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Is John Kerry the man for the climate moment?

The US’s special climate envoy faces the daunting task of winning over sceptics at Cop26 – and at home.

By Emily Tamkin

John Kerry is America’s man of the moment.

Kerry, age 77, has been a senator, presidential candidate and secretary of state. But the elder statesman’s current position is arguably his most significant yet: climate envoy. Historically the world’s largest emitter, the US will need to take dramatic action if a rise of 1.5°C above pre-1990 global temperatures is to be prevented. Kerry is tasked with representing America while working on the world’s most pressing crisis, at a time when international cooperation is threatened both by rising power competition and the US’s own democratic crisis.

“The United States is fully and deeply invested in accelerating our efforts while there is still time,” Kerry said in a recent talk at the London School of Economics. Every US department, cabinet secretary and agency is at the table working on this, he assured his audience. “The president knows, and you know, that we’re no longer talking about impacts in the future. We no longer need scientists to tell us what will happen, because we’re seeing it now, already, for ourselves.”

This is John Kerry: a serious man delivering a serious message at a serious point in history. The speech was compelling and sincere. It is also the kind of speech that listeners would have heard over and over again – and one that has not, up to this point, changed very much.

As the world kicks off Cop26, the United Nations’s climate conference in Glasgow, Kerry is there. But is the man of the moment also the man for the moment?

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Born in 1943, and the son of a Second World War pilot and diplomat (his father) and a descendant of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (from his mother), Kerry grew up between New England and Switzerland before attending Yale. He then joined the US Navy and served in Vietnam, for which he was honoured with three Purple Hearts, awarded to those wounded or killed while serving (Kerry sustained injuries twice in his arms and once in his leg). He was also awarded a Bronze Star (for bravery or merit) and a Silver Star (for gallantry in action).

He later testified against the war in Vietnam in 1971 in Washington, DC before the Senate foreign relations committee. “Most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart,” Kerry said then, adding, “We fought using weapons against those people which I do not believe this country would dream of using were we fighting in the European theatre or let us say a non-third-world-people theatre.”

A career in law followed, which included time as an assistant district attorney, before he moved into politics. After serving as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Kerry ran, and won, a Senate seat in 1985. He represented Massachusetts for 28 years until Barack Obama picked him to be secretary of state in 2013.

At that point, Kerry’s most high-profile moment as a politician was his presidential run in 2004 against incumbent George W Bush. Even then, Kerry attempted to put a focus on climate change. In the first presidential debate, answering a question on pre-emptive war, Kerry said, “You don’t help yourself with other nations when you turn away from the global warming treaty, for instance, or when you refuse to deal at length with the United Nations” (an apparent reference to the 1997 Kyoto treaty on climate change, which Bush had effectively killed). In the second debate, Kerry said that Bush was not “living in a world of reality with respect to the environment”. His campaign ran an ad attacking Bush’s record on the environment, and made campaign stops to talk about water and air pollution. But the 2004 presidential election was ultimately about the war on terror, not the fight against climate change.

As a senator, however, Kerry routinely championed climate and the environment. According to Congress’s legislation tracker, he repeatedly sponsored or co-sponsored pieces of legislation related to environmental protection. In 2009-10, he tried to get legislation passed to limit emissions, but the project failed when Republicans walked away.

He became a player on the world stage in 2009 when he attended the Copenhagen climate change talks, where he vowed that the US would pass climate legislation if China, among others, cut their own emissions. He had previously forged a relationship with Xie Zhenhua, the retired diplomat who has headed most of China’s climate negotiations since 2007. That relationship became even more important in the run-up to the Paris Agreement. Negotiations between the two were key to clinching a climate deal in 2014, which established the groundwork for the 2015 agreement.

“They did great work with China ahead of Paris,” said Stacy VanDeveer, a professor in the department of conflict resolution, human security and global governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. There were weeks of chumminess between the two nations before Cop21 where the treaty was adopted, he recalled.

Even out of office, Kerry continued to talk about climate action – and particularly about the significance of the Paris Agreement. In late May 2017, a week before president Donald Trump announced that he would withdraw the US from the agreement, Kerry delivered the commencement address at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, where he warned that leaving the deal “would be a self-inflicted wound that would hurt our own businesses, diminish our leadership, and set back our own future”. (Biden rejoined soon after becoming president.)

In 2019, he founded World War Zero, a coalition of high-profile personalities such as former California governor and action film actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and actor Ashton Kutcher to urge action on the climate crisis. It looked for a while as if he would follow in the footsteps of Al Gore, spending his later years working on climate change outside of government.

[See also: Is Al Gore really a hero of the climate movement?]

Then, in late November 2020, he was announced as Biden’s special climate envoy.

By and large, the appointment was met with enthusiasm. Kerry’s former Senate colleagues hailed the move. Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said Kerry “knows better than anyone how to ensure this crisis receives the international attention it so desperately needs”.

The Biden administration wanted to show that the US was back at the table, explained Morgan Bazilian, director of the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines. One of the ways in which it did that was by putting serious people in serious jobs. (Kerry’s deputy is Jonathan Pershing, who was special envoy for climate change in the Obama administration.)

“One thing I would say about the Biden administration: they have prioritised climate change,” Bazilian said. Putting someone with a profile as high as Kerry’s, and having him as the first ever principal solely dedicated to climate change to sit on the National Security Council, signalled that priority.

Kerry’s appointment did draw some criticism too. Emily Atkin, a journalist and author of climate newsletter Heated, wrote at the time of the announcement: “Insanity is often defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So the question must be asked: are we insane?… Do we trust John Kerry to be an effective agent of such radical action? What has he learned? How has he changed?” And indeed, his reply to a question on 29 October about how he’s changed his lifestyle to help the cause – he is a “flagrant light-switch chaser” – does suggest that Kerry is not thinking radically enough.

What’s more, Biden is sending Kerry to do much the same thing that Obama sent him to do, but with five years lost and America’s credibility on climate damaged by Trump.

Yet experience matters. “The process has been going on for decades,” Bazilian said. “There’s a tremendous benefit in having that historical knowledge of the process, positions [and] what can be done.” VanDeveer agrees: “Kerry’s rolodex matters. He’s met a bunch of these people. They all know him.”

And if Kerry’s proposals are incremental, he’s hardly alone in that, said Jessica Green, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, who noted to me in an email, “No one in the US government has really made proposals commensurate with the severity of the climate crisis. The closest we’ve come are former presidential candidates Jay Inslee and Bernie Sanders.”

John Kerry arrives at Cop26 with the world keenly aware how US Congress spent the previous week stalled on passing meaningful climate legislation – scrambling to address the crisis while also keeping moderate Democrats on board.

“His most serious impediment is how Washington works,” said VanDeveer. The US makes promises and pledges it doesn’t keep. The Democratic Party currently controls the White House, Senate and House of Representatives, and still couldn’t manage to put together and pass significant climate change legislation well ahead of the conference. The Republican Party, meanwhile, campaigns on pulling out of international agreements and blocking such bills. America ricochets back and forth between them and little changes.

That means the US should be comporting itself with a humility it has not yet demonstrated, said Bazilian, who said he “would like to see the Biden administration tone down the climate leadership rhetoric a bit and be guided by a sense of purpose”.

It also means that relying on just Kerry to fix America’s climate policies would be folly.

“Everyone has put a huge amount of stock in Cop26 as ‘our last chance’ to avert the climate crisis. That’s not true. There are PLENTY of other ways to enact multilateral climate policy outside the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] system,” wrote Green, who has advocated for tax reform to recover offshored capital from multinational corporations. The White House, meanwhile, is reportedly going to try to push regulations around pollution and encourage states to pass their own clean energy laws.

Thea Riofrancos, co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, said that we won’t see changes on the scale we need “without concerted pressure in communities and workplaces around the world… I don’t see that type of transformation happening outside pressure from civil society.”

Kerry is not, in other words, the man for the moment. Though he may try, no one can fill that role alone.

[See also: How net zero is becoming the new normal]

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