Copenhagen talks start minus a key player

clapp-200Read Daily Climate editor Douglas Fischer's  dispatches from the UN  talks on Politico.

7 December 2009

No one at the Copenhagen climate talks has filled the role of the late Phil Clapp, director of the former National Environmental Trust  and considered by some to be the most influential campaigner the United States offered on the issue. 

By Douglas Fischer
Daily Climate editor

It was the rubber ducks, really, that people remember.

Hundreds of them – floating in washbasins, surfing dinner plates, peeking from ministers' breast pockets.

They changed – if only slightly – the course of history.

But more on that in a moment.

The latest round of climate talks begins Monday missing one of the most influential campaigners the United States offered: Philip Clapp, a charismatic strategist who could both cajole and shock world leaders past stalemate and deadlock.

Clapp – Harvard-educated chain-smoker, fluent in French, an expert on British royalty and an accomplished pianist – died of pneumonia in September 2008 while vacationing in Amsterdam. He was 54.

People who are policy wonks disappear into the closet. People who know a lot of people tend to be superficial. Phil had both the charm and the contacts.
- Former Sen. Tim Worth
UN Foundation

He had spent 32 years in Washington, D.C., fighting for the environment. Policy experts and government officials rarely agree on one thing. But in a series of interviews, they all agreed on this: Climate change had no more effective advocate.

As world leaders gather over the next two weeks in Denmark to hash out a solution, Clapp's shoes remain unfilled. Absent from these talks, those experts agreed, will be a key lubricator who could unify disparate groups, particularly the non-governmental community, find the open channels and help facilitate consensus.

"What will be missing in Copenhagen is this man who could get around to see everybody, find out when things weren't going right, find ways to get people on board, shock them into change, concentrate fire onto people, and sometimes caress them into change," said John Gummer, a British Member of Parliament who served as the UK Environmental Secretary in the 1990s and became close friends with Clapp.

"There's no one like him now," Gummer added. "We don't know who will emerge, but in the present circumstances I would be very surprised if there was anyone."

Clapp's power, many agreed, was a unique combination of fierce intellect, vibrant charisma and utter fearlessness.

Gummer described Clapp as an uncompromising but "immensely lovable character" who could isolate complex issues, turn the essence into a comprehensible narrative and then challenge industry and politicians with it in a way that was almost impossible to refute.

"It was always logical, always well-researched, never flippant but always deeply felt," he said.

Clapp got his start in politics as legislative assistant for then-Rep. Tim Wirth of Colorado. He rose in stature as Wirth did, first in the House and then the Senate.

In 1994 he became the founding director and first employee of the National Environmental Trust, which he led for the next 14 years until it merged, just before his death, with the vastly larger and richer Pew Charitable Trust to become the Pew Environment Group.

"He was rightfully celebrated as a political campaignist, but I really think his skill could be described as political artistry," said Thomas Wathen, deputy director of the Pew Environment Group and one of the founding board members of the National Environmental Trust who picked Clapp for the job.

"He had very strong intuitive powers on how government worked, but he also had a great deal of experience."

Which brings us to those ducks. As the Montreal climate talks verged on collapse in 2005, the Canadians presented the American delegation with a last-minute compromise. The U.S. team dismissed it, with lead negotiator Harlan Watson reportedly telling delegates "If it ... walks like a duck then it is a duck" before walking out of the talks.

Overnight Clapp and fellow environmentalists emptied Montreal of plastic yellow ducks, and the next day, as the London Independent reported, the toys were everywhere – cascading from briefcases, on dinner plates, in washbasins, on delegates' chairs. The butt of a joke, the United States relented.

"He always had an eye for the human, the bit of the quirky, that captured the imagination and that made people laugh but made a point," said Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Resources Institute's climate and energy team who has been involved in global climate talks for more than a decade.

But it was Clapp's back-channel prowess that also proved powerful. He could move effortlessly among groups and between countries. Fluent in French and an Anglophile, he was an early visionary who saw the potential of European unification. He was turning his focus to Europe when he died.

That he employed a "wicked" sense of humor, knew the sordid history of every king and queen of England and delighted in telling it also helped, said Wirth, his former boss.

So where does this leave the Copenhagen talks?

Clapp left an organization and a network of people who are taking his insights and moving forward, said Pew's Wathen. "It wasn't that he was a miracle worker. He'd be trying to figure out this conundrum of the United States."

There are, in other words, no easy ways to get 60 votes out of the U.S. Senate on a climate bill. "But having Phil there you'd feel a lot better."

Wirth, who now heads the United Nations Foundation, calls Clapp's absence at Copenhagen "a big loss." Nobody has his access to such a rich mix of delegates, press and non-governmental organizations.

"People who are policy wonks disappear into the closet. People who know a lot of people tend to be superficial. Phil had both the charm and the contacts," Wirth said.

"Nobody comes close to filling that role. I don't know that anybody's ever tried."

More news stories about Philip Clapp can be found in the Daily Climate's archives.

Contact Daily Climate editor Douglas Fischer at

Find more Daily Climate stories in the TDC Newsroom


Creative Commons License

This work by The Daily Climate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Based on a work at