The veteran Democratic strategist has a long history in climate politics, including on the international stage. Podesta will be the U.S. face at the COP29 negotiations later this year in Baku, Azerbaijan.
But those international talks will come after the November U.S. election. That leaves U.S. positioning uncertain if President Joe Biden should lose to Republican frontrunner former President Donald Trump, who pulled the nation out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement when he was in the White House.
Nations at COP28 last month in the United Arab Emirates agreed for the first time to transition away from fossil fuels that have heated the planet roughly 1.2 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial era. Governments have set a goal of limiting that warming to 1.5 C, but they are far behind the greenhouse gas cuts needed to meet that target.
Kerry praised Podesta in a statement as “a longtime climate ally and advocate,” noting he played pivotal roles in the Obama administration’s climate strategy, including engagement with China. Podesta also remained active in behind-the-scenes international climate dialogue when he was out of government, Kerry noted.
“He will bring important expertise to the work ahead, particularly in respect to the down-to-earth challenges of implementing COP28,” he said.
As chief climate diplomat for the U.S., Podesta will face pressure from the international community over U.S. fossil fuel development. The U.S. is the world’s top oil and gas producer and largest historical contributor to climate change.
The Biden administration last week
paused new permits for exporting liquefied natural gas to assess the impacts to climate change, the economy and national security. Climate advocates praised the freeze, though Republicans have vowed push back on the decision.
“The recent pause on gas exports has positioned Podesta to lead the fossil fuel phaseout and the clean energy expansion we desperately need,” said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program. “In his final act as climate envoy, John Kerry agreed to a global transition away from fossil fuels and urged a far more ambitious scale and timeline. Podesta needs to take the baton from Kerry and lead the U.S. on a furious sprint to end oil and gas expansion while we still have time to prevent the worst climate catastrophes.”
White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients said in a statement that Podesta would maintain the momentum Kerry built in reasserting U.S. global credibility on climate change after the Trump administration’s rejection of the global efforts.
“We need to keep meeting the gravity of this moment, and there is no one better than John Podesta to make sure we do,” he said. “John has – and will continue to be – at the helm of driving the implementation of the most significant climate law in history.”
News of the decision also earned praise from other environmental groups.
“One of the most respected public servants in Washington, he’s served at the senior levels of government for three decades, helped drive the strongest U.S. climate action ever and weighed in on more than a dozen rounds of global climate talks,” said Natural Resources Defense Council CEO Manish Bapna. “He knows the people, the politics and what must be done to confront the existential challenge of our time.”
Podesta was a chief go-between as the Obama administration negotiated a surprise 2014 joint statement with China that for the first time committed China to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a step that built momentum for the Paris climate agreement a year later.
China, the world’s top emitter, is also breaking in a new climate envoy, Liu Zhenmin, following the retirement of Xie Zhenhua — a longtime counterpart to Kerry — earlier this month.
Podesta has also acted as a liaison with governments like the European Union that have been distressed by the IRA, which they fear puts them at a competitive disadvantage in developing clean energy technology.