’re doing our best to help them make sure all the right decisions get made and to encourage them. But at the end of the day, they get to decide, sort of, what they do on what schedule.

QUESTION: I’m under the impression that there is a relationship between what Congress does and what the U.S. achieves in terms of that per capita reduction –

MS. BROWNER: Correct.

QUESTION: -- that we’re talking about. So if Congress moves slowly, I guess the reduction will be slower. I’m – just correct me, if I’m wrong.

MS. BROWNER: Not necessarily. And first of all, we are already taking steps – absent what Congress does, we are already taking steps that are achieving measurable reductions, so that’s happening under the President’s leadership. We don’t need Congress to do that. We would like Congress, and we think it is important for Congress to set – to pass new legislation with a cap in it. Whether that happened last month or a month from now won’t change the overall impact of the reductions because of the way the law can be set up. Does that make sense?

QUESTION: I have two questions. So --

MODERATOR: If you could identify yourself.

QUESTION: Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Esperanza Garcia. I’m director of Global Warming and Climate Change Initiatives for the International Youth Council. I’m also a journalist for UNICEF. And so my question is – obviously climate change is a complex issue, and there are issues that developed countries focus on, such –

MODERATOR: I can’t hear you. I’m sorry. Could you please stand up near the front?

QUESTION: So climate change is obviously a complex issue and there are issues that developed countries focus on to pursue sustainable developments – okay.

MS. BROWNER: We’re going to get you up on the stage, before you’re done.

QUESTION: And so there are initiatives that developing countries are doing and that are pursuing sustainable development, such as cap-and-trade and currently working on the Markey bill. And so for Copenhagen, there are countries such as Tuvalu and Papua New Guinea that are going to be eradicated in the next 20 years, and this is the first case of climate change refugees and these are issues that also have to be highlighted.

And because it’s a complex issue, who finds priority? Because obviously, developed countries are going to give – get, obviously, a voice, and all these issues are going to be highlighted. But there are also other issues, such as pacific small island states that aren’t necessarily brought out.

And so who finds – who – where is the priority on – what is the Obama Administration doing to support these issues? And also, in terms of youth involvement, what is the Obama Administration doing in order for the youth to become involved in the green agenda?

MR. FROMAN: Well, let me address the first one. Look, the plight of small island states is, I think, clearly in the focus of the UN. We had – Secretary Clinton met with the organization of small island states yesterday. They have a significant voice. I am, in the course of the three days that I’m here in New York, will be meeting with a few.

It’s a critical issue. I mean, it is – it’s not a separate issue so much. It’s one of the reasons why we need to be moving on climate change and try to get a good agreement. So I don’t – I think that everybody is quite aware of that and it’s why we need developed countries, it’s why we need the major developing countries where almost all the growth in emissions for the next several decades is going to come from.

Developed countries are pretty – they’re the historic largest emitters. Their emissions are fairly flat right now. Going forward, a huge growth in emissions is projected to come from the developing countries, so they have to play – the big ones, the big developing countries have to play a big part, too. As far as youth involvement, I don’t have any particular –

QUESTION: I’m sorry. Follow-up question. What is the developed countries, such as the U.S., doing in order to support these developing countries?

MR. FROMAN: It’s – I think it’s two issues. I think it’s a question of reducing emissions by all of the major emitters, so that includes the big developed countries and the big developing countries. So there need to be agreements. They need to be doing things domestically and they need to agree to – in an international context, to follow through with strong commitments exactly like the bill that Carol was just talking about. That’s what the United States is proposing to do – reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and by 17 percent by 2020.

So those are major reductions. The EU has proposed major reductions – Japan, Australia, Canada. And there need to be major actions that would reduce emissions by countries like China, which is the largest emitter in the world right now and projected to get much, much bigger going forward. So that’s one thing.

The second thing is that the issue of adaptation– helping countries adapt to the effects of climate change that are already occurring or that are inevitable, even if we do everything we can do to reduce emissions. And that means helping vulnerable countries, certainly including small islands, to protect themselves, to get more resilient, to have early warning if there’s – if there are problems, to have – better capacity to have response if there are major storms. These are all issues that apply to Africa, Asia, small islands, and those are – that’s essentially what the response is – reducing emissions and helping countries adapt.

MODERATOR: We have time for two more quick questions.

QUESTION: I am Jason Vertohofsky* from Huffington Post and Climate Voice. I’m wondering – you just mentioned it’s only been eight months in office. We have 76 days till Copenhagen, yet when the President comes to town to talk about climate change, it’s a bit eclipsed by the Mideast, by healthcare on the agenda right now. What is the Administration going to do in the next 76 days to make sure that Copenhagen becomes a top priority and that the President brings his full power to the stage to make sure we get a treaty?

MR. STERN: The United States is intensively engaged on the process of trying to get a good agreement in Copenhagen. I mean, we have been working on this, basically, flat out since the beginning of the Administration. The President is himself personally engaged on this. I have no doubt he’s going to continue to be very personally engaged. Secretary Clinton is also highly engaged. I went with her – the first week I was at the State Department, I went with her to China, North Korea, Japan, Indonesia. I went with her to India.

She has – I think it is quite clear that if you look at the interactions of our top foreign policy people, including the President, with leaders all over, this issue has been greatly elevated from where it has ever been before. So I don’t think there’s any – going to be any lack of intensive focus at every level of our government on trying to get a deal done. And Carol’s already talked about the legislative process. That’s important as well. But I think that it’s --

QUESTION: Well, the President himself (inaudible) perhaps avoid some of the mistakes of the healthcare debate where he’s admitted that he hasn’t brought the public along. Sorry – well, the President himself – where he’s admitted he maybe hasn’t done enough in healthcare to bring the public along. Will he engage enough? And do you feel confident that he will bring the public along so that the bill gets through the Senate, as well as we are in a strong place for the treaty in Copenhagen?

MS. BROWNER: Well, I think, first of all, it got through the House, and I think that’s a testament to how important comprehensive energy reform is to the people of this country. They do think we should take steps to reduce our dependence on oil, that there are opportunities to create a new generation of green jobs, that these are important jobs, and that finally, we need to put a cap on the dangerous pollutants that contribute to greenhouse gas.

We’ve been doing a lot of things. Sometimes they get covered. Sometimes they don’t. During, I think, the month of August – and Jake’s going to correct me if I get any of this wrong – we did – we’ve now done three governors forums on energy. We’ve had ten cabinet members traveling all across the country engaged in small and large meetings on comprehensive energy. We’ve done – I did six visits myself with members of Congress. So we’re out there talking to the public, engaging the public through the Office of Public Engagement, which is a new office, as you know, that the President created to really make sure that we’re hearing from American people. We did how many mayors?

STAFF: We spoke to over a hundred mayors.

MS. BROWNER: Over a hundred mayors. So it’s not – because it’s – you don’t – you’re not reading about doesn’t mean it’s happening. It is happening. We have a large part of the cabinet engaged on this, literally, on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. And I think that the President speaks to the issue frequently. It doesn’t always get covered when he speaks to it. We would obviously like it to be covered more.

But I think in the coming weeks and months, the – as the Congress continues to work, obviously, that creates opportunities for more dialogue. During the House debate, we brought the House committee membership up to have a conversation with them about the bill and what it would take. And all of those things can continue to happen as we move forward to get domestic legislation.

MR. FROMAN: Real quick, I’ll just add – I’m sorry, I’ll just add one thing to that to build on what Todd said, which is on the international front, the President’s been deeply engaged in first calling for the convening of the Major Economies Forum back in – he sent letters to leaders back in March. They had met, I think, six times so far, including at the leaders level in L’Aquila. And I’d say in terms of his bilateral dialogues with other leaders, whether it’s President Hu or President Lula or European leaders, climate is very prominent on the agenda.

So he is personally engaged bilaterally, multilaterally, at the Summit of the Americas, at other major international fora trying to create the conditions for progress in Copenhagen.

QUESTION: Hi, it’s Ed McAlister* at Reuters. Healthcare’s been mentioned a few times. How much has it been an obstacle for real moves on climate change so far? And how – is there a concern it will be an obstacle going forward in the next 70 or so days before Copenhagen?

MS. BROWNER: What’s important is we’re out of one chamber, we’re out of our House of Representatives, and the committees of jurisdiction in the Senate are working. There are, what, six committees of jurisdiction. One of them is already done. They passed a bill out. The others are in the process of drafting, going into the next phase, the markup phase, which then means we go on to the floor.

So from my perspective, we’re moving. You always want to do things more quickly. But life is what it is, and the healthcare debate has taken longer than I think people originally anticipated, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t an awful lot of activity on Capitol Hill around this issue. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone.

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