When President Donald J. Trump came into office promising to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (which he ultimately did), Ms. Biniaz left the government.
She joined Yale Law School as a lecturer and led an unofficial diaspora of officials from the Obama administration who worked to protect the Paris Agreement through the Trump years, reminding nations at U.N. meetings that American cities, states and other institutions remained committed to the accord.
When Mr. Kerry agreed to serve as President Biden’s climate envoy, he asked Ms. Biniaz to rejoin the government. “You don’t say no to John Kerry,” she said.
Her signature look — long denim skirt, button-down blouse, cardigan over her shoulders and white hair pulled into a bun — gives her the appearance of someone’s aunt about to break out her knitting. During high stakes negotiations, she stands out in a sea of men in dark blue suits. Colleagues call it “Sue’s uniform.” One of them dressed as her for Halloween.
“If you brought someone into a room of climate negotiators and said, ‘Pick out the person who is one of the savviest negotiators around,’ the answer is Sue,” said Nat Keohane, the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an environmental group. “But that is not immediately apparent. A lot of people overlook her, and she’s fine with it.”
For all of her skill with language, Ms. Biniaz occasionally wonders if her work has an impact.
“You might say, Are you just papering over differences?” Ms. Biniaz said. “Sometimes I do think about that. Am I perpetuating disagreements by finding a form of words that everybody can agree to? I don’t know if there’s an answer to that question.”
But ultimately, the right words matter, she said, because they define and demand action from the community of nations.
“It matters to me because it matters to the world,” Ms. Biniaz said. “Some people say it’s just words, but to me it’s like, what do you mean, it’s just words? International agreements are just words. It’s the reflection of what we think we’ve agreed to with other countries. And if the words don’t matter, then the whole enterprise fails.”