Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

Climate Turning Point: Q&A with former U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing

Jonathan Pershing (right) and Woods Director Chris Field | Don Feria

Jonathan Pershing is the Program Director of Environment at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and former Special Envoy for Climate Change at the U.S. Department of State and lead U.S. negotiator to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. He sat down with Woods Director Chris Field to talk about climate policy and future directions for the United States and the world. Edited excerpts and full video of the March 13, 2019 conversation are below.

Q: Given that the United States is not taking an active leadership role on climate change, what is the role of non-state actors to pick up the slack?

Pershing: I think we are at the moment of a turning point. I would argue that the Paris agreement was the pinnacle of the state place, and we’re now in a period of thinking what the implementation going to look like when a primary actor is withdrawn and is largely oppositional. But the United States is made up of multiple partners and multiple players. Stanford is an interesting analogue to this. It does not stop being an extraordinarily impressive research institution if the President doesn’t like science –it continues. And that’s the case in my mind for non-state actors.

On the other hand, there’s some constraints that non-state actors are playing with. Cities, for example, are key actors. The world is projected to be about 60-70% urban by 2050, which suggests that cities are a big part of the solution. But the footprint of the City is much larger than the geographical area it encompasses, once you incorporate the all the outside resources it needs to sustain itself. Thus, it invariably requires a larger scope than a Mayor or the City management. So I think we really need all the actors for impact, but this pendulum is starting to swing towards non-state actors, which I think is interesting.

Q: You have intensively worked with China other countries to get them board with what would eventually lead to the Paris Agreement. What are the factors that have led these countries to slack off in their commitments?

Pershing: The fact that they’re following through on (climate change mitigation) plans is the upside, but there are other factors to consider. For example, in a Chinese-hosted discussion with a number of notable figures around the world, every non-Chinese official had a paragraph on climate in their opening remarks, but not one Chinese official mentioned climate in their opening remarks. But when asked about climate directly during a Q&A session, each Chinese official had a long answer in response. So it wasn’t that they weren’t versed in the issues, it was not if they were not engaged in what the next steps were, but it has been removed from the top tier, to the second or third tier of “I know about it, but it’s not my priority anymore.” That’s a non-trivial change in the way we perceive them.

India is the next largest player in the mix. I was there a few weeks ago, the conversation is all about the election, and climate change is not part of the agenda. On the other hand, the Indian conversation is about energy access, and that conversation has been in no small measure facilitated by access to renewables and distributing capacity. They’ve pretty much stopped building new coal. That’s mostly for economic reasons, it doesn’t really have to do with the climate change agenda, but the consequence is real and really driving a shift in their policy, and they are rapidly exceeding the pretty significant commitments that they had made in the penetration of renewables.

India is also making inroads on electric vehicles. It’s pretty rapid, and it’s not for climate reasons –it’s because you can’t breathe! Ten years ago, the worst cities for the World Health Organization standards were all Chinese. Today, two are Chinese, the rest are Indian. That shift has really made cleaning up the air a priority and a much bigger topic of discussion. Again, driving change, even if not perhaps to the extent that we want and where we are going.

Europe, collectively, is another big and important player. They’re having a tough time right now, since Brexit is consuming every minister’s time right now. The UK has historically been one of the most critical players in driving consensus in international matters, but they have no bandwidth unless it’s about Brexit. In France, Macron has continued to really raise the bar on what we should see from countries and what France can bring to the table. For a number of reasons, however, the yellow vest movement has conflated climate change with problems in the rural communities –which are losing jobs and where economic development hasn’t been sustained. His lower approval rating has therefore meant in many ways a slowing of his ability to move domestic policy, and as a consequence, his ability to drive international policy. The single largest player in the EU is Germany. Angela Merkel has been extraordinary with climate change diplomacy, but her future replacement doesn’t exist, and there’s no clarity among the political parties about Germany’s future plans. The weight of Europe is so dependent on Germany, that the inability of Germany to move really slows things up. And then you have the Commission up for an election. Will the Brits be in or out? It’s unclear, but they hold some of the most important posts inside European Council. It’ll be a year before we know how this plays out.

Q: The Chinese example is instructive because it demonstrates a real commitment beyond what would have happened organically in the absence of an agreement. But if you look around the world, is the Paris Agreement target within reach for an ambitious world?

Pershing: It’s always an interesting to think about the “might have” bins in a negotiation. Have you all heard the slogan “Negotiation is the art of the possible”? But what’s possible? The theory suggests that what you want is the best alternative to no outcome. So you’re always trying to gauge what more can you get in exchange for something else. And let’s be clear, this is a negotiation with 192 partners –so it’s not so much what you can get, but what can everybody accept and who’s going to block, and can I stop them from blocking if I ask for this. 

So taking that into account, yeah, the deal is actually pretty good. The deal didn’t plan to solve the problem, the deal proposed a mechanism through which over time you’d ratchet. It also set up a series of requirements. Countries had to report on what they were doing, make them public, and be assessed against the global expectation of what adequate progress would look like. If we look at that and think about that structure, that’s actually not bad! You can’t solve the problem in five years, but you can set yourself up for real change. I think the agreement did that.

But the “ratcheting” aspect of the agreement feels less urgent –and it’s not due to the science, the politics have shifted. On the other hand, I look at what States and Cities are delivering. We actually have Cities that have promised to be Net Zero and are working on policies. This has been built off the framework of this same convention that’s driving that agenda. So to me, it’s a more nuanced and complicated question.

Q: There isn’t anything explicit in the Paris Agreement that provides a mechanism for non-national actors to participate in this “ratcheting” up of ambition.  Is there anything emerging informally or outside the context of the UNFCCC?

Pershing: That’s a great question. It turns out that the structure of the UN is designed around nations, so therefore there is no legal mechanism for non-national actors to have a formal role in the decision-making process. On the other hand, the informal role is huge. We often think of governments as being the actor. Governments are in some sense goal setters and policy drivers. The actors are often companies, businesses and manufacturing communities who actually have to change practice –the people on the ground that do things. They’re also engaged, they’re also a part of the next stage and the next step of this process.

Q: What are the features of the current landscape that make you the most optimistic?

Pershing: There’s a lot! One is the level of energy that now seems to be available on the discourse. I’m struck by the fact that while Paris got a lot of people engaged, it didn’t seem to get into communities at a more local level, yet today you see this discourse in many new and different arenas. That’s perhaps most led by kids who are paying attention.  It’s kind of a startling evolution in where we are –the fact that there is that kind of energy around change is new, and I think we need it to generate the scale that’s likely required.

The second thing is that 20 years ago, it was difficult for me to identify a solution that was not quite costly. You were therefore climbing a very tall economic mountain when you wanted to make that transition. Ten years on, solar is cheaper than coal in terms of amortized cost for new facilities. And in the last two years, the City of Shenzhen has made every one of its 17,000 buses electric –two years, 17,000 buses! We can do this, in a way that we couldn’t a decade ago. That’s new, and that’s an opportunity that’s fundamentally different.

And finally, I think that the threat is finally real. I don’t mean that it wasn’t real for those of us who have been working on this for a long time –it was falling on deaf ears on a fairly small cohort of listeners. Today if I look at what’s going on the border and the number of people who are moving across, some are moving partly because of climate change. I look at what’s going on in the Middle East, so I think it’s partly a function of the change in economic viability because of climate. I look at these kinds of things, and we can begin to see those connections and the last several years have been brought much more to the front of mind. They’re no longer tomorrow’s problems for our grandchildren in some other country, they’re our problems today in our country. That’s new, and that gives me the sense that we may get enough pressure to drive change at the scale we need.

Explore More