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Negotiating the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

One of the most critical problems facing the world today is the issue of climate change. Scientists have predicted that if drastic measures are not enacted soon, global warming will lead to catastrophic changes in the climate, desertification, and a rise in coastal flooding, which would all but destroy many communities and even small countries located at sea level.

International efforts to address this issue go back more than two decades. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was an international climate treaty finalized at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, which entered into force in March 1994. The text was initially agreed to by an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in New York between April and May 1992. The objective of the Convention was to curb and stabilize greenhouse-causing emissions in the atmosphere. Though there were no binding limits on emissions for individual countries and no enforcement mechanism was introduced, the Convention was seen as a key first step in addressing global climate change.

The years leading up to the Convention Framework were crucial for finding suitable agreements for all sides. With so many countries and representatives involved, a “master negotiator” of sorts was seen as a necessity for the United States. Enter Robert Reinstein, who was previously involved with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes with Stephanie Kinney, and Dan Reifsnyder, both from the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science (OES), to represent the United States in the negotiations.

To put the UNFCCC in perspective, the landmark agreement made at the Conference of Parties 21 (COP) in Paris in December 2015 on climate change references the work done in 1992 after the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was all but abandoned over loopholes in the language, among other issues.

Reinstein always argued that the convention needed to be framed as a problem or crisis in “energy” and not “the environment” in order to galvanize real change among the countries involved, which were not willing to budge unless money and economic development was at stake. Reinstein’s efforts were influential in achieving the legitimacy the convention holds to this day.

Robert Reinstein was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment, Health, and Resources from 1990-1993, during which he also served as Chairman of IPPC Working Groups II and III from 1991-1993 and the Chief Negotiator of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in 1993. Stephanie Kinney served with the State Department, Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science from 1989-1993. Stephanie Kinney was interviewed in March 2010. Reinstein and Kinney’s joint interview was conducted in October 2010 by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy.

Part I of III discusses the lead-up to the first round of negotiations on climate change, which closely followed the successful conclusion of the Montreal Protocol, and how the U.S. found itself isolated against developing countries, which wanted more aid, and Europe, which had less energy-intensive industry and thus did not need to make large-scale sacrifices on reducing emissions.

Read Parts II and III here. Go here for other Moments dealing with negotiations.


“The climate change issue was really all about energy and economics”

KINNEY: In 1989, the energetic forces behind climate change were largely environmental and to a lesser degree scientific, neither notable powerhouses in U.S. politics or in the rest of the world, for that matter. This, notwithstanding the fact that Green Parties and politics were beginning to emerge in Europe. (Kinney seen at left)

What very few people in OES seemed to grasp or want to come to terms with was that, although it may have been framed as an environmental issue focused on CO2 [carbon dioxide], the climate change issue was really all about energy and economics, at least as far as national interests and international politics were concerned. The consequences and economics of energy constitute a much more weighty and consequential factor in the short term than do the more speculative, longer-term, environmental concerns. No country can transform its energy production and consumption habits overnight or with the stroke of a pen.

So you had the environmentalists and EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], the science community, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense and a Republican administration beholden to heavy industrial and corporate interests, which was nonetheless advertising [George H.W.] Bush as “the environmental President” for geo-strategic reasons, among other things.

The politics within the U.S. were complex and still new to the issue. Our domestic situation made the politics abroad look simple, by comparison, although no issue involving 180 sovereign countries plus the European Community in Brussels is simple. My personal view is that the fact that climate change got framed as an “environmental issue ” rather than an “energy issue” would be an abiding and to this day debilitating and serious problem.

The fact that climate was essentially a UN-driven issue also complicated matters. You had people who hated the UN and didn’t like the United States being subject to what they considered to be a bunch of overpaid international bureaucrats who were over practiced in picking other people’s pockets. You had not a few scientists even then, who were real scientists rather than politicians in scientist drag, who said, “Wait a minute, there is no proof here. Science is about evidence. Show me the evidence.”

At that time, what we mostly had beyond the basic global warming theory was three very hot summers, which, with the help of the media, the NGOs, scientists and other interested parties had managed to convert into a crisis.

Few people do or did dispute the reality that the earth is wrapped in a warm blanket and that in the presence of increased CO2 there can be warming, but many also remembered that in the mid-70’s the impending crisis had been “global cooling.” I remembered that panic because my husband had brought one of its foremost exponents to speak at State in the Open Forum.

Hence, one of the first things the Bush administration successfully insisted on was the use of the term “climate change,” because no one could dispute that climate does, in fact, change. And what you really saw over the next couple of years was a taste of the world to come:  an increasingly mediagenic issue driven by NGOs and other interest groups with no responsibility — or accountability — outpacing the older, more measured and informed governmental modes of dealing with such issues.

“The G-77 basically tried to deny a global solution unless the West paid them to behave better”

From a handful of NGOs involved in the Montreal Protocol, we were suddenly talking about hundreds and then thousands — of all political persuasions–spewing their views to an equally unaccountable media that was just “reporting the news” and trying to sell their product….

Scientists who either had failed at or were tired of the lab, the classroom or the bench had discovered going to meetings around the world and promoting their point of view was really a lot more fun than the anonymity of the lab and the scrutiny of peer reviews.

Europeans had another set of interests, which were well wrapped in green, for political reasons of their own. The evolution of the EU was a process of gathering strength in and for Brussels. Brussels needed to integrate and diminish sovereign authorities within their Union and saw environment as a perfect integrating issue through which to reach for taxing authority, energy authority and other “competencies” to use EU language.

If enough Europeans were led to be concerned about the environment, Brussels could get the right to tax and regulate through the back door, authorities that otherwise remained with its sovereign state members.

Also, the European Community (later Union) had an advantage because of Western Europe’s use of nuclear and, later, the less-developed and carbon-intensive countries of Eastern Europe. Both factors gave a growing Union overall energy consumption patters very different from those of the U.S., Australia and Canada, for example. This made climate an excellent issue for grand-standing and invidious comparison where the U.S. was concerned, something that warmed younger Euros’ hearts.

You had the G-77, the bloc of under-developed countries, as they were called in those days. The G-77 very quickly figured out its role, which was basically to deny a global solution unless the West paid them to behave better.

None of this was understood by the broader public at large or by most in the U.S. government, to be honest. Within the USG, agency representatives tended to see only their more focused and narrow interest and did not really care about anything else.

Given Bush’s desire to be “the environmental President,” the energy with which Mostafa Tolba [Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)] and Maurice Strong [Canadian oil and mineral businessman who became the first Executive Director of UNEP and later Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations] were driving the UN processes, the European Union interests and our own media and environmentalists at home, there was no question but that the United States would be front and center and that the position that we took would be globally public, globally significant, and globally subject to fierce commentary and often criticism….

OES long-timer Dan Reifsnyder became the head of the office, and for the next three years Dan and I and Robert Reinstein, the master negotiator brought in to replace Bill Nitze, became the triumvirate from State that basically ran the show from start to finish.

“It was the mother of all policy issues”

REINSTEIN: My first introduction to climate change was in the spring of 1988. I had been involved fairly deeply in the Montreal Protocol to protect the stratosphere ozone layer. It was adopted in Montreal in September ’87, and the object was to control and ultimately phase out the use of certain chemicals which deplete the stratospheric ozone layer.…

I had somebody helping me, and I said, “This climate change (global warming) issue, could you find out what that’s about?” She went out, dug around, and brought in a stack of documents. I looked at them and said, “Well, holy smokes! They’re going at the heart of the economy — fossil fuels! Fossil fuels are more than 80% of our energy supply. They are the heart of every industrialized economy. This isn’t an environment issue, and I better get involved.”…

There was a meeting at the State Department to prepare for a UN meeting to establish the IPCC, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. I was at the meeting, and it was agreed that the U.S. position was that this was a scientific issue. We will not send in our other people, just mainly only climate (weather) scientists.

They established the IPCC, with three working groups: science, impacts, and response strategies, with the U.S. chairing the third. The U.S. delegation came back, and Joe Friday (not the famous character in the 1950s TV series Dragnet but the head of the National Weather Service) said to me, “You got to go to these meetings. The Japanese delegation was 11 people, and 10 of them were from MITI, the Ministry for International Trade and Industry. That was the handwriting on the wall. I suspected when I first read the documents that this was going to go into energy, economics, and trade very quickly.…

It is a political document, where the governments have selected from these 3,000 page documents what they want to tell themselves, not like that in the Montreal Protocol. Unfortunately, it is like that in climate.

I was involved in the Response Strategy Working Group (RSWG) economics and energy subgroups as a person with an energy and trade background….I had an energy background. I was advising indirectly [Vice President George H.W.] Bush on energy questions from the mid-‘80s through these two very, very close advisors.…

The interagency process, which was kind of a holding action, continued through ’89 and ’90. In the end of ’89 I assumed I’d play a sort of secondary, maybe Number Two-type role as I had in the Montreal Protocol.

In late 1989 the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment, Bill Nitze, the son of Paul (my father and Paul knew each other very well), was at that job, but he would have to leave the State Department. Bill was a very good guy, but being financially independent and all that kind of stuff, was inclined at times to just say what he felt and what he thought publicly. He made a comment about how the U.S. needed a European-style gasoline tax in public. John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, read it in the newspaper and said, “That’s it. Last straw. Two weeks. Out.” The only political appointee to my knowledge actually canned during the Bush administration.

In the meantime I had been working quietly behind the scenes with people particularly with an energy perspective. People like John Easton (Assistant Secretary of Energy for Policy and later General Counsel of DOE), Bill Ramsay (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy), Mike Kelley (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Basic Industries), people in Treasury Charles Schotta (Deputy Assistant Secretary and his people) and others. They were mostly at the deputy assistant secretary and assistant secretary level but as USTR [U.S. Trade Representative] was part of the Executive Office, I organized and brought it together as a meeting of equals. We had been informally preparing how we were going to approach these negotiations.

After Bill Nitze got canned, I called up John Schmitz thinking, “Oh my God, they’re using live ammunition. Is it all right for us to keep meeting and discussing certain issues, preparing at fairly senior levels how we’re going to approach this, particularly from an energy and trade perspective?”

He said, “Oh, absolutely. Sure. Do it,” and, “Would you like the job?”

“Sure!” To me it was the most exciting public policy issue I had ever seen. It was the mother of all policy issues. I had a background in science: Math, physics, and I had taught chemistry and earth science. I had a background in economics and energy and trade, and I had been effectively in the chair of the U.S. delegation for Montreal Protocol. I thought, “If anybody has the background you would need for this issue, it’s me, and it’s my duty to say yes. Besides, it might be a lot of fun!” I tried to do things that were interesting and fun.…

“The issue is energy, not climate”

KINNEY: Remember the moment in history. Bush had declared himself to be the “environmental president.” This had a lot to do with strategy and tactics in Eastern Europe because in 1990, maybe ’90 to ’91 we’re looking at the breakup of the Soviet Union, and one of the grass roots phenomena and dynamics was that nobody thought environment was really a very dangerous or “political” issue. In Eastern Europe, it proved to be quite “political” because there were horrendous problems left by the Soviet Union.

One of their greatest sins was environmental. Environmental issues provided lots of reasons for people to meet locally, whether it involved a dirty river or a toxic dump or bad water, and the new USSR policy of perestroika [restructuring] permitted such meetings to address local issues. The people who were drawn to addressing local environmental issues were the same kinds of people who were also very anxious to see themselves liberated from this antiquated and failed system.

There were multiple layers and messages, but framing Bush as “the environmental president,” and this coming along at the time that it did, meant that climate was going to have a certain profile. The UN had legitimized the issue in such a way that everybody thought climate was about the environment. It really wasn’t. I personally have thought for a long time that the UN focus on the environment was one of the failures of the process longer term; how you frame the issue determines how it gets negotiated. Bob’s story is about how the climate issue might have turned out differently if it had been framed as energy, which is what climate was about.

REINSTEIN: I saw this from the beginning, from 1988 when I first looked at it. The issue was not only about energy, but because energy is part of what any industrialized economy was about, climate was also about economic growth. A cap on the use of fossil fuels is indirectly a cap on GDP, and so if you’re advocating the right to emit carbon or CO2, you’re also allocating the right or opportunity for economic growth because there’s a correlation. It’s not a linear correlation, but there is a correlation between GDP and energy, and it’s real. It’s not decoupled.…

I attended the plenary session of the IPCC in Sundsvall, Sweden, where the first assessment report was adopted. It was chaotic to put it mildly, very clear that governments were trying to position themselves. Saudi Arabia was throwing things in to protect its oil interests. Australia was trying to protect its coal interests. The maneuvering and positioning was blatant.

It was a week-long meeting. We got to midnight on Friday night, and we did not have an assessment report. We adjourned the meeting for half an hour. About a half a dozen of us went up on the stage with Burt Bolin, the first chairman of the IPCC, and said, “How do we put together an assessment report?” We figured the strategy for cobbling the pieces together, resumed the meeting at 12:30, and by 3:00 or 3:30 in the morning, the first assessment report was done.

I was there as a State Department official at that point but still being paid by USTR. Fred Bernthal, the former Assistant Secretary for OES, was still chairman of the Working Group on Response Strategies and told the rest of the leadership of IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] that I was going to be the U.S. chair of Working Group III, so we were there sort of as the outgoing and incoming…

“Sununu’s response was to tear up the document and throw it in the trash”

KINNEY: President Bush had committed to hosting and coming to the IPCC plenary in January 1990.

REINSTEIN: The President made a welcoming speech at the January 1990 meeting, but it was unusually warm. Every time we hosted an international meeting on climate change, it was exceptionally warm, record warmth for the day.…

As an indication of the White House approach, the leaders of the Energy Department and EPA had collaborated to produce a text for the President for this meeting, and they proudly brought it to the White House and gave it to [pictured, White House Chief of Staff] John Sununu saying, “We have got a statement here that both of us can agree on: Energy and environment.”

Sununu’s response was to tear up the document and throw it in the trash and say, “Thank you but no thank you. Don’t do this again unless I ask you to.” Sununu and I got along for whatever reason….

In his view, he was protecting his boss from being manipulated by the much more knowledgeable career people, and he didn’t want to put that particular issue in the hands of technocrats. This policy was so sensitive. Sununu was obsessed with the issue. He apparently had a 180 or something IQ, was an engineer, and he had a climate model on his own personal computer and every new theory that came out, he tested on his model. That’s how interested, almost obsessed, he was.…

Most of the cabinet was afraid of him. He was not a kind of warm and friendly type. He just told it like it was, and he was smart….He was Bush’s tough guy. Bush could then play the nice guy, the classic bad-cop and good-cop roles.…

“Europe is energy poor. Energy intensive manufacturing is not economic in Europe.“

REINSTEIN: We were basically against the whole world. The developing world wasn’t going to be bound by the targets, so they said, “Targets for you, nothing for us.” Europe and Japan and Canada never say no to developing countries about money. They all say, “Yes, we’ll talk about how later, or how much,” so everyone else in the world was against us on the money and on the targets.

For the [Europeans] targets were ultimately negotiable. They were able to set a target and then, like California which had a zero-emission vehicle target — obviously it wasn’t going to be met — they could just somehow either roll it over or adapt it.…

An additional difference regarding a CO2 target is because Europe is energy poor. Basically they’ve got some uneconomic coal in the UK, in Germany, and a few other places. Poland wasn’t in the EU then. North Sea oil and gas is mature and already heading into decline. Energy intensive manufacturing is not economic in Europe. These are global markets for steel, for chemicals, for products that are energy intensive, and Europe was on its way out. The German coal subsidies, which were enormous, are being phased out, but only slowly.

Margaret Thatcher had basically eliminated coal or most coal in the UK. The coal production in the UK was government owned, and the utilities were government owned. She privatized them both and said, “Pick what’s economic, what makes sense, what is economically attractive and supply secure, to generate electricity.” What resulted was a massive switching to North Sea gas, and a consequent huge drop in the UK emissions, not only for carbon dioxide but also methane.…

France, Sweden is half nuclear, half hydro and so on, so they had that, but those were stable. They weren’t changing. The other thing that changed was German reunification.

The Germans went in and basically closed the electric generation and basic manufacturing that was old, inefficient, and dirty in East Germany. They didn’t close everything. They couldn’t because they had to keep the lights on. They got a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions up front from taking over East Germany. The UK got a smaller but similar major double digit reduction from restructuring the energy sector.…

The other thing is Europe has long been jealous of the United States because of our incredible energy and other natural resources, and so they wanted to shackle us and hobble us in terms of our competitive advantage on energy. There was a little hidden agenda that no one has ever spoken about, but having been a trade negotiator and former energy official, I understood very well.…

KINNEY: Montreal Protocol was originally opposed tooth and nail by Europe, and so there was a very interesting flip in the ‘90s when Europe becomes the standard bearer for environment. It’s a very interesting wrinkle in history and sociology and economics.