Background Briefing on the Paris Climate Agreement

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
December 12, 2015

MODERATOR: Thanks Operator. And thanks, everybody, for joining us tonight, and sorry for the delay. As you saw, we had a historic agreement just a few hours ago. So we wanted to get on the phone with you and walk you through with some of the finer points, and then talk about the bigger picture and what it means to the President and his broader agenda to act on climate.

This call is on background. You can use the material sourced to Senior Administration Officials. And with that, let me turn it over to our first speaker.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Hello, everybody. Nations of the world have taken an important step together in Paris tonight. For the first time we have an ambitious, durable climate regime that sends a powerful signal that all countries are committed to taking real action on climate change. The agreement is fair and applies to all countries. There are some 195 countries in the UNFCCC. It focuses on both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience. Let me go through a few of the key points.

It sets us on a path of high ambition. To begin with, 186 countries submitted their targets, their so-called INDCs, which is an extraordinary number against a total of 195 or -6 countries in the UNFCCC. It includes five-year cycles to ratchet up ambition. It includes strong medium- and long-term goals to hold global temperatures well below two degrees and to peak global emissions as soon as possible and to achieve climate neutrality in the course of the century.

It establishes a strong transparency and accountability system based on binding transparency requirements for both developed and developing countries, regular inventories based on agreed international standards, regular reporting both on those inventories and on progress toward achieving targets, and a robust review of all reporting based on expert teams and questioning by peers. It enhances the focus of the climate regime on adaptation.

It revises the architecture of the climate system with a means of differentiating among countries that looks forward, not back, and is grounded in countries making their own nationally determined choices based on their different circumstances and capacities. It provides robust continuing financial and technical assistance to poor countries with important focus on mobilizing private capital.

So this was a very big deal, a long time coming. And why don’t I stop there and we can pass it on to my colleague.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Great, thank you. I just want to put the, I think, the agreement today in a little bit of a broader context, and then just hit a couple of things before we go over to your questions. I think that for – if you step back on where we are tonight at this historic milestone, it is important to look back at how we got here. And I think that what you see is this is the culmination of a deliberate and patient strategy to fundamentally change the global dynamic on climate change.

When President Obama came into office, he identified this issue as a top priority. But going into Copenhagen in 2009, he was met with a stark reality of just how complicated and fractured this issue was on the global stage.

Now, importantly in that context, the President was able to come in, assert leadership, and try to pull together something to come out of that, that COP in 2009. And while that was a – that was an experience that everybody involved wanted to avoid, I think for the President in particular it underscored that if we were going to make real progress on this, we were going to have to be patient and develop a strategy that was based on both domestic policy and multilateral engagement.

And so what you’ve seen over the course of the last six years is that strategy unfold. And over the course of the last several years, the President has very deliberately but also ambitiously pushed the envelope on a domestic Climate Action Plan because he understood and we understood that demonstrating U.S. leadership on addressing climate domestically was going to be the foundation from which we could strengthen our global leadership position in the international arena. Over the course of 2013 and 2014, that Climate Action Plan began to take shape. And obviously, this year in 2015, we’ve been driving that even more substantially with the Clean Power Plan.

At the same time, the President recognized that we were going to need to change the dynamic internationally, and so set a strategy with his team to try to go at the big issues. I think key to that was the decision – deliberate decision to reach out to China in 2013 and begin a conversation and a dialogue on this issue that culminated in the joint announcement just about a year ago. That announcement surprised the world and changed the dynamic of this issue, because suddenly you had the two largest economies, the two largest emitters, both standing up and being willing to put forward ambitious plans. But we also recognized that building on that we were going to need to have a strategy to bring other countries along as well.

And so over the course of the last year, the President has put this as a priority of his international engagement with countries like India and Brazil, Mexico, a range of others, has prioritized this in all of his engagements in an effort to try to use the leadership that he’s showing domestically to change the dynamic internationally.

And so I think that the – as we are here at this moment, it is a historic and exciting time, but I think it’s also a reflection of the fact that on an issue that’s as complex and as multifaceted as this, with so many complicated scientific and political interactions across the globe, it requires a kind of deliberate strategy, and that’s going to be true going forward. This agreement I think will represent a watershed in how the global – how countries all over the world address climate change. But going forward we now have a framework to drive progress, but it’s going to be up to countries to continue demonstrating leadership to actually make good on the ambition that my colleague discussed.

So with that, why don’t we pause and we can take your questions.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Operator, if you could just remind folks how to queue up for a question, that would be great.

OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your phone keypad. You will hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the # key. Once again, if you have a question, it’s * then 1.

OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Andrea Mitchell with NBC News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for doing this. Questions on both sides politically. On the left, Bernie Sanders has already criticized this as being too little; it doesn’t go far enough. And as far as deniers and other critics in Congress, they’ll try to block this at every stage. So how does the U.S. continue to show leadership around the world when in particular implementation is going to be very fractured back in the U.S.? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Look, I think that this agreement is right in the zone where it needs to be. It’s very ambitious in all sorts of ways. Again, the 186 INDCs were a tremendous start. They don’t go all the way there, but if you look at what the analyses have been from analysts who track emissions, the predictions a year ago were that we were on a path for 3.6 degrees increase. The predictions this October had dropped that all the way down to 2.7, which is still a long way from where we need to be in the end, but a huge improvement just on the strength of this first set of INDCs.

Then there is the ratcheting up of targets every five years. There’s the strong transparency system, there’s the strong global goals. It’s a package that I think is quite good, and you’re working in an environment with 195 countries who have all sorts of different interests and all sorts of different levels of activities, circumstances, and so forth. So in terms of the “too little” attack, I think that this is a great start, recognizing that it is just a start and it’s not – nobody ever thought that this was going to be the whole answer.

With respect to the skeptics, look, I think that the tide of history is moving with us. The public opinion polls indicate this; the willingness of people around the country to act and the actions that people are taking in the – not only in national government but in local governments and state governments and in the private sector and in civil society, I think you’re seeing more and more action. And I think that this agreement is going to propel that forward. I think this agreement is going to send a signal to all of those places, whether it’s the private sector or researchers in universities or civil society that the message is that the leaders of the world have taken this issue to heart, have taken it on, and there’s no turning back. And so I think that this movement is going to be quite positive going forward.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And let me just say one more thing about the denier/obstructionist crowd. We’ve now been here in Paris for some time; 195 countries represented by parties, political parties of varying conservative, liberal parties across the globe. And it is striking that in this forum, with a global agreement in place, the world has moved way beyond this argument. And I think that what you’re going to see is that the private sector is going to move beyond it, and they’re going to demonstrate that with their investment. And increasingly, this is going to be an argument made by a few on a shrinking island, and I think that that’s an important part of what this agreement is going to do.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Operator, we can take the next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll go to Jean Chemnick with ClimateWire. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. I wanted to know, in the middle of the day when there was that pause, how much of that time, or was that time spent on this issue of developed countries not wanting to have “shall make” economy-wise reductions versus developing countries “should”? Was that an issue, or was it just (inaudible) issue that was taking place during that time? And how was it sorted out?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I guess the first thing I would day is a little bit of context, which is it is the dramatic exception rather than the rule that any day as complicated as this stays on schedule. So there were some delays over the course of the day, but all things considered, they moved pretty quickly and pretty – in a pretty orderly way through this process.

There were some errors in the draft, drafting errors, and understandable in an environment where the French presidency staff have been working nonstop, literally, for two weeks. And so they were sorting through those. But I think for the most part, what it reflected was just the fact that getting something as complicated as this to the finish line ends up taking a bit of time.

OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Pilita Clark with Financial Times. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. [Senior Administration Officials]. President Hollande just said that France – or he was going to revise France’s greenhouse gas emission targets before 2020 now that this deal had been signed. I wonder if you think that we may see similar sorts of action coming from other countries. And what would be the U.S. position on this, or do you have any room to maneuver at all in relation to that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Pilita. Look, I think that most countries are going to be singularly focused in the next few years on achieving the targets that they took in 2010 after Copenhagen and then reiterated in Cancun. That’s certainly what we’re going to be doing. The President and the Administration have been flat out across the broad range of the economy, from vehicles to power plants to buildings to other pollutants like the HFCs and methane and so forth, a very, very broad program that is designed in the first instance to get us to the in the range of 17 percent target that we took on before, and then to also set us far and hard on the way to the 26 to 28 percent target we have in 2025. So I don’t – I wouldn’t expect those targets to be revised. I think the effort is to meet them. And it’s, as I say, an intensive effort.

As for other countries, I don’t know. I think that it’s probably more going to be along the lines of what we’re seeing at least for these first few years. Now, what I think is quite plausible is that for countries – and we’re one of the few who have a target to 2025. There’s a lot of countries have a target – most countries to 2030. If technology and other developments happen the way we hope they do, then at the point when those targets are going to be reviewed, as called for by this agreement in 2020, we would certainly hope to see some countries look at their 2030 targets and revise them upward.

President Hollande was talking about something before that, talking about going in tomorrow and doing that. We would be delighted to see that picked up. I would guess that that not be a very broad movement, but it’s certainly a bold and welcome action by President Hollande.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And there is one interesting and important part of the architecture of this agreement, which is that under the – that as part of what was adopted today, countries that have a 2025 target in their INDC will update those targets by 2020, and countries that have 2030 targets will review, reconfirm, or potentially update those targets by 2020 as well. And that’s part – that’s a very constructive and valuable part of what I think will become a cycle of ratcheting in this agreement, and the fact that that starts early in 2020 to drive more countries to look at those targets and ask what they can do to be more ambitious, including the United States, is another valuable aspect of this agreement.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Operator, we can take the next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll go to Chris Frates with CNN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, it’s Chris Frates with CNN. Thank you guys for doing this call. Two questions. It has been said that the emissions were not made legally binding because that would have made this a treaty and it wouldn’t have gotten through the Senate. So I wanted to ask you about that. And then the follow-up question is: Does this need any kind of congressional approval or not?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks for the question. So we pursued from the – well, for quite a while. I don’t remember exactly when the proposal that we started to follow was first announced. But New Zealand had the idea of what is, in effect, a hybrid kind of legal form where a number of elements would be legally binding, including essentially the whole accountability system, the requirement to put in targets or ratchet them to be – to report on them and be reviewed on them, and various rules for counting emissions and so forth would be legally binding, but the targets themselves would not be. So that was the basic structure of the – of what I’m referring to as the hybrid that New Zealand put forward.

And we thought that that made sense for reasons of broad participation in this agreement, certainly including the United States but by no means only the United States. There are many countries – the most vocal outside of us probably India – but the reality is there would be many developing countries who would balk at having to do legally binding targets for themselves. They might be perfectly happy to ask for legally binding targets from developed countries, but we were not going to go back into a Kyoto structure of binding target commitments for developed countries but not for developing. We’re past that. That’s the backwards-looking world. It didn’t work. That’s not where we were going. So the notion of the targets not being binding was really a fundamental part of our approach from early on, and obviously something quite useful for us as well.

In terms of congressional approval, this agreement does not require submission to the Senate because of the way it is structured. The targets are not binding; the elements that are binding are consistent with already approved previous agreements. So it would not be – I mean, I don’t want to speak in a definitive way, but it’s certainly not – I would just say that it’s not required. What actions are taken or not taken is a separate question, but it’s not required.

MODERATOR: Thanks, Operator. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll go to Karl Ritter with the Associated Press. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello, thanks for doing this call. I wonder – you mentioned the targets not being binding. There seems to have been a lot of things in this agreement that reflect the U.S. decisions. How would you say, looking back at what you hoped that this agreement would be and what it now has become, how close are – or how much did you have to cave on some of the issues, and which were they? And do you feel that it reflects the U.S. decisions going into this for the most part? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I guess what I would say is I don’t – I mean, I don’t think we had to cave on anything, actually. But what I would say is that we started to talk with other countries about this right away. I mean, the first – I remember the first Major Economies meeting that we had after Durban. So Durban was four years ago, December of 2015, and we’d had our first Major Economies meeting probably in March or April of that year and started talking with partner countries, both developed and developing, about what the shape of this deal would need to be.

And we had a pretty good idea in our heads that it would have to be a bottom-up, nationally determined structure, because once you agreed – and this was the fundamental agreement in Durban: Once you agree that you are going to have an agreement applicable to all countries – so the not-Kyoto approach, or Kyoto’s applicable to just development countries – once you were putting everybody in, you couldn’t – there was no way you were going to be able to negotiate targets and timetables, as was done in Kyoto; and you were going to need to have a totally different kind of structure, a bottom-up structure which allowed countries to come in understanding that and feeling comfortable with the fact that they weren’t going to have to compromise their fundamental imperatives of development and growth and poverty eradication and so forth.

So that was the fundamental insight, and then a number of things flow from that. We wanted to – once you have countries doing their own targets, it’s very important that you have strong transparency provisions. You need to be able to understand and have confidence that people are going to actually do what they say they’re going to do. We wanted those – that whole accountability system to be the legally binding analog to the non-legally binding targets, and so on and so forth.

I mean, I think what we got, and the reason that you had the huge applause and tremendously positive spirit in the hall tonight is because this was a fair deal. This is not a United States deal. This is a deal that countries around the world could look at, feel comfortable about, feel bought into, and feel that they all got – they were all able, as one of the opening speakers – I can’t remember if it was Fabius or somebody else, but somebody said quite correctly everyone’s got to be able to go home – I think it was Fabius, actually – and look at their publics and look at their governments and say we got something good. And I think that’s what happened.

So I feel that there was a lot of – there was certainly U.S. – significant U.S. involvement in the shaping and the conceptualizing and the driving of this architecture, but this is a fair deal for everyone, or else it wouldn’t have happened.

MODERATOR: Thanks, Operator. We can take the next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll go to Valerie Volcovici with Reuters. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Officials]. Apologies if you’ve answered this already, but I just wanted to get a bit more of a sense of what the talks with China were like, kind of in the kind of two or three days leading up to today’s agreement. And at what point do you all think – what was the turning point? When do you think you realized that a deal was coming together?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So thanks for the question. So I think let me just give a little backdrop for the – and I’ll answer your direct question about the last couple of days, but a little backdrop because the China relationship has been really quite pivotal to what has happened in the last couple of years.

We started to ramp into a whole different level with China in – really in 2013 when Secretary Kerry first went in the spring to meet with the Chinese and established the U.S.-China Working Group. The President then had a very important meeting with President Xi in Sunnylands, where they focused on the HFC issue, and again on the same issue in September of 2013. And then the following year involved the really quite historic joint announcement between the President and President Xi, and again, that then followed up by the White House visit of President Xi with the joint statement, which had a big impact on positions of the U.S. and China in this negotiation, and that one from September. So there was a real important kind of backdrop that involved both Secretary Kerry and President Obama in a very important way.

So here over the last two weeks we have been in very regular, very, very regular contact with the Chinese discussing all the issues. And we have had our differences and we had our differences here, but the level of candor and the level of interaction and the basic investment that each country has in the other and in the process, I think was strong throughout.

And I’d say in the middle of this second week we started to work in a more intensive way on some of the issues that had continued to be open and needed work across a range – mitigation, transparency, finance, and so forth – and we worked at every level of our representation here, with Secretary Kerry. President Obama talked to President Xi in the – both in the lead-up to the COP and then on the first day when the leaders were here had an important meeting with President Xi and continued to be in touch with him from a distance. So that set a very, very important tone. And I guess that’s what I would say.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: The only thing I would add to that is I think that what [Senior Administration Official One] just laid out is – it’s an example of what I was talking about earlier that there is – that addressing this issue does require a deliberate and patient strategy; and I think that the investment in that relationship both at the level of the President and Xi, but also at the level of our teams and our negotiators, and a sense of understanding where each side is coming from, and then the ability to work together to actually find solutions, is something that’s developed over time and that that investing in that is a very important thing when you’re going to try to address an issue that is as complex as this. And I think that you saw the fruits of that in some important ways over the course of the last week.

MODERATOR: Thanks, Operator. We’re going to have time for two more questions, okay?

OPERATOR: We’ll go to Pat Reiber with German Press Agency. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I wanted to go back to a question that was asked about the treaty versus non-treaty status and involved in the Congress. How will this treaty then be – how do you expect this agreement – not a treaty – to be ratified by the U.S.? Could you explain a little bit how that will happen?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, this is – well, I can take a shot at it. But look, I think you sort of answered it in your question, which is this is – this not does require – this agreement does not require ratification by the Senate. And the reason for that is the hybrid structure that [Senior Administration Official One] mentioned. And so the structure is really one of an executive agreement. And we have numerous executive agreements across – in the climate and energy area, but frankly, across all areas of multilateral engagement, and those agreements include binding provisions for reporting and review and otherwise. We have a long history of that and it’s part of the executive authority that the U.S. exercises in foreign policy. And so we will implement this agreement in a manner that’s consistent with that. And the hybrid structure is very important and very useful.

And I just want to reinforce one thing that [Senior Administration Official One] said, which is that the hybrid structure is very useful because it’s going to be the most effective way to address this issue at an international level. The decision to try to get a universal agreement where the targets were not binding was part of a larger theory, which was that having binding targets only for some failed, and having a universal approach was going to require non-binding targets so that every country could come and step up and say we are going to do what we can, but we’re not going to be forced to do more than we can. And so that structure was an important part of this entire strategy, and the agreement was not just an effort to try to land this agreement in one form or another.

MODERATOR: Thanks, Operator. We can take our last question.

OPERATOR: The final question comes from Noah Bierman with Los Angeles Times. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much. You mentioned that it does not need approval by the Senate, but are there mechanisms and have you looked into mechanisms by which Congress can exercise a veto, for lack of a better word, pass things that make it difficult or impossible for the United States to fulfil its end of this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I mean, it probably won’t surprise you that we aren’t spending a lot of time thinking of ways that the Congress could veto this. But look, the truth is this is an agreement that doesn’t require ratification by the Senate. There are the – Congress plays an important role in executive agreements in terms of receiving information and being briefed, and I assume that – and expect that we will engage in a lot of that going forward. But we feel very confident that, as with the range of executive agreements that exist and have been effectively in place for years and years, that we can move forward with this agreement within existing legal authority.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Thanks, Operator. Before we go, just two reminders. This call is on background to – sourced to Senior Administration Officials. Also, it is embargoed until after the President’s remarks, which are set to start shortly. So thanks again for joining us, and we’ll talk to you soon.