America’s Top Climate Diplomat: John Kerry

For President-elect Biden’s newly created—and much needed—cabinet-level position, Kerry’s passion and experience make him a perfect fit.
John Kerry giving a speech at the 2019 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Madrid, December 10, 2019

Manu Fernandez/AP

Just before Thanksgiving, President-elect Joe Biden gave his strongest signal yet that action on climate change will be among his immediate priorities when he enters the White House next month: He created a new position—special presidential envoy for climate—and chose former senator and secretary of state John Kerry to fill it.

The reason for picking a former top diplomat for the role is clear. Biden knows the climate fight requires close coordination between world leaders who can trust each other’s words, motives, and expertise, and who can work closely together to curb the collective carbon emissions that are warming the planet.

Furthermore, by giving Kerry a seat on the National Security Council, Biden acknowledges what military leaders and analysts have been saying for years: that climate change is—and will continue to be—a national security issue. By fomenting mass migration and battles over natural resources, it has the potential to destabilize governments and serve as a threat multiplier in areas of the world that are already under enormous sociopolitical strain.

Though it’s a cabinet-level appointment, the position of special envoy doesn’t require Senate confirmation. That’s fortunate, because it means that Kerry can begin working right away to repair the relationships the United States once had with its global allies in the climate fight—ones that are very much strained after four years of President Donald Trump.

Between denying climate science, pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, and rolling back dozens of protections designed to reduce carbon pollution, Trump essentially told the rest of the globe: You’re on your own. We, the world’s second-largest carbon emitter (and the highest per capita), are quitting the fight. Regaining the trust of our international partners after such an abrupt and ugly betrayal will require a sincere commitment to fighting climate change through policy, in addition to a good deal of diplomatic finesse. 

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Kerry is one of the few individuals who occupy the Venn diagram space where those two areas of expertise overlap. During his 28 years as a Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts, he worked tirelessly to make climate action a bipartisan issue, frequently teaming up with Republican colleagues such as the late senator John McCain (to push for increased fuel efficiency standards) and Senator Lindsey Graham (to move U.S. energy policy away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner sources of energy). And late last year, Kerry launched World War Zero, an organization comprising former heads of state, policy experts, military leaders, scientists, CEOs, and celebrities—from across the political spectrum—who are dedicated to raising public awareness of the need to halve global carbon emissions by 2030 and to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

But it was as President Barack Obama’s second secretary of state (succeeding Hillary Clinton) that he made his biggest mark on climate action. Kerry didn’t just sign the 2015 Paris Agreement on behalf of the United States, he was instrumental in convincing other nations—some of which were initially very reluctant—to sign onto it as well. Now, as Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, Kerry will once more marshal his considerable diplomatic skills as the United States seeks to rejoin the Paris Agreement and an international coalition that has had to act on climate change without our participation for the last four years.

What items might we expect to see on Kerry’s agenda as he begins his new job to make climate change a central organizing principle of America’s foreign policy? High on the list, almost certainly, will be reaching out to India, a country with massive potential to unleash a low-carbon future, and China, whose partnership with the United States is essential if the world is to see carbon emissions drop by the levels—and tight timelines—prescribed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Another priority will be to ensure that America’s international finance is pushing a “clean energy first” agenda while using our country’s renewed influence to bring pressure on multilateral organizations—think the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund—to divest from large-scale projects that rely on or encourage the burning of fossil fuels. Such organizations should invest instead in clean energy projects that have the potential to create jobs and healthy communities as they contribute to carbon reduction and cleaner air and waterways. We can also expect Special Envoy Kerry to capitalize on his relationships with international leaders to form new partnerships leveraging the incredible technological advancements that are being made around the world every day in the fields of renewables, battery design, and energy efficiency.

The Biden transition team also plans to name a domestic counterpart to Kerry’s role, someone who will need to apply the same level of diplomatic energy to forging new alliances with governors, lawmakers, business leaders, regional utilities, and representatives from the energy sector—all toward the goal of transitioning the country to a clean energy economy. Between them, Kerry and his yet-to-be-named counterpart have an opportunity to restore faith in American leadership on climate—abroad and at home.

After the Trump administration’s complete and ignominious abdication, they’ll definitely have their work cut out for them.

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