As the Presidential Election Looms, John Kerry Reckons With the Country’s Climate Past and Future

The United States’ former climate envoy spoke candidly about his time in the role and what he projects for the country’s climate future.

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John Kerry acted as President Biden's special envoy for climate for three years. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
John Kerry acted as President Biden's special envoy for climate for three years. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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As the Super Tuesday dust settles, President Joe Biden left no doubt about this year’s matchup in his combative State of the Union Address Thursday night, referring to Donald Trump only as his “predecessor” 13 times. Climate policy for the next four years could look radically different depending on who wins this looming showdown. 

Analysts and journalists played a guessing game as to how different climate scenarios could play out—from Eos’ analysis of greater investments in the renewable energy transition if Biden wins to Carbon Brief’s extreme (albeit mostly unlikely, as they note) emissions scenario model under Trump if he fully repealed the Inflation Reduction Act. 

But to understand the country’s climate present, “you have to go back a little bit in the road traveled,” John Kerry, the former U.S. climate envoy who stepped down from his post this week to advocate for climate action as a private citizen, told the New York Times. In this Q&A with David Wallace-Wells, Kerry discussed his outlook for climate change at a national and global level. It’s a sprawling conversation that spans a number of topics in the climate world, but a few things stood out.

Fossil Fueled: Many scientists now believe capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit)—the goal established by the 2015 Paris Agreement—will be all but impossible to achieve, if it is not already. Technically, warming did exceed 1.5 degrees over a 12-month period this year, the European Union’s climate service announced in February, though that doesn’t mean countries have already missed the mark on their Paris goal, which is in the context of 30-year global averages, as my colleague Bob Berwyn explained in January

Kerry, for his part, believes that the 1.5-goal could still be met if countries “did the things we could do,” but that they are not. In particular, he called out fossil fuel companies, remarking that “oil and gas are still on a binge and their profits are obscene.” He went much further in an interview with NPR: ”I mean, point blank: we are heading towards about 2.5 degrees right now. But we know – given what we achieved in Glasgow and Sharm el-Sheikh, and now most recently the UAE consensus – if we implemented all the initiatives and all of the targets that were set by those various meetings, we could actually hold the earth’s temperature to about 1.7 degrees. When I took this job on, we were headed towards four degrees. And now we’re heading towards 2.5.”

For context, profits for the largest U.S. oil and gas producers—including ExxonMobil and Chevron—have nearly tripled during Biden’s first three years in office when compared to the same time period under the Trump administration, reports the Financial Times. At the same time, renewable energy deployment has fallen a bit short of expectations as wind energy development has faced delays and community backlash, which my colleague Dan Gearino covered in February

But Kerry told the Wall Street Journal that the shift away from fossil fuels will continue no matter the outcome of the presidential election: “While someone could disrupt and get in the way a bit, they’re not going to end this transition.”

Losses and Damages: In November, nations gathered in Dubai for the global climate conference COP28 finalized a fund to compensate developing countries for permanent and irreversible climate impacts. In total, countries contributed $700 million to this “Loss and Damage Fund,” but the U.S. accounted for just $17.5 million of that (Wallace-Wells points out “there are five players on the Celtics making more money this year”). 

When asked about this, Kerry responded candidly: “If you want to push people away, then you can talk about damages, but you’re never going to get past the Congress.” Perhaps even more candidly, he added “obviously warming has had impacts. But we can’t talk about liability or compensation for the simple reason, you will never see a dime from us, because our political system won’t embrace that.”

Experts and advocacy groups from developing nations have rebuffed the relatively small U.S. contribution to this fund. 

“The amount announced by the U.S. is embarrassing for President Biden and (U.S. climate envoy) John Kerry,” Mohamed Adow, director of nonprofit Power Shift Africa told CNN in November

But in the Times’ Q&A, Kerry stressed “that in no way were the donations of Dubai meant to reflect the money that’s going to be given in order to take care of damage and so forth.” The U.S. has pledged to contribute to other climate-related initiatives for developing countries, including a $3 billion commitment to the Green Climate Fund, which aims to help countries adapt to climate change. However, Trump announced in December that he would renege on this pledge, so future support could depend on the election’s results. 

Methane Madness: In the past few months, the federal government has cracked down hard on methane—a potent greenhouse gas and common byproduct of oil and gas operations and livestock. At COP28 in Dubai, the U.S. joined the European Union and other entities in pledging $1 billion in grant funding to curb methane emissions, and previously announced a partnership with China to tackle the climate-warming gas. 

As Kerry departs his role as climate envoy, he is doubling down on the importance of methane reduction. 

“It shocks me that I and others are guilty of not really having focused on methane in Paris or before,” he told the Times. “Methane is responsible for 50 percent of the warming of the planet, but it’s also where you get the fastest reduction in heat. So if we can make the methane thing work, we actually can buy ourselves a little time.”

The agriculture industry has largely received a pass from Congress to report their methane emissions, but the EPA released new regulations on Friday that will require the oil and gas industry to reduce the methane they are releasing into the atmosphere by nearly 80 percent. Earlier this week, a satellite created by Harvard University, in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, was launched into space and will be tracking methane emissions from oil and gas fields, though the EPA hasn’t yet decided whether it will include data from this technology to enforce its new rule, as reported by my colleague Phil McKenna.

More Top Climate News

In his State of the Union Address, Biden discussed everything from immigration, challenging Republicans to pass a stalled bipartisan border bill, to abortion, peering down at the nine robed Supreme Court justices in the audience right in front of him and warning the court’s six conservatives that they would soon get a waste of women’s political power for overturning Roe v. Wade. 

On the climate front, he touted the investments in clean energy and jobs made during his presidency and his commitment to halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. In a new proposal, Biden expressed his desire to triple the size of the American Climate Corps over the next decade, which originally sought to connect 20,000 young adults with clean energy-related careers, reports the New York Times

While climate is set to be a major issue on national and local ballots, a recent piece in Bloomberg pointed out evidence that many environmentalists don’t vote. 

“The climate movement doesn’t have a persuasion problem as much as we have a turnout problem,” Nathaniel Stinnett, founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project, a Boston-based nonprofit, told Bloomberg. 

Meanwhile, John Podesta started his first day as President Biden’s senior adviser for international climate policy on Wednesday, and will essentially act as Kerry’s replacement. Not everyone has welcomed him with open arms: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), penned a letter to the White House accusing Biden of “a blatant attempt to sidestep congressional oversight” because Podesta’s appointment did not have to be approved by the Senate, which it would have had Biden named him to fill Kerry’s post in the State Department as special envoy for climate, reports Axios

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