Climate Action Behind-the-Scenes

May 20, 2022
4 min read
In 2008, hope was blooming that the negotiations on a global climate agreement could be revived.

Transatlantic coordination on climate change had stalled since the Bush administration’s 2001 exit from the Kyoto Protocol, but European countries continued to push for an international treaty with legally binding emission 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 incoming US administration.

The German Marshall Fund’s Washington headquarters became the venue of early US-European attempts to prepare together for the conference. The organization’s new climate program invited negotiators from multiple European countries to come to Washington for a two-day workshop with some of Obama’s climate policy advisors. Few knew about this meeting at the time, not even within GMF. The US political system allows a president-elect to prepare for office, but not to conduct official business. But with the Copenhagen conference and its preliminary meetings only months away, time was of the essence. The best that could be done were private, quiet meetings at a trusted transatlantic partner’s venue: GMF.

With the Copenhagen conference and its preliminary meetings only months away, time was of the essence. The best that could be done were private, quiet meetings at a trusted transatlantic partner’s venue: GMF.

The workshop was also part of GMF’s transition from a grant-making institution into a think tank, working on policy through convening and policy recommendations. Under the tutelage of President Craig Kennedy, Director of Policy Programs Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff had started to hire climate experts. One of them was Nigel Purvis, a former State Department climate negotiator.

Purvis’s policy work—his writing and expert-level convenings—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 agree to legal constraints. The only way forward would be an agreement that required every country to set its own emission targets. The obligation would be to set a goal and to report whether the country was meeting its targets—which was in fact what the final agreement entailed, but this came much later.

It was not only climate policy that saw GMF as the venue for trusted conversations among transatlantic partners. The German-US relationship experienced tensions more than once, and more than once GMF organized dinner conversations for policy shapers to compare notes and seek a path forward. There were confidential discussions on enlargement held at GMF’s NATO side conference. During GMF’s annual Brussels Forum, such conversations sometimes become the main act, in the 2000s just as today.

GMF’s climate conclave in late 2008, by the way, paved the road to a grand failure. The Copenhagen conference in 2009 did not produce the agreement Europeans and Americans had hoped for. It took another six years until the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, but the ideas discussed between European and US negotiators in GMF’s boardroom were among those that shaped the eventual treaty adopted in Paris.

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Previous | Fostering NATO Expansion and Enlargement

Since NATO enlargement began, GMF had carved out for itself the role of giving voice to the Central and Eastern European countries that applied to join NATO but were often drowned out in the concert of the powerful nations. This marked a significant change for GMF. Until that time, it had served as a neutral convener: a platform for policymakers and experts to share their often contrary opinions.

This year the German Marshall Fund marks its 50th anniversary and the 75th anniversary of the Marshall Plan. These historic moments serve as an opportunity to highlight the achievements of one of the most important American diplomatic initiatives of the 20th century and how its legacy lives on today through GMF and its mission. Learn more about GMF at 50.