Senior State Department Official on the Paris Agreement Signing Ceremony

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Washington, DC
April 20, 2016


MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. We’re pleased today to have a senior State Department official to discuss on background the Paris agreement signing ceremony. For your reference purposes only and not for reporting, we welcome [name and title withheld], hereafter known as a senior State Department official. We’re going to open it to brief remarks at the top, and then we will take questions from all of you.

So with that, let’s go ahead and get started.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks very much, and thanks for joining. Appreciate it. So I think, as many of you are aware, this is quite a significant week on the climate change file. On Friday, the Paris agreement on climate change will be open for signature. Secretary Kerry is going to join a record number of global leaders in signing the agreement, bringing it a step closer to entering into force.

Last December, the world came together really in unprecedented ways to speak with a single voice in adopting the Paris agreement. And for the first time, we have an ambitious, durable regime – it’s fair; it applies to all countries; it moves us beyond the categories of developed and developing that are really outmoded.

The swift action by so many countries – every climate, every size, every economy – is really a testament to the undeniable momentum coming out of Paris, and it’s spurring not only swift action on the Paris agreement itself but really continued progress on our collective efforts to move to clean energy, to low carbon, to a climate-friendly future.

Countries, cities, states, companies and communities all moving ahead, turning the work really to implement the Paris agreement into reality – to achieve the commitments set forth in Paris to reduce emissions, to mobilize private capital, to build resilience, to adapt to the impacts of unavoidable change.

So Friday is another critical milestone along the path – confronting the threats – and entry into force is really kind of a critical next step beyond that. So as record numbers of world leaders sign the agreement on Friday, the next step really is to join the agreement. That’s distinct from signing.

So each country has its own domestic procedure for joining. Some are pretty straightforward; others are more complicated, more time-intensive. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has encouraged countries to join the agreement as soon as possible, and we’re expecting that many countries will provide an update on their progress and plans when they make their own national statements on Friday.

We’re working to follow the secretary-general’s call and continue to demonstrate U.S. leadership, while working quickly through our own domestic processes. And as I think all of you are aware, just a few weeks ago President Obama and Chinese President Xi jointly announced our intent to sign the agreement on the 22nd, which is this Friday, and then to join as early as possible this year. So that’s a signal – significant signal, really – of continued commitment and momentum coming from the two largest emitters, which together account for virtually 40 percent of global emissions.

So as the drumbeat for climate action continues and more nations join, the agreement moves closer to entering into force. That happens after at least 55 nations representing at least 55 percent of global emissions join.

Let me turn just for a moment then to the schedule that’s going to be happening on Friday. So U.S. leadership continues, not just, of course, starting on Friday, but well beyond. I think it’s a continuation of work you’ve been seeing from us over the last years. Secretary Kerry on Friday will be taking part in the formal UN activities surrounding the Paris signing. He’ll deliver remarks at the opening ceremony, and that’s supposed to start at 8:30. And following that he will formally sign the agreement on behalf of the United States. Later that afternoon the Secretary is going to be participating in an event along with representatives from a number of other nations that are committing – as we did, as China did, as others have – to join the agreement this year. So it’s a separate event. And then I think it’s quite clear that ongoing around the process there’ll be a lot of other informal activities. Many of us will participate in those.

There’s a clear cry globally for global climate action. I’m struck by the news that came out just yesterday about March now being again the warmest on record – this year the warmest on record, exceeding last year, which was the warmest on record. The science is irrefutable. The ravages look more significant, more threatening; the need to act quickly to move, really quite significant, very important. And Friday is really a benchmark in that process.

So very happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Operator, can you repeat to our callers how to ask questions, and then we’ll stand by if there are any.

OPERATOR: If you would like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone.

All right, and the first question comes from John Siciliano with The Washington Examiner. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Oh, hey. I apologize for the noise. But yeah, I just wanted to get clarification: What is the difference between signing and joining? It was my understanding that signing meant the 55 – 55 countries signed the agreement, then it was a positive step toward kind of – well, with – for whatever it’s called, ratification, which is a normal treaty word. What is joining? What is the difference between signing and joining? Because it’s sort of confusing. That’s it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks very much. I hope you’re in a fun place with the noise. So, listen, I think that’s exactly the right question and this distinction’s really quite important.

So by signing, a state, a country expresses its intention to become a party, to pursue the effort to become a party. It’s a signal of commitment, but it’s a signal – it’s not the reality. By joining, a state actually takes on all the obligations under the agreement, and there is a process that different states have as to how they would choose to do that. But one is the intent to pursue joining. That’s what’s happening on Friday. The second is the joining itself. That, countries are currently working through. Many have announced their intent to do that this year and we are urging that to happen as quickly as possible.

But let me – one more point to add to that: Your second part of your question was also correct. This 55 percent representing – at least 55 countries representing 55 percent, that’s in the context of actually joining. We’re going to well exceed that number in the number of countries signing on Friday.

MODERATOR: Operator, can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: All right. The next question comes from Pilita Clark with the Financial Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. [Senior State Department Official], I wonder if you could – could you just talk us through the process by which the U.S. will join? And could you explain – or what is your view of the views expressed by some legal experts that if the U.S. does join this year, then it’s going to take another four years for any incoming president who might want to leave the agreement to actually do that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the process for us is different for all kinds of different agreements. With respect to the Paris agreement, we have our own procedures, we have a standard State Department exercise that we are currently going through for authorizing an executive agreement, which this is, and that’s what we’re currently working on. We have committed to completing that as early as possible this year. That was the commitment that we made with President Xi and President Obama just late last month. It involves the preparation of a variety of documents. Those are internal to the Administration. That’s what we’re currently working through.

The second issue about processes if a country chooses not to be party or to withdraw itself, those are contained in the agreement itself. And those processes are ones that are kind of standard for all kinds of agreements, and the answer is of course, it’s legally possible for a country to withdraw. If a future president chooses, he or she could pursue a formal withdrawal from the agreement.

But the fact is, in our minds, that the transition’s really underway. Countries are taking action, companies are taking action, technologies are really moving forward. I don’t think it’s very likely that anyone’s going to really withdraw from this exercise, although there are provisions in the agreement that would allow that.

MODERATOR: Operator, can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Pamela Falk with CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. On the last question about the U.S. participation and ratification, there are different legal theories about whether an executive agreement has the same binding powers as a treaty. Can you elaborate the way you see the enforceability of the executive agreement that the U.S. – as the way the U.S. would ratify the Paris agreement? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks very much. Listen, I think that there’s a distinction here to be quite clearly drawn. At the end of the day, what applies in a country are the rules and the laws that it has to implement its obligations, its commitments. This is an agreement which has a number of those. Those are in particular allowable and enforceable through existing law passed by Congress and executed by various Executive Branch agencies. So for example, we have commitments to report. Congress passed those commitments in the 1990s calling upon us to report. This is an elaboration of some details about the reporting under which the Executive Branch has authority to make those amendments. They’re not significant in the sense of our existing legal authority.

We have commitments to strive for additional action. The framework convention back in 1992 committed us to doing that and Congress ratified that treaty calling for that. This is an elaboration of that kind of commitment, which the Executive Branch can move on. I mean, these are just examples, but that legal authority already exists in the U.S. An executive agreement can further those, but these are not a change in form; they’re a change in some of the particular components, and there, our authority is quite strong.

I think that other countries do it different ways. That’s why these processes are different from nation to nation, and why you see some different timelines in terms of the difference between signing – happening now – and joining, which people are currently working to.

MODERATOR: Great. Operator, can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Edith Lederer with the Associated Press. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. As a follow-up to the questions that came before, it’s interesting that at a background briefing, [Official] said that the United States would not be able to withdraw from the agreement. And [Official] called it – [Official] said that for most countries, the agreement, or for many countries – I can’t quite remember – the agreement was actually a treaty and that there was sort of this special carve-out for the United States in making it – in doing it in a way that there could be an executive agreement. So I was surprised to hear you say that the next president actually could withdraw from it. What actually are the provisions in the agreement for leaving? And could you address this disparity between treaty versus – for other countries – versus agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks very much for that. The answer is there is a – there is an article – and the downside of having fairly recently taken this portfolio is I can’t remember the number of the article. But the article in the agreement sets the provisions for withdrawal. It’s explicit. We’ve – it’s a standard set of provisions that we tend to have in agreements that we do on a regular, ongoing basis.

So I think what [Official] may have been referring to is that those provisions are not instantaneous. There’s a period of time through which a country has to commit – to propose to withdraw, and then it goes through a waiting period while that takes effect, and that’s maybe what [Official] meant. So a president – a new president couldn’t say, “I’d like to withdraw tomorrow” – say, sometime next year – “I’d like to withdraw tomorrow” and have that happen, but they can withdraw. That is a standard provision in the agreement, so I think there may have been some misunderstanding about where the interpretation has gone.

OPERATOR: As a reminder, if you’d like to ask a question, please hit *1. The next question comes from Suzanne Goldenberg with The Guardian. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Oh, hi. Thanks for doing this call. What’s your count now for the number of countries that are prepared to ratify, approve, or join this year? How confident are you that we’re going to get beyond the 55 percent threshold, especially given that the EU is unlikely to be among those countries of UNGA early planners? And I apologize for the background noise.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, you’re relatively quiet compared to our first caller. Thanks very much. Listen, at the moment, we know ourselves and China, because we’ve talked to them, and had a formal agreement with them that we would be moving this forward. We understand from some informal conversations that there are more than a dozen who are prepared to do this, but we don’t have confirmation really precisely. Part of what I think we’ll get on Friday is that understanding.

Now, again, I want to highlight the distinction between signing and joining. Over 100 countries are planning to sign at either a head-of-state or ministerial level in New York. Many of them are going to indicate their intent, probably, to join this year, but we don’t actually have a hard count. So probabilities – I think that the open question about the EU is one that you’re correct in raising. We’ve understood from them that their internal processes will be a little bit longer than this year, but not yet clear if that might be accelerated. We’ve understood from others that they are currently actively working to the intent of trying to join this year, but we don’t really have a hard and fast number. I think we’ll hear more in New York on Friday.

MODERATOR: Operator, can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Valerie Volcovici with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Well, Suzanne took my question, but I just wanted to see if you might be able to address India and whether you’re aware of their immediate intention to join and kind of what are some of the obstacles they might face in joining. I know they’re going to sign, but what are some of their obstacles to joining?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, thanks very much. We’ve had some informal exchanges with them. They know that we and many others, the secretary-general of UN, others, are interested in seeing what they can do and whether it could be a quick process at home for them. We’ve understood that it has to go through their parliament, and their parliament, of course, is parliamentary as opposed to congressional like ours. So the structure of the ruling party gives them a different kind of a process. There’s not a disagreement, as far as we’ve understood, that they would join. We don’t yet know what exactly the timing would be for such joining. So we’re currently hoping to work with them to move that forward. We understand others are also talking with them about any barriers they might face. I would be excited if they could do it. They represent a significant share of global emission and they have indicated – by their intent and support of the agreement, they have indicated their intent to move on the climate change problem through this mechanism. So I’m optimistic; whether it’s this year or perhaps early next year, I don’t think we know yet.

MODERATOR: Operator, we have time for just a couple more questions. Can we go to the next one please?

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Kate Sheppard with the Huffington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Sure. I wanted to follow up. Other than to say that we’re – we intend to join later this year, do you have any sense of specifically when later this year that might be possible?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So we’re currently looking at exactly that question. We’re trying to expedite our internal work to be able to do it quite quickly. So we’re where we don’t yet have a time that I can bring to you, but we’ll certainly keep you posted.

MODERATOR: And operator, can we get our last question please?

OPERATOR: Last question comes from Dean Scott with Bloomberg. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. Dean Scott. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about this distinction about early entry into force. We see a lot of folks involved in the process talking about if everything lines up, we could see something like 2017, 2018, a few years early. But I know a lot of business folks are asking: What is the real impact of that? Is the impact somewhat ephemeral or sort of pushing toward this theme of more low-carbon development, or is there anything sort of structural or regulatory in terms of the impact of any early entry into force?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks very much; good to hear your voice. So a couple of things about it. There are some rules and guidelines that would begin to take more effect. So, for example, we think about countries trying to figure out how they prepare their plans, their NDCs, those nationally determined contributions, which are essentially the targets that countries have set for themselves. Those begin to move more quickly. People take this more seriously. Entry into force in some sense is the difference between “I’m interested in doing it, I’m going to try to do it,” and “I will do it, I am doing it.” That’s a non-trivial distinction to draw for a country as it develops its policies and measures and its plans. And to me, the issue here – and the reason Friday’s a big deal, it’s a signal of intent, and the reason that the entry into force is yet a bigger deal, it’s the change in the intent and the action and the reality.

So I think as countries move forward with this, it is a signal to the business community. It is a commitment that people will be actively moving to reduce emissions. They’ve put out ideas for their plans and their programs. They’re going to start down the pathway of making that real. So to me, this is a new sign, a new signal of global interest, global movement, global intent, and I think it’s quite (inaudible) of the business community to pay attention to it.

MODERATOR: All right, great. Well, thank you to all of you for participating today. For those of you who joined late, just as a reminder, this call was on background to a senior State Department official. Have a great day.