Climate action behind the scenes | Strengthening transatlantic cooperation

Transatlantic coordination on climate change had stalled since the Bush administration’s 2001 exit from the Kyoto Protocol, but European countries have continued to push for an international treaty with legally binding emissions targets. The election of Barack Obama, Europeans hoped, would change the global dynamic and make the international climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 a success, if they coordinated quickly with the new US administration.

The headquarters of the German Marshall Fund in Washington became the site of the first American-European attempts to prepare the conference together. The organization’s new climate program has invited negotiators from several European countries to come to Washington for a two-day workshop with some of Obama’s climate policy advisers. Few people were aware of this meeting at the time, not even within GMF. The American political system allows an elected president to prepare for office, but not to conduct official business. But a few months before the Copenhagen conference and its preliminary meetings, time is running out. The best that could be done was private, silent meetings at the venue of a trusted transatlantic partner: GMF.

A few months before the Copenhagen conference and its preliminary meetings, time is running out. The best that could be done was private, silent meetings at the venue of a trusted transatlantic partner: GMF.

The workshop was also part of the GMF’s transition from a grant-making institution to a think tank, working on policy through convenings and policy recommendations. Under the tutelage of President Craig Kennedy, director of political programs Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff had begun hiring climate experts. One of them was Nigel Purvis, a former State Department climate negotiator.

Purvis’s political work – his writings and his expert meetings – shaped perceptions of what could be achieved collectively. He argued that neither China, nor India, nor the United States, not even under President Obama, would accept legal constraints. The only way forward would be an agreement obliging each country to set its own emissions targets. The obligation would be to set a target and report whether the country was meeting its targets – which was in fact what the final agreement called for, but that came much later.

It is not just climate policy that has seen the GMF as a place for conversations of trust between transatlantic partners. The German-American relationship has seen strains more than once, and more than once the GMF has hosted dinner conversations for policymakers to compare notes and seek a way forward. Confidential discussions on enlargement took place at the parallel GMF conference at NATO. During the annual Brussels Forum of the GMF, these conversations sometimes become the main act, in the 2000s as today.

Incidentally, the GMF’s climate conclave at the end of 2008 set the stage for a resounding failure. The Copenhagen conference in 2009 did not lead to the agreement hoped for by Europeans and Americans. It took another six years for the Paris agreement to be adopted in 2015, but the ideas discussed between EU and US negotiators in the GMF meeting room were among those that shaped the final treaty adopted in Paris.

Comments are closed.