Goodbye to Biden’s First Climate Envoy

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The smallest hint of frustration had crept into John Kerry’s voice. We were talking about international climate diplomacy, which for the past two years has been Kerry’s job as the U.S. special presidential envoy on climate, a role President Joe Biden created to signal his commitment to the issue. Kerry’s last day is Wednesday, and when we spoke a couple of weeks ago, I asked him why the United States—historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gases—had pledged a paltry $17.5 million to a new fund for countries suffering the worst effects of climate change.

“Our politics are embarrassing,” he said. “Congress zeroes out things that have climate beside it. And so the reason of the 17.5 is that’s all that was appropriated.”

His frustration is well founded. Kerry was in his first Senate term in 1988 when congressional testimony by James Hansen and other scientists landed climate change on the national agenda; decades later, U.S. emissions are starting to creep down, but the U.S. just had the most intensive year for oil production it ever has. He was on the Foreign Relations Committee when the U.S. was debating entry into the Kyoto Protocol—which it never joined. He was a lead sponsor on the 2010 climate bill, which would have capped the country’s emissions—had it passed.

Kerry’s years in politics have made him a realist. When I asked him about the contradiction of this moment—that the U.S. is doing more to address climate change than it ever has, while producing more oil and gas than it ever has—he spoke about the impossibility of abruptly cutting fossil-fuel supplies. Do that, and “you’re going to have a complete and total rebellion economically,” he said. “People will be out in the streets demanding that the gas prices go down.”

But he is also an idealist, still, in that he believes the world can avoid the worst of climate change’s consequences. He was involved in pushing for the 2015 Paris climate agreement, easily the most notable international climate success in history, and 2023’s Dubai accord, which, for the first time, directly called on the world to transition away from fossil fuels. This, too, is part of the contradiction: The Biden administration might be making more climate progress on some counts than any U.S. government has previously managed, but it is still falling short of what needs to happen to avert global warming’s worst impacts. Now that Kerry was leaving his post, I wanted to know how much further he thought the U.S. would go to solve a problem we had the biggest hand in causing.

Remarkably, he told me that he thinks the world can keep warming beneath 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold scientists say will limit truly cataclysmic climate impacts. “I’m not ready to give up on that,” he said, even though “I know a lot of scientists say we’re going to blow by it.” Technically, the world can meet that goal, and Kerry’s tenure as climate envoy was marked by several significant moves toward it. He was at the helm of organizing the Global Methane Pledge, a campaign to cut international methane emissions 30 percent by 2030; co-led a “Green Shipping Challenge” to decarbonize a notoriously hard-to-decarbonize sector; and helped clinch the fossil-fuel phasedown commitment finally made in Dubai. “Now we have to implement it,” he said. “Those will just be words on a piece of paper if in six months we’re not moving that way.”

What would keep the goal of 1.5 degrees C out of reach is lack of political will, including support from the U.S. for international climate finance. Poorer countries cannot transition their economies to green energy without financing from richer countries, and their emissions will keep warming the planet even if wealthy countries manage to leave fossil fuels behind. And as the world’s biggest historical emitter, the U.S. arguably has a special financial responsibility to help bridge these gaps.

In 2009, wealthy nations set a collective goal of contributing $100 billion annually by 2020, to finance the green-energy transition and climate adaptation for nations suffering the worst climate impacts. That goal has never been met, and the OECD has estimated that vulnerable countries will need still more funding—about $2.4 trillion every year in climate investments from 2026 to 2030. The question of where that money will come from will be central to the next United Nations climate summit (known as COP), scheduled for this November in Baku, Azerbaijan. I asked Kerry about a sentiment I had heard over and over in Dubai, that the U.S. was seen as reluctant to step up to the plate in this regard—even adversarial; he told me, shortly: “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” before ticking off projects the U.S. had contributed to in Africa and Indonesia, and noting that President Joe Biden had quadrupled the money available for such endeavors. (The Biden administration has expanded climate finance, but in 2022 about half of it was in the form of loans and other financial instruments often criticized for driving poor countries deeper into debt.)

Even at home, the U.S. is falling shy of its goals. Carbon emissions are dropping in the States, but not quite fast enough to meet Biden’s pledge to cut domestic emissions in half by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. Kerry did say that he knows the U.S. has to do more. He praised Biden’s “courageous decision” to pause new permitting for controversial liquified-natural-gas export facilities—a temporary measure that the oil and gas industry is fighting and that environmentalists are celebrating, with the caveat that the decision doesn’t affect five major LNG facilities already being built. “Are we doing everything that needs to be done? No. Nobody is,” Kerry said. “What we’ve got to do is have more nos to certain things and more yeses to the right things.” And the U.S. is not alone in that, he said. Every major emitter has to be on board, or else they each pose a problem to everyone else. “It’s all cumulative,” he said. “By and large, most big industrial countries are behind. And they need to pick up their game.”

China is the biggest such case. It is no exaggeration to say that the U.S. and China will decide the fate of our climate future. How quickly the two countries—one responsible for the largest historical share of planet-warming gases, and the other responsible for the largest share of emissions today—decide to peak and then eliminate their fossil-fuel use will determine when the continuous warming of Earth’s atmosphere will cease.

The personal relationship between the two countries’ climate envoys—Xie Zhenhua in China and Kerry in the United States—has produced some productive agreements on climate. A meeting between the two in Sunnylands, California, last year paved the way for an uncharacteristic lack of “finger-pointing” between the nations at the Dubai climate conference a month later, Kerry said. Xie was even a guest of honor at Kerry’s 80th birthday party, held in a corner of the conference. Xie, too, left his post at the end of last year, but the two men’s maneuvering has made the future of U.S.-China climate diplomacy a more inviting arena than U.S.-China diplomacy in other areas.

I asked Kerry a question I often get asked by strangers when they hear that I write about climate change: What does it matter what the U.S. does, if China’s emissions keep growing? He was quick to remind me that China is manufacturing more renewable-energy components “than all of the rest of the world put together,” though he acknowledged it also plans to build many more coal-fired power plants. For China, as for the U.S., he believes that the growth of renewable power might negate the need for all those new fossil fuels. “We don’t know that for certain yet, but it’s quite likely that China will be peaking much earlier than had been anticipated,” he said, referring to that country’s emissions, a possibility analysts have been discussing but that China itself is not acknowledging. And he sees U.S. oil production peaking soon too: “I think you’re going to see that go down,” he said.

And that is both a realistic expectation and an idealistic one. It could happen, but also it must. Kerry clearly grasps the consequences of meager climate ambitions. “I am very worried about the climate tipping points: the coral reefs, the permafrost, the Barents Sea, the Arctic, the Antarctic,” he said, turning our conversation from granular policy to the real stakes of planetary destruction. Pass those points, set melting in motion, and our power to undo the coming damage will evaporate. “I think about it every day and all the time,” he told me. “But, you know, it doesn’t do any good to just sort of fret over it and worry about it. That’s why I came down here to do the job.”

How long that job will exist once Kerry is gone remains uncertain. In the immediate future, White House senior adviser John Podesta will replace him, representing the U.S. at the next COP. But the position’s longevity depends on the whims of who’s in charge. If reelected, Biden is likely to hold on to it. Trump, meanwhile, is likely to once again pull out of the Paris Agreement altogether—in which case he would have little need for a climate envoy.

Zoë Schlanger is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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