President-elect Joe Biden affirmed climate change as a top priority on Monday, selecting former Secretary of State John Kerry to serve as a special envoy for climate, and giving him a seat on the National Security Council.
Kerry, who served 28 years in the U.S. Senate before becoming secretary of state under President Barack Obama, was in France five years ago helping negotiate the landmark Paris climate accord.
Now his task will be not only to bring the United States back into that deal but to lead a push for more ambitious commitments to cut carbon emissions worldwide, as Biden has said he hopes to do.
Biden’s team announced that Kerry will sit on the National Security Council, the first time an official with a dedicated focus on climate will serve on the council, the principal forum of presidential advisers and cabinet officials on national security and foreign policy.
Although Biden has only begun naming his cabinet, it is a safe bet that no other member of his governing team will have a resume like Kerry, who was the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2004.
Kerry, who served as a U.S. Navy officer in Vietnam, began his public career speaking out against that war, as a witness before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He later chaired that committee for four years.
“The world has been looking for a sign that the Biden administration will make climate change central to U.S. foreign policy,” tweeted Nat Keohane, senior vice president and head of climate at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Naming Kerry as Special Presidential Envoy on Climate Change & on the NSC is as clear a sign as one could want,” said Keohane, who also served as a climate adviser to Obama.
Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, tweeted, “I literally cannot think of one person better qualified.”
Dalal Aboulhosn, the Sierra Club’s acting deputy director for policy and advocacy, noted Kerry’s longtime advocacy on climate and decades of political experience.
“From being a leading voice championing legislation in the Senate, to guiding the world in global action, to crafting a unified path for the Democratic Party, Secretary John Kerry is a preeminent climate champion,” said Aboulhosn.
The appointment, he said, “not only signals to the world that the United States will once again take up the mantle of global leadership in addressing climate change, but demonstrates that President-elect Joe Biden is following his commitment to use a whole of the government approach to tackling the crisis.”
Biden has scheduled an event Tuesday to formally announce Kerry and the rest of his foreign policy team, including his choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, a close adviser who served as deputy secretary of state under Obama.
At a forum in September hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Blinken described climate as a key part of the Biden plan for re-engagement with the international community.
“We have a very aggressive plan to move on this internationally, not just rejoining Paris, but also working to get our allies, partners and others to raise their ambitions because we don’t have any time to lose,” Blinken said. “We’re already behind the curve.”
Former Sen. Tim Wirth of Colorado, who was a climate negotiator as under secretary of state for global affairs in President Bill Clinton’s administration, said that Kerry “understands the depth of the climate issue and the need for a huge global economic transition.”
Wirth, who served for 15 years as president of the United Nations Foundation and now sits on its board, said that Kerry spoke a few weeks ago on an informal Zoom call with about 30 former elected officials, a virtual meeting he has participated in weekly to talk policy since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The group members, all of whom, like Wirth, were among the post-Watergate wave of Democrats elected in 1974, have heard from a number of top policy experts since they started their weekly online chat, but Kerry “blew everybody away,” Wirth said. “People are still talking about it.”
He added, “He just gets better the more years he has been at this.”
Not everyone in the climate movement was happy, however. “Kerry has been a longtime apologist for fossil fuel fracking, and a reliable promoter of false climate solutions like market-based carbon-trading schemes,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Action, an environmental group that has questioned whether Biden’s vision includes a rapid enough transition from fossil fuels. “Kerry’s proposals are tired ideas from years past that will do little or nothing to address our climate crisis.”
That critique is a reminder of the political minefield that Biden faces in putting together his leadership team. He had to bring together a broad left-to-moderate coalition to ensure his victory in the presidential race, but he may need approval from a Republican-led Senate to achieve many of his ambitious goals, as well as confirmation of many of his top officials (although the position of climate envoy does not require Senate confirmation).
Even if Democrats can gain control of the Senate by winning both Georgia run-off races in January, Biden will face resistance from fossil fuel state Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Last week, that conflict came to a head, when Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, who served on Biden’s climate task force, blasted Biden’s choice of Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond to serve as director of his White House Office of Public Engagement. Because Richmond, who had served as one of Biden’s top campaign advisors, had been one of the Democrats’ top recipients of oil and gas industry donations, Prakash said, “Today feels like a betrayal.”
But Prakash had praise for Kerry, who was a co-chair of Biden’s climate task force, along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) Prakash said Kerry is “committed to engaging and listening to young voices—even when we might not always agree—and ensuring we have a seat at the table.
We congratulate Secretary Kerry and look forward to working with him to ensure that our international response lives up to the urgency of the crisis and the United States’ historic responsibility for causing it.”
Prakash renewed her call for Biden to appoint a top-level official focused on climate change to convene and coordinate the work of federal agencies, and serve as a domestic counterpart to Kerry.
Obama had a domestic climate policy coordinator—a so-called “climate czar”—in former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner. Although Browner had deep knowledge on climate, her push for tough action was often countered in the White House by Obama’s chief economic adviser, Larry Summers. And Browner, with no experience as an elected official, could not bring comprehensive climate change legislation to fruition.
Kerry played a hands-on role in two of the greatest climate achievements of the Obama era, joint agreement with China to reduce emissions, and the Paris accord that the China deal paved the way for. The Paris Agreement was the first climate pact in which every nation, rich and poor, agreed to contribute reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
On the eve of the vote, when word spread that Nicaragua’s representative was planning an impassioned denunciation of the deal, Kerry personally telephoned Managua and succeeded in getting the speech delayed until after the final vote on the accord.
Now, Nicaragua is a party to the Paris accord and thanks to President Donald Trump, the United States is not.
Jake Schmidt, who manages international programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Kerry is one of the few figures on the U.S. scene who is up to the task of rebuilding the lost U.S. global standing on climate, as well as momentum domestically.
“To have a former secretary of state as your climate envoy is a massive step up in terms of the signal it sends to leaders around the world about how this administration cares about this issue,” Schmidt said, adding that Kerry knows the inner workings of the U.S. government.
“Having somebody who has been in the belly of the beast, who knows the levers of government, will be critical to making sure the U.S. steps up its effort in the coming years,” Schmidt said.