Barack Obama publishes ‘A Promised Land’
Excerpt from chapter 21 of A PROMISED LAND by Barack Obama
One night at dinner Malia asked me what I was going to do about the tigers.
-What you mean, honey?
“You know they’re my favorite animal, right?”
Years earlier, during our annual visit to Hawaii for Christmas, my sister Maya had taken Malia, then four, to the Honolulu Zoo. It was small but charming, nestled in a corner of Kapiolani Park, near Diamond Head. As a child I spent hours there, climbing the banyan trees, feeding the pigeons that roamed the grass, howling at the long-legged gibbons perched on top of the bamboo poles. During the visit, Malia had fallen in love with one of the tigers, and her aunt had bought her a stuffed animal of the big cat at the souvenir shop. Tiger had plump claws, a round belly, and an indecipherable Gioconda smile; Malia and he became inseparable, although by the time we got to the White House his fur was already somewhat worn after having survived food splashes,I had a soft spot for Tiger.
“Well,” Malia continued, “I did some work on tigers for the school, and they are losing their habitat because people cut down the forests.” And the situation is getting worse, because the planet is warming because of pollution. Also, people kill them and sell their skin, their bones, and so on. So the tigers are going extinct, which would be terrible. And since you are the president, you should try to save them.
“You should do something, Dad,” Sasha added.
I looked at Michelle, who shrugged:
“You are the president,” he said.
The nervous atmosphere in Congress was not the only reason why he hoped to have the legislation on caps and emissions in place by December: that same month, a summit on climate change sponsored by the UN. After eight years during which, under the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States had been absent from international negotiations on the climate, expectations abroad were through the roof. And I could hardly urge other governments to act aggressively against climate change if the United States did not lead by example. I knew that having a domestic bill would improve our bargaining position with other countries and help spur the kind of collective action needed to protect the planet. After all, greenhouse gases do not respect borders. A law that reduces emissions in one country may make its citizens feel morally superior, but if other countries do not do the same, the temperature will just continue to rise.
So in the past, our leadership in this area was practically taken for granted. In 1992, when the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro for what became known as the Earth Summit, President George HW Bush joined representatives from one hundred and fifty-three other countries in signing the United Nations Framework Convention. Nations on Climate Change, the first global agreement to try to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases before it reached catastrophic levels. The Clinton Administration quickly took over and worked with other countries to translate the vague goals that were announced in Rio into a binding treaty. The end result, the so-called Kyoto Protocol, established detailed plans for coordinated international action.
Environmentalists hailed the Kyoto Protocol as a turning point in the fight against global warming. Around the world, participating countries turned to their governments to ratify the treaty. But in the United States, where ratification of a treaty requires an affirmative vote of two thirds of the Senate, the Kyoto Protocol has hit an impassable wall. In 1997, Republicans controlled the Senate, and few considered climate change a real problem. In fact, then-chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, arch-conservative Jesse Helms, prided himself on despising environmentalists alike, the UNand multilateral treaties. Powerful Democrats like West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd were also quick to oppose any measure that could harm the fossil fuel industries vital to their state.
In light of this scenario, President Clinton decided not to refer the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for a vote, but instead chose to delay defeat. Although Clinton’s political fortunes would recover after overcoming impeachment, the Kyoto Protocol remained in a drawer for the rest of his presidency. Any glimmer of hope for the treaty’s possible ratification was completely dashed when George W. Bush prevailed over Al Gore in the 2000 elections. All of which explains why in 2009, a year after the Kyoto Protocol entered the In full effect, the United States was one of the five countries not party to the agreement. The other four, in no particular order, were: Andorra and Vatican City (two states so small, with a combined population of around 80,000 people, that they were granted “observer” status rather than being asked to join the treaty); Taiwan (which would have been happy to participate but could not because the Chinese still rejected its status as an independent country); and Afghanistan (which had the reasonable excuse of being torn apart after thirty years of occupation and a bloody civil war).
“You know the situation has hit rock bottom when your closest allies believe your position on an issue is worse than North Korea’s,” said Ben Rhodes, shaking his head.
In reviewing this history, I sometimes imagined a parallel universe in which the United States, unrivaled just after the end of the Cold War, had turned its immense power and all its authority into the fight against climate change. He imagined the transformation of the global energy network and the reduction in the volume of greenhouse gases that would have been achieved; the geopolitical benefits that would have accruedderived from freeing oneself from the embrace of the petrodollars and the autocracies that those dollars propped up; the culture of sustainability that could have taken hold in both developed and developing countries. But as I met with my team to map out a thought-out strategy for our real universe, I had to acknowledge something that was obvious: Even now that the Democrats controlled the Senate, I had no way of securing the sixty-seven votes needed to ratify the Kyoto framework. existing
We were having a lot of trouble getting the Senate to draft a domestic climate bill. Barbara Boxer and John Kerry, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, had been drafting possible legislation for months, but had been unable to find a Republican peer willing to back it up with them, making it clear that the bill was unlikely to go through. , and would require a new, more centrist strategy.
After losing John McCain as a Republican ally, we turned our hopes to one of his closest friends in the Senate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Short in stature, with a flat face, and with a slight southern edge that in an instant could go from friendly to threatening, Graham was known as a fervent hawk on matters of national security (a member, along with McCain and Lieberman, of the so-called “Three Amigos », Who had been the main promoters of the Iraq war). Graham was smart, seductive, sarcastic, unscrupulous, skilled in his dealings with the media, and thanks in part to his genuine adoration for McCain, he was occasionally willing to stray from conservative orthodoxy, especially in supporting immigration reform. . After being re-elected for another six-year term, Graham was in a position to take some risk, and while he had never shown much interest in climate change in the past, he seemed drawn to the prospect of filling the gap McCain had left and fostering a major bipartisan deal. In early October, he offered to help convince the handful of Republicans we needed to get the Senate through climate legislation, but only if Lieberman helped lead the process and Kerry could convince environmentalists to offer concessions or subsidies. the nuclear power industry, as well as the opening up of more areas of the US coastline to offshore oil exploration. He seemed drawn to the prospect of filling the gap McCain had left and pushing for a major bipartisan deal. In early October, he offered to help convince the handful of Republicans we needed to get the Senate through climate legislation, but only if Lieberman helped lead the process and Kerry could convince environmentalists to offer concessions or subsidies. the nuclear power industry, as well as the opening up of more areas of the US coastline to offshore oil exploration. He seemed drawn to the prospect of filling the gap McCain had left and pushing for a major bipartisan deal. In early October, he offered to help convince the handful of Republicans we needed to get the Senate through climate legislation, but only if Lieberman helped lead the process and Kerry could convince environmentalists to offer concessions or subsidies. the nuclear power industry, as well as the opening up of more areas of the US coastline to offshore oil exploration.
Having to depend on Graham did not please me. I knew him from my time in the Senate as someone who liked to play the role of the serious and sophisticated conservative, who disarmed Democrats and journalists with blunt opinions about his party’s blind spots, and extolled the need for politicians break free from their ideological straitjackets. Most of the time, however, when it came time to cast a vote or take a position that might have a political cost to him, Graham found some reason to avoid it. (“You know when the team members are introduced to you at the beginning of a spy or heist movie?” I said to Rahm. “Well, Lindsey is the guy who betrays everyone else to save his neck.”) But, being realistic,
Meanwhile, we were preparing for what was to come in Copenhagen. With the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol scheduled for 2012, negotiations under the auspices of the UN had been underway for a yearfor a treaty that would give it continuity, with the aim of reaching an agreement in time for the December summit. However, we were not inclined to sign a new treaty that was too inspired by the original. My advisers and I had doubts about the regulatory design of the Kyoto Protocol; in particular, on the use of a concept known as ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, which placed the burden of cutting greenhouse gas emissions almost exclusively on advanced and energy-intensive economies such as from the United States, the European Union and Japan. In terms of fairness, asking rich countries to do more than poor countries against climate change made perfect sense: Not only was the existing build-up of greenhouse gases largely the result of a hundred years of industrialization in the West, but the per capita carbon footprint of rich countries was much higher than others. Furthermore, there was little that could be expected from countries like Mali, Haiti or Cambodia – places where vast numbers of people still did not have even the most basic access to electricity – to reduce their already tiny emissions (and thus possibly slow down their emissions). short-term growth). After all, Americans and Europeans could achieve much more substantial effects just by raising or lowering their thermostats a few degrees. little could be expected from countries like Mali, Haiti or Cambodia – places where scores of people still did not have even the most basic access to electricity – to reduce their already tiny emissions (and thus possibly slow their growth to short term). After all, Americans and Europeans could achieve much more substantial effects just by raising or lowering their thermostats a few degrees. little could be expected from countries like Mali, Haiti or Cambodia – places where scores of people still did not have even the most basic access to electricity – to reduce their already tiny emissions (and thus possibly slow their growth to short term). After all, Americans and Europeans could achieve much more substantial effects just by raising or lowering their thermostats a few degrees.
The problem was that the Kyoto Protocol had interpreted “differentiated responsibilities” to mean that emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil had no binding obligation to reduce their emissions. This might have been reasonable when the protocol was written twelve years ago, before globalization completely transformed the world economy. But in the midst of a brutal recession, and with Americans already furious about the continued flow of jobs to other countries, a treaty that would impose environmental restrictions on domestic factories without calling for action analogous to those operating in Shanghai or Bangalore would not it was going to be acceptable. In fact, by 2005 China had overtaken the United States in annual carbon dioxide emissions, and India’s numbers were increasing as well.
And while it remained true that the average Chinese or Indian citizen consumed a small portion of the energy used by the average American, experts predicted that the carbon footprint of those two countries would double in the coming decades, as a A growing proportion of its more than two billion people aspire to the same modern comforts enjoyed by those who lived in rich countries. If that happened, the planet would be submerged under water regardless of what all other countries did; an argument that Republicans (at least, those who did not completely reject climate science) used to use as an excuse for the United States to do absolutely nothing.
We needed a new strategy. Thanks to invaluable advice from Hillary Clinton and Todd Stern, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, my team prepared a proposal for a smaller interim agreement, based on three shared commitments. First, the agreement would require all countries – including emerging powers such as China and India – to present their own plan to reduce greenhouse gases. Each country’s plan could differ based on its wealth, energy profile, and stage of development, and would be reviewed at regular intervals as the country’s economic and technological capabilities increase. Second, although these plans would not be binding under international law as are treaty obligations, Each country would accept the adoption of measures that would allow the other signatory parties to independently verify that it was complying with the reductions that it had imposed on itself. Third, rich countries would provide the poor with billions of dollars in aid to mitigate and adapt to climate change, provided the poor kept their (much more modest) commitments.
If designed correctly, this new strategy could force China and other emerging powers to start putting the meat on the grill while maintaining the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” of the Kyoto Protocol. By establishing a credible system to validate other countries’ efforts to reduce emissions, we would also strengthen our position before Congress on the need to pass our own domestic climate change legislation (and we hoped to lay the foundation for a more robust treaty in near future). But Todd, an energetic and scrupulous lawyer who had been a senior negotiator for the Clinton Administration in Kyoto, warned us that our proposal would not be seen with very good eyes in the international arena. The countries of the European Union, All of whom had ratified Kyoto and taken steps to reduce their emissions, were very interested in reaching an agreement that included reduction commitments by the United States and China with legal guarantees. As for China, India and South Africa were satisfied with thestatus quo and stubbornly resisted any change in protocol. Environmental activists and organizations from around the world were scheduled to attend the summit. Many of them saw Copenhagen as an all-or-nothing moment and would view anything but a binding treaty with strict new limitations as a failure.
More specifically, like my failure.
“It’s not fair,” Carol said, “but they think if you’re serious about climate change, you should get Congress and other countries to do whatever it takes.”
He couldn’t blame environmentalists for setting the bar so high. Science demanded it. But she also knew there was no point in making promises that she couldn’t yet keep. It would take more time and the economic situation to improve before he could convince the American public to support an ambitious climate treaty. He would also have to convince China to collaborate with us, and he would probably need a looser majority in the Senate. If the world expected the United States to sign a binding treaty in Copenhagen, I had to lower expectations, starting with those of the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon.
After two years of his tenure as the most prominent of the world’s diplomats, Ban Ki-moon had yet to make much of a mark on the global stage. In part, this was due to the nature of his work: although the UN Secretary-GeneralHe runs an organization with a multi-billion dollar budget, a sprawling bureaucracy, and a host of international agencies, his power is largely conditional, and depends on his ability to lead one hundred and ninety-three countries toward something minimally akin to a common address. Ban’s relatively low profile was also a consequence of his low-key and methodical style: an uncreative take on diplomacy that had undoubtedly produced excellent results during his thirty-seven-year career in the foreign service and diplomatic corps of his Korea. from the native South, but in stark contrast to the refined charisma of his predecessor in office, Kofi Annan. You weren’t attending a meeting with Ban expecting to hear fascinating stories, witty comments, or dazzling ideas.
Despite his lack of spark, I ended up feeling affection and respect for him. He was honest, direct and irrepressible optimism, someone who on several occasions stood up to pressure from member states to defend the reforms that the UN so badly needed and who instinctively knew how to take the right side on every issue, although not always. had the ability to convince others to do the same. Ban was also persistent; particularly on the issue of climate change, which had been marked as one of its priorities. The first time we met in the Oval Office, less than two months after I had taken office, he began to pressure me to attend the Copenhagen summit.
“Your presence, Mr. President,” he told me, “will send a very powerful signal about the urgent need for international cooperation on climate change. Very powerful. »
I had explained to him everything we had planned to do domestically to reduce US emissions, as well as the difficulties for the Senate to pass a Kyoto-style treaty in the near future. I described our idea for an interim agreement, and how we were forming a “big emitter group”, apart from the UN- sponsored negotiations , to see if we could find meeting points with China on the issue. As I spoke, Ban nodded politely, occasionally taking a note or putting on his glasses. But nothing I said distracted him from his main mission.
“With your crucial involvement, Mr. President,” he said, “I am convinced that we can bring these negotiations to a successful agreement.”
And so it went on for months. No matter how many times I insisted on my concern about the turn the UN- sponsored negotiations were taking , no matter how blunt I was on the US position on a binding Kyoto-style treaty, Ban always stressed the need for it to be present in December in Copenhagen. He raised the issue at G20 meetings . He did it also in the G8 meetings. Finally, in the plenary session of the UN General AssemblyIn September in New York, I gave my arm to twist and promised the Secretary General that I would do everything possible to attend, provided it seemed likely that an agreement would emerge from the summit that I could accept. Then I turned to Susan Rice and told her that I felt like a teenage girl who has been pressured to go to prom with the nerd who is too good to say no.
When December rolled around and the Copenhagen conference opened, it seemed like my worst fears were coming true. Internally, we were still waiting for the Senate to set a date for the vote on the legislation on caps and emissions exchanges, while in Europe the negotiation of the treaty had reached a first deadlock. We had sent Hillary and Todd in advance to try to gather support for our provisional agreement proposal and, by phone, they described a chaotic scenario, in which the Chinese and the leaders of other BRIC countriesThey had planted themselves in their position, the Europeans were frustrated with both us and the Chinese, the poorer countries clamored for more financial aid, the Danish conference organizers and the UN were overwhelmed, and the environmental groups present there were they despaired of what seemed more and more an absolute disaster. Given the strong aroma of impending failure, not to mention the fact that I was still busy trying to get Congress to pass crucial legislation before the Christmas break, Rahm and Ax wondered if they should even make the trip.
Despite my qualms, I decided that even a slim chance of dragging other leaders into an international agreement outweighed the repercussions of a likely failure. To make the trip more bearable, Alyssa Mastromonaco drew up a minimalist calendar according to which she would travel to Copenhagen after a full day in the Oval Office and spend about ten hours in Denmark – just enough time to deliver a speech and hold a few bilateral meetings. with heads of state — before turning around and going home. Even so, it can be said that I was not overjoyed when I boarded Air Force One to cross the Atlantic at night. I settled into one of the overstuffed leather chairs in the plane’s conference room and ordered a good glass of vodka, hoping it would help me get a few hours’ sleep.
“Has anyone ever stopped to think,” I asked, “how much carbon dioxide I am releasing into the atmosphere as a result of these trips to Europe?” I’m pretty sure that, among planes, helicopters, and entourages, I have the biggest carbon footprint of anyone on the whole damn planet. “
“Hmm … it probably is.” He found the match we were looking for, turned up the volume, and added, “It might be better if you don’t mention it tomorrow in your speech.”
When we arrived in Copenhagen, the morning was dark and freezing, and the roads leading into the city were shrouded in mist. The venue for the conference looked like a converted shopping mall. We found ourselves wandering through a maze of elevators and corridors (in one of which, for some incomprehensible reason, there was a whole row of mannequins) until we met with Hillary and Todd to update us on the situation. As part of the proposed interim agreement, it had authorized Hillary to commit to the United States reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020, and would allocate $ 10 billion to the Green Climate Fund, from total of one hundred billion that the international community would contribute, to help poor countries in their efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. According to Hillary, delegates from a number of countries had shown interest in our alternative, but for now, Europeans were still opting for a fully binding treaty, while China, India and South Africa seemed content to let the conference end in failure and blaming it on the Americans.
“If you can convince the Europeans and the Chinese to support an interim agreement,” Hillary said, “then it is possible, even likely, that the rest of the world will follow suit.”
Being clear about my mission, we paid a courtesy visit to the Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who was chairing the last negotiating sessions. Like all Nordic countries, Denmark excelled in foreign affairs, and Rasmussen himself embodied many of the qualities that I associated with the Danes: he was prudent, pragmatic, caring, and knowledgeable. But the task that had been entrusted to him – to attempt a global consensus around a complicated and controversial issue facing the major world powers – would have been difficult for anyone to accomplish. For the forty-five-year-old leader of a small country, who had only been in office for eight months, it had proved manifestly impossible. The press had feasted on the stories of how Rasmussen had lost control of the conference, with delegates repeatedly rejecting his proposals, questioning his decisions and challenging his authority, like rebellious teenagers with a substitute teacher. When we met, the poor man looked shocked; Exhaustion had taken its toll on his clear blue eyes, and his blond hair was matted, as if he had just come out of a wrestling match. He listened carefully as I explained our strategy to him, asking me several technical questions about how an interim agreement would work. But more than anything, he seemed relieved when he checked my willingness to try to salvage the deal. questioning his decisions and challenging his authority, like rebellious teenagers with a substitute teacher. When we met, the poor man looked shocked; Exhaustion had taken its toll on his clear blue eyes, and his blond hair was matted, as if he had just come out of a wrestling match. He listened carefully as I explained our strategy, and asked me several technical questions about how an interim agreement would work. But more than anything, he seemed relieved when he checked my willingness to try to salvage the deal. questioning his decisions and challenging his authority, like rebellious teenagers with a substitute teacher. When we met, the poor man looked shocked; Exhaustion had taken its toll on his clear blue eyes, and his blond hair was matted, as if he had just come out of a wrestling match. He listened carefully as I explained our strategy to him, asking me several technical questions about how an interim agreement would work. But more than anything, he seemed relieved when he checked my willingness to try to salvage the deal. He listened carefully as I explained our strategy, and asked me several technical questions about how an interim agreement would work. But more than anything, he seemed relieved when he checked my willingness to try to salvage the deal. He listened carefully as I explained our strategy, and asked me several technical questions about how an interim agreement would work. But more than anything, he seemed relieved when he checked my willingness to try to salvage the deal.
From there, we went to a huge makeshift auditorium, where I presented to the plenary the three components of the provisional agreement that we proposed, as well as the alternative: inaction and acrimony as the planet slowly burned. The audience was subdued but respectful, and Ban came to congratulate me when I finished: he took my hand in his and behaved as if it was completely normal for him to expect me to try to save the deadlocked negotiations and improvise how to reach an agreement. last minute with the other world leaders.
The rest of the day was unlike any other summit I attended as president. Apart from the confusion of the plenary session, we had a series of smaller gatherings, and to get from one to the other we walked through corridors packed with people stretching their necks and taking photos. Apart from me, the most important actor present there that day was Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. He had come accompanied by a gigantic delegation. His team had hitherto been adamant and adamant in meetings, denying that China would accept any form of international oversight of its emissions, confident that, thanks to its alliance with Brazil, India and South Africa, it had the votes. enough to block any deal. In my bilateral face-to-face meeting with Wen, I rejected his arguments and warned him that, even if China understood that avoiding any transparency obligation was a short-term victory, it would end up being a long-term disaster for the planet. We agreed to keep talking throughout the day.
It was an advance, albeit minimal. The afternoon slipped away as the negotiating sessions continued. We managed to get support for a draft agreement from the member countries of the European Union and from several other delegates, but when we resumed the sessions with the Chinese we reached a deadlock, because Wen declined to attend and instead sent several members of his delegation who were, unsurprisingly, inflexible. Late in the day I was taken to another room, packed with disgruntled Europeans.
There were most of the key leaders, including Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, all with the same sleepy look of frustration. They wanted to know why, now that Bush was gone and the Democrats ruled, the United States could not ratify a Kyoto Protocol-style treaty. In Europe, they said, even far-right parties accept the reality of climate change. What happens to the Americans? We know the Chinese are a problem, but why not wait for a future deal to force them to give in?
For what seemed like an hour, I let them talk, answered their questions, sympathized with their concerns. Finally, the reality of the situation prevailed in the room, and it was Merkel who was in charge of expressing it aloud.
“I think what Barack describes is not the option we would have wanted,” he said calmly, “but it may be our only option today.” So … let’s wait and see what the Chinese and others say, and then decide. Turning to me, he added, “Are you going to join them now?”
“Good luck, then,” he added, shrugging his shoulders, tilting his head, lowering his lower lip, and raising his eyebrows slightly; the gesture of someone experienced in undertaking unpleasant but necessary tasks.
All the push we might have felt leaving our meeting with the Europeans quickly dissipated as Hillary and I returned to our meeting room. Marvin informed us that a terrible snowstorm was moving down the East Coast, so for us to get safely to Washington, Air Force One had to be in the air in two and a half hours.
I looked at my watch.
“What time is my next meeting with Wen?”
“That’s the other problem, boss,” Marvin said, “we can’t find Wen.”
He explained that when our team had contacted their Chinese counterparts, they had been told that Wen was already on his way to the airport. Rumors circulated that he was actually still in the building, in a meeting with the other leaders who had been opposing his broadcasts being monitored, but we had not been able to confirm this.
“You mean he’s avoiding me.”
“We have people looking for him.”
A few minutes later, Marvin returned to tell us that they had seen Wen and the leaders of Brazil, India, and South Africa in a conference room several floors above.
“Well let’s go,” I said, and turning to Hillary, I asked, “When was the last time you sneaked into a party?”
“It’s been a long time,” she said, looking like a formal girl who decided to let her hair down.
With a gang of aides and Secret Service agents rushing after us, we made our way upstairs. At the end of a long corridor we found what we were looking for: a room with glass walls, with hardly room for a meeting table, around which Prime Ministers Wen and Singh were seated along with Presidents Lula and Zuma, as well as several of his ministers. The Chinese security team advanced to intercept us, hands raised as if ordered to stop, but they hesitated as they realized who we were. With a smile and a nod, Hillary and I broke through her position and into the room, leaving behind us a noisy struggle between the security officers and the staff following us.
“Do you have a moment for me, Wen?” I said aloud, watching the Chinese leader’s jaw drop in surprise. Then I walked around the table shaking hands with each of them. “Gentlemen! I’ve been looking for them everywhere. How about we try to reach an agreement? “
Before anyone could refuse, I grabbed an empty chair and sat down. Across the table, Wen and Singh were impassive, while Lula and Zuma, embarrassed, looked down at the papers in front of them. I explained to them that I had just met with the Europeans and that they were willing to accept the transitional agreement that we proposed if the present group supported including some provision that would ensure the creation of some mechanism that would independently verify that countries were meeting their commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. One by one, the other leaders explained why our proposal was unacceptable: Kyoto was working perfectly; The West was responsible for global warming and now expected the poorest countries to slow down their development to solve the problem; our plan would violate the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”; the verification mechanism that we proposed would violate their national sovereignty. After a half hour of give and take, I leaned back in the chair and looked directly at Premier Wen.
Prime Minister, we’re running out of time,” I said, “so let me get to the point. I imagine that before I walked into this room, the plan was for all of you to leave here and announce that the United States was responsible for the failure to reach a new agreement. They believe that if they resist long enough, the Europeans will desist and sign another Kyoto-style treaty. What happens is that I have explained very clearly that I cannot get our Congress to ratify the treaty that you want. And there is no guarantee that European voters,
“Of course, I may be wrong,” I went on. Maybe they can convince everyone that it’s our fault. But that won’t stop the planet from heating up. And remember, I have my own megaphone, and it’s pretty powerful. If I leave this room without an agreement, my first stop will be the lobby, where all the international press is waiting for news. And I’ll tell you that I was willing to commit to a huge reduction in our greenhouse gases and offer an additional billions of dollars in aid, and that each of you decided that it was best to do nothing. I will say the same to all the poor countries that would benefit from that money. And to all those people in their own countries who, it is hoped, will suffer the most from climate change. And we’ll see who they believe.
After the interpreters finished conveying my message, the Chinese Minister of the Environment, a stocky man with a round face and glasses, stood up and began to speak in Mandarin, raising his voice and gesturing in my direction. face flushed with indignation. This went on for a couple of minutes, without the rest of us having a clear idea of what was going on, until Premier Wen raised a thin, veiny hand and the minister sat down abruptly. I suppressed the urge to laugh and looked at the young Chinese woman who was interpreting for Wen.
“What did my friend say?” -I asked for. Before he could answer me, Wen shook his head and muttered something. The interpreter nodded and turned to me.
“Prime Minister Wen says that what the Environment Minister has said doesn’t matter,” he explained. And he asks if you have the agreement you propose here, so that everyone can review the specific wording again.
It took another half hour of tug of war, with the other leaders and their ministers looking over my shoulder and Hillary’s as I underlined in pen some of the phrases on the crumpled document I had carried in my pocket, but when I emerged from the room the group had accepted our proposal. I ran back downstairs, spending another thirty minutes getting Europeans to accept the slight changes that the leaders of developing countries had called for. The new wording was printed and distributed hastily. Hillary and Todd spoke with delegates from other key countries to help broaden the consensus. I made a brief statement to the press in which I announced the transitional agreement, after which we gathered our entourage and took off for the airport.
We arrived ten minutes apart from our deadline to take off.
On the return flight, there was a lively uproar as team members reviewed the day’s adventures to update those who had not been present. Reggie, who had been with me long enough for nothing to impress him too much, was smiling broadly as he poked his head into my cabin, where I was reading a stack of reports.
“Boss, I have to say that what you did was very badass.”
The truth is that I felt very good. In the largest possible scenario, on an important issue and against the clock, I had pulled a rabbit out of my hat. It is true that the press received the transitional agreement with division of opinions, but given the chaos of the conference and the obstinacy of the Chinese, I continued to see it as a victory, an intermediate step that would help us to get our bill approved by the Senate of law on climate change. But the most important thing was that we had managed to get China and India to accept – with all the reluctance and qualms that they want – the idea that all countries, not just Western ones, had a responsibility to help stop climate change. Seven years later, that basic principle would prove fundamental to achieving the revolutionary Paris Agreement.
Even so, as I looked out the window from my desk and watched the darkness break every few seconds by the flash of light at the tip of the right wing of the plane, thoughts assailed me that made me go quickly to the ground. I went through everything we had to do to get that deal: the countless hours of work by a gifted and dedicated team; behind-the-scenes negotiations and collection of favors; promises of help; and, in the end, that last-minute intervention, based both on my improvised bravado and a set of rational arguments. All this for a transitional agreement that, even if it worked exactly as planned, would be at best a preliminary and intermediate step towards the resolution of a possible planetary tragedy, a bucket of water against a wildfire. I realized that, despite all the power associated with the position I held, there would always be a gulf between what I knew had to be done to achieve a better world and what in a day, week or year I saw myself capable of achieving in practice.
When we landed, the anticipated storm had already reached Washington, and the low-lying clouds were dropping a constant mix of snow and freezing rain. In northern cities like Chicago, snow plows were already out to remove snow from the roads and spread salt, but even a glimmer of snow used to paralyze the clearly ill-equipped Washington area, schools were closed, and traffic jams occurred. traffic. Bad weather prevented us from flying on Marine One, and the procession took longer than usual to navigate the icy streets to reach the White House.
It was late when I entered the residence. Michelle was in bed, reading. I told him how my trip had gone and asked about the girls.
“They are very excited about the snow,” he replied, “although I am not so excited.” He looked at me with an understanding smile. Malia is sure to ask you at breakfast if you saved the tigers.
I nodded as I loosened my tie.