Several people said Kerry will have to navigate a shift in global climate politics since he left his role as secretary of State in January 2017. “It is a totally different political and historical moment right now,” said Costa Rican Environment and Energy Minister Andrea Meza.
Frans Timmermans, the EU’s Green Deal chief, said at an event on Monday he saw a “huge opportunity” to work with the Biden administration.
“But we also have to take into account the United States coming back to the international scene, in terms of wanting to contribute to multilateralism again, [at a time when] it’s a different world. So we are not going back to the Obama years,” he said.
If the U.S. and EU can align their priorities, he added, “the Chinese will want to show that they are ambitious as well and that will really create a positive momentum leading up to Glasgow,” the site of the next climate summit.
Today, the Paris Agreement that Kerry helped develop remains a baseline for climate action, but scientists and most climate ministers consider those steps to be woefully insufficient in addressing the crisis. Timothy Adams, president and CEO of the Institute of International Finance, warned against the U.S. aiming too low at home, and he urged the Biden administration to “broadly align with the rapidly evolving global climate policy framework.”
The U.S. has to “step up to repair a lot of damage that was done internationally,” by the Trump administration’s move that made the U.S. the only nation to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, said former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres. That pressure will come as no surprise to Kerry, who watched the shift as a co-founder of World War Zero, a nonprofit aimed at eliminating U.S. carbon emissions by 2050.
Net-zero emissions by 2050 — once an activist slogan — is now a guiding framework for policy across the G-7. China aims to join the net-zero club by 2060, and the EU leaders adopted an aggressive interim target of a 55 percent cut by 2030.
Juggling domestic and international action
Governments have fresh memories of U.S. climate reversals, such as President George W. Bush’s repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol and the Trump administration’s Paris Agreement withdrawal. “What is, four or eight years from now, going to stop another Republican president from withdrawing again?” asked New Zealand Climate Minister James Shaw.
To counter those fears, European officials and the NDC Partnership — a club of 65 countries that pool knowledge and resources to help meet Paris Agreement commitments — say Kerry will need to lead through action at home. The first test will be how fast the U.S. is prepared to cut its own emissions by 2030.
Another signal of a long-term change in U.S. policy would be passing legislation to create an emissions cap-and-trade system, which has support from some Republicans, said Shaw.
“We need Kerry not only to scream that America is back, but to make up for lost time, and to buy back their credibility by going to a front-running position,” urged an adviser to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose coalition government resigned shortly after the interview and is now a caretaker leader.
John Podesta, a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton who later ran climate efforts for the Obama White House and is close to Biden, agrees. “I don’t think you have any credibility in the international system unless you’re walking the walk at home,” he said. “If you don’t do that, it’s just words, words, words.”
Podesta said he expects the U.S. to make a “down payment” on its new climate commitments in February or early March. That would include restarting contributions to the global Green Climate Fund that finances projects in poorer nations and USAID funding for climate adaptation in vulnerable countries. Ahead of a June G-7 summit, he expects a U.S. 2030 target aligned with Biden’s goal of net-zero electricity by 2035, and economy-wide net-zero emissions by 2050.
Alongside global negotiations, neighboring Canada has its own specific demands given the tightly integrated U.S. and Canadian economies. Two key priorities for Ottawa are policy alignment on vehicle-emissions standards, which the Trump administration has weakened, and regulation of the oil and gas sector’s emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
“We need to see them move on methane emissions,” said an adviser to Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s climate and environment minister, “because we followed through on that and they walked away from it.”
Though words alone won’t be enough, officials are still counting on strong American rhetoric from Kerry. Jamaican Environmental Minister Pearnel Charles Jr. wants to see Kerry “pushing and empowering and encouraging other states” to take stronger climate action.
That type of bold global diplomacy may even inspire U.S. lawmakers to back Kerry’s global commitments with domestic action. “When you go ahead at the international level and you show that kind of unity and ambition, that does require actions to be taken at the national level as well,” said Vahakn Kabakian, Lebanon’s top climate change adviser.
Others are hoping the U.S. rhetoric will trigger more climate pragmatism. The Netherlands — pitching itself after Brexit as America’s closest friend inside the EU — sees climate as a source of mutual interest. “We are big fans of free markets, we have the same entrepreneurial spirit” as Americans, said the adviser to Rutte. “We want Jack Kerouac on the road, in a Tesla, not the Proust novel storyline we get from (Emmanuel) Macron.”
Kerry’s appointment and his inclusion in Biden’s National Security Council is already delivering some of what climate action advocates want: momentum for climate to be a factor across all major foreign policy decisions. Podesta told reporters the move signaled Biden was making climate change “central to his security and diplomatic policy.”
Kerry’s stature as a former secretary of state and experience winning global support for the Paris climate agreement means every door is open to him. Foreign officials are already lining up, happy to brag about existing friendships and fondly recalling personal anecdotes. They remember watching Kerry get to know his future wife, Teresa Heinz, at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and treasure that he signed the Paris Agreement with his granddaughter on his knee more than two decades later.
“He’s in a different league,” said Marcel Beukeboom, the Dutch climate envoy. “He has more tools at his disposal than we do, so we hope that will give him more clout to act.”
“He knows everyone,” said New Zealand’s Shaw. The ties are deep in many cases: Kerry even pressed for the release of Mohamed Nasheed, the former Maldives president, from prison in 2016, and Nasheed remains Kerry’s advocate. Connie Hedegaard, the former European commissioner for climate action, thinks Kerry’s China experience will boost his chances of pushing Beijing for stronger action.
While European officials are anxious to see climate at the core of a warmer transatlantic relationship under Biden, others such as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Kerry must first sync with China before moving to a trilateral U.S.-China-EU format to prepare goals for the November COP26 summit in Glasgow.
“The reality is if you get the three of them working in concert, then you are representing frankly, the bulk of global emissions,” said Rudd, who now heads the Asia Society. “Then you bring everyone else along with you.”
Shaw said Kerry may be key to overcoming one of the biggest obstacles to global climate agreements: consensus decision-making. He wants Kerry to approach China with a proposal to scrap the consensus system. Having watched Brazil veto his efforts to shepherd new rules on international carbon trading at two consecutive global climate summits, Shaw said that a new system would stop “recalcitrant” nations from slow-walking international cooperation.
How Kerry works alongside U.S. Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken to align climate policy with broader U.S. foreign priorities will also be crucial.
“Kerry really wants a Nobel for doing something on climate,” said Ian Bremmer, president and founder of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy. But he warned that Kerry’s personal zeal could complicate relationships abroad. “Let’s say you want to do a broader strategic and economic dialogue with the Chinese. How does Kerry fit into that bureaucracy as he engages on his preferred issues on climate? The answer is: not easily at all.”
In fact, it’s not always clear who Kerry should be talking to in foreign governments: Only several dozen countries have explicitly designated climate change ministers or envoys.
That may be changing, partly in response to Kerry’s appointment. Alok Sharma — who served as U.K. business secretary until Jan. 8 — will now focus solely on preparing November’s Glasgow COP26 Climate Summit. There is talk in Germany’s governing CDU party about creating cabinet-level climate coordinators in Berlin and Brussels, modeled on the Kerry role.
Finance in focus
Just as nearly every domestic U.S. government agency will be given mandates to act on climate concerns, Kerry will need to weave climate action into a complex set of global policy issues, from national budget-setting to global financial flows.
The U.K. is focusing much of the COP26 agenda on finance in light of U.N. warnings that countries are missing opportunities to fund efforts now that will cost far more in the future, and rich countries’ failure to deliver the promised $100 billion a year to support poorer countries’ green transitions.
Nick Bridge, the U.K. climate envoy, said he’s hopeful the Biden administration will make climate finance a priority, and several people close to Kerry said they expect he will make financing emissions reductions a major focus.
Mohamed Nasr, an Egyptian diplomat who negotiates climate finance on behalf of African countries, is desperate for Kerry’s intervention to generate new momentum, and says the U.K.’s efforts so far lack ambition and “concrete new ideas.”
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned Jan. 11 that help for developing countries was lagging, since only 14 percent of climate finance goes to the poorest countries. “The U.S.,” said Raymond Clémençon, a Swiss former climate negotiator, “must significantly step up engagement on climate justice, which essentially requires providing much more steady funding through the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility.”
But public spending alone is unlikely to supply the $100 billion a year promised, said Pablo Vieira, of the NDC Partnership. Those nations contend Kerry could be the first major player advocating alongside them to tap the private sector and multilateral development banks.
Coming up with the cash is a matter of survival for some countries. Carlos Fuller, chief negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, said that the restructured USAID funding promised by the Biden transition team will be critical. He cited a shelved $30 million effort in the Caribbean to build an early warning system for hurricanes and other mapping projects as one example of a project that collapsed when U.S. funding was cut midway through implementation.
American domestic spending may also serve global interests. “In the past four years we did not see the U.S. bringing in the weight of the science that they have in the past,” Fuller said. “Most of the science that we know about climate change comes from U.S. scientists like at NASA and NOAA,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he said.
America Hernandez contributed to this report.