John Kerry will serve as the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate in the Biden administration. . He has a distinguished track record on climate issues in both the Senate and as Secretary of State in the Obama administration. He was instrumental in securing the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. Under Kerry the US doubled its financial contributions to vulnerable countries impacted by climate change.
In 2016 the Trump administration pulled out of the agreement but President-Elect Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the deal on “day one”. Kerry helped to craft Biden’s climate agenda which includes a plan that will seek to make the U.S. carbon neutral by 2050. To realize this goal Biden has pledged $2 trillion worth of investments in renewable energy, transportation, and building efficiency.
“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is,” Kerry tweeted. “I’m proud to partner with the President-elect, our allies, and the young leaders of the climate movement to take on this crisis as the President’s Climate Envoy.”
Experience and unity
As Secretary of State he brokered deals with China on emissions and hydrofluorocarbons. Kerry also proved himself when he was at the head of the Arctic Council where he furthered Hilary Clinton’s work on short lived climate pollutants (SLCP). He used U.S. leadership of the Council to highlight the connection between melting ice in the Arctic and environmental effects around the globe. He pleaded with Council nations to “do everything we can to prevent worse impacts” pushing the Arctic Council to “do more on climate change.”
Republican obstructionism made it difficult to pass legislation during the Obama administration’s second term. However polls suggest that climate action may help to unite Americans. In 2016 Kerry said “Climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It isn’t a partisan issue for our military. It isn’t a partisan issue for our intelligence community.” He also has the experience to get things done. He has the kind of international reputation that will make it possible for him have credibility when dealing with foreign governments.
Years before the politics of division claimed the White House, Kerry delivered a prescient speech about the importance of unity. In a 2014 speech delivered in Jakarta Indonesia Kerry said:
“And if we come together now, we can not only meet the challenge, we can create jobs and economic growth in every corner of the globe. We can clean up the air, we can improve the health of people, we can have greater security; we can make our neighborhoods healthier places to live; we can help ensure that farmers and fishers can still make a sustainable living and feed our communities; and we can avoid disputes and even entire wars over oil, water, and other limited resources. We can make good on the moral responsibility we all have to leave future generations with a planet that is clean and healthy and sustainable for the future” Kerry said, adding, “we can meet this challenge, the greatest challenge of our generation, and we can create the future that everybody dreams of.”
Kerry sees climate change as a priority issue calling it a “life-threatening issue” of national security that risks our way of life. As a Democratic Senator representing the state of Massachusetts, in 2009 he cosponsored a climate bill with Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and less than a year later he drafted another climate bill with and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.). Kerry’s climate advocacy earned him a spot among America’s Greenest Politicians in 2012.
Environmental organizations lauded his appointment as Secretary of State in 2013. NRDC President Frances Beinecke said, “In nearly three decades in the U.S. Senate, John Kerry has distinguished himself as a champion for action against climate change, an advocate for the international cooperation we need to protect the natural resources of a changing world and a visionary promoter of American jobs in the fast-growing market for clean energy worldwide.” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said, “Now, one of the strongest champions for climate action in the Senate will be our nation’s top climate negotiator. We are excited that he will bring his strong credentials on climate to the critical decisions facing our planet, including increasing access to affordable clean energy options and stopping the expansion of dirty tar sands and coal worldwide.”
In the Jakarta speech he called climate change a “weapon of mass destruction” adding that it was “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” if we continue to go down the same path that we are going down today, the world as we know it will change – and it will change dramatically for the worse.
“The fact is that climate change, if left unchecked, will wipe out many more communities from the face of the earth. And that is unacceptable under any circumstances – but is even more unacceptable because we know what we can do and need to do in order to deal with this challenge….we need a global solution”.
Science and the need for urgent action
Unlike most of the senior leadership in the outgoing administration, Kerry values science. He endorsed the findings of the IPCC AR5 summary and strongly encourage action saying, “This is yet another wakeup call: those who deny the science or choose excuses over action are playing with fire. He cited IPCC data to make the point that fossil fuels are the primary driver of climate change.
In his Jakarta speech he characterized climate change as one of the most serious threats faced by the world saying the science of climate change is “warning us; it’s compelling us to act. And let there be no doubt in anybody’s mind that the science is absolutely certain. It’s something that we understand with absolute assurance of the veracity of that science.’
He also pulled no punches in taking on those who are engaged in disinformation campaigns designed to confuse the public about the need for climate action. “This is about facts. This is about science. The science is unequivocal. And those who refuse to believe it are simply burying their heads in the sand.” Kerry said. “I’m talking about big companies that like it the way it is that don’t want to change, and spend a lot of money to keep you and me and everybody from doing what we know we need to do. First and foremost, we should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and science and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific fact. Nor should we allow any room for those who think that the costs associated with doing the right thing outweigh the benefits. There are people who say, “Oh, it’s too expensive, we can’t do this.” No. No, folks.
Kerry also understands that there is an ever diminishing window of opportunity to act. In 2015 he acknowledged that governments are not moving fast enough to avert a climate disaster and in the 2014 Jakarta speech he said, “The window of time is still open for us to be able to manage this threat. But the window is closing… We just don’t have time to let a few loud interests groups hijack the climate conversation”
“We certainly should not allow more time to be wasted by those who want to sit around debating whose responsibility it is to deal with this threat, while we come closer and closer to the point of no return,” Kerry said in his Jakarta speech. “We just don’t have time to let a few loud interest groups hijack the climate conversation,” Kerry added.
The economics of action
Kerry understands the risks and the benefits. As Kerry explained, “climate change isn’t only a challenge. It’s not only a burden. It also presents one of the greatest economic opportunities of all time. “Kerry claimed that the economic spinoffs from climate action could “far surpass the tech boom of the 1990s.” The climate crisis is, “a multitrillion-dollar market with billions of users worldwide” Kerry said. He has repeatedly indicated that he see renewable energy as an economic powerhouse that can revitalize the US economy. As he explained climate action is, “one of the greatest economic opportunities the world has ever seen” adding “there are opportunities literally everywhere you look.”
In his 2013 Senate hearings Kerry responded to a question from Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) saying: “The solution to climate change is energy policy. And, the opportunities of energy policy so vastly outweigh the downsides that you’re expressing concerns about … You want to do business and do it well in America, you have to get into the energy race … I would respectfully say to you that climate change is not something to be feared in response to—the steps to respond to—it’s to be feared if we don’t … I will be a passionate advocate on this not based on ideology but based on facts and science, and I hope to sit with all of you and convince you that this $6 trillion market is worth millions of American jobs and we better go after it.”
Before the People’s Climate March, Kerry addressed the costs of inaction saying “It doesn’t cost more to deal with climate change, it costs more to ignore it,” His Jakarta speech outlined the economic benefits of an aggressive global policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions saying, “the worst that can happen to you if you would employ a lot of people in alternative and renewable and clean energy; you would have less hospitalizations, cleaner air, more children with less asthma; and you would create an enormous number of jobs by moving to those new energy possibilities and policies and infrastructure. That’s the worst that can happen to you.”
Serious analysts understand that the costs of doing nothing far outweigh the costs of investing in solutions. “You do not need a degree in economics or a graduate degree in business in order to understand that the cost of flooding, the cost of drought, the cost of famine, the cost of health care, the cost of addressing this challenge is simply far less – the costs of addressing this challenge are far less than the costs of doing nothing,” Kerry said.
Focus on energy and hope for a better world
He understands that energy is at the center of climate action. “The global energy market is the future. The solution to climate change is energy policy. And this market is poised to be the largest market the world has ever known. Between now and 2035, investment in the energy sector is expected to reach nearly $17 trillion. That’s more than the entire GDP of China and India combined” Kerry said.
“The solution to climate change is as clear as the problem. The solution is making the right choices on energy policy. It’s as simple as that. And with a few smart choices, we can ensure that clean energy is the most attractive investment in the global energy sector. To do this, governments and international financial institutions need to stop providing incentives for the use of energy sources like coal and oil. Instead, we have to make the most of the innovative energy technology that entrepreneurs are developing all over the world….And we have to invest in new technology that will help us bring renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro power not only to the communities where those resources are abundant –but to every community and to every country on every continent….You cannot simply factor in the immediate costs of energy needs. You have to factor in the long-term cost of carbon pollution. And they have to factor in the cost of survival. And if they do, then governments will find that the cost of pursuing clean energy now is far cheaper than paying for the consequences of climate change later.”
Kerry is not naïve, he knows that there will be resistance, but he also knows that we have the technological capacity to do this, what has been lacking is the political will. Kerry has the political will and so does the administration in which he will serve.
“I am absolutely confident that if we choose to, we will meet this challenge…Human ingenuity has long proven its ability to solve seemingly insurmountable challenges. It is not a lack of ability that is a problem. It is a lack of political resolve that is standing in our way. And I will tell you as somebody who ran for elected office, when you hear from the people, when the people make it clear what they want and what they think they need, then people in politics respond.”
In his new role Kerry will be the first person on the National Security Council to focus exclusively on climate change. He understands the global nature of the threat and he will seek global solutions commensurate with that threat. Kerry faces a Herculean challenge but he has the experience to get things done.