Biden links climate change to national security as he taps John Kerry for climate czar role

John Kerry in Martha's Vineyard. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

WASHINGTON — John Kerry, the former Massachusetts senator who served as secretary of state in the Obama administration, has been tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to be the nation’s international climate czar, becoming the first person with a role fully dedicated to the issue to serve on the National Security Council.

The new position was announced Monday as Biden unveiled his top diplomatic and homeland security appointments, signaling that he views climate change as a threat to the country’s security and is serious about shoring up the US commitment to the international climate efforts that President Trump clearly disdained.

“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is,” Kerry said in a tweet after the announcement. “I’m proud to partner with the President-elect, our allies, and the young leaders of the climate movement to take on this crisis.”

Kerry, 76, negotiated the Paris Climate Accord and made addressing climate change a pillar of his tenure as secretary of state from 2013-17, only to watch as Trump pulled the United States out of the international agreement to slow global warming and rolled back numerous environmental and energy regulations aimed at stopping climate change.

The appointment does not need Senate confirmation. It drew praise from veteran climate policy officials and from youth-led climate groups including the Sunrise Movement, which has added new urgency to the nation’s slow reckoning with the climate crisis, even as they called on Biden to do even more.

“Climate change is the national security, public health, environmental, and moral issue of our time, and there is no one better suited to coordinate a bold international response to this crisis than John Kerry,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

“Now,” he added, “we have to make sure that we do everything we can domestically so that John Kerry has the ability to say to the rest of the world that the US is taking bold action.”

Also on Monday, Biden announced the nominations of Antony Blinken to be secretary of state, Alejandro Mayorkas to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be the ambassador to the United Nations.

Asked on Monday why he was naming his national security officials before almost anyone else, Biden had a simple answer: “Because it’s national security.”

In choosing Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate, Biden has brought a longtime ally back to government — unusual for as high-ranking an official as Kerry was — and put one of the nation’s best-known diplomats in a role he sees as key to re-establishing US leadership on the issue.

“A former secretary of state but now with a single-minded focus on the issue of climate change for the country — that’s a very strong signal to the global community that the United States wants to re-engage significantly on this issue,” said Tim Profeta, the director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, who has urged the incoming Biden administration to make climate something that every government agency considers.

As a candidate, Biden rolled out a sweeping climate plan and said he would use executive orders to make progress on an issue that has become anathema to Republicans. Unless Democrats win two Senate runoffs in Georgia, Republicans will keep their Senate majority, which will likely stymie sweeping climate legislation.

Biden’s allies said the appointment is a sign he will do as much as he can, either way.

“That leadership abroad has to be built upon a renewed commitment at home,” said Ernest Moniz, the former secretary of energy, who has informally advised Biden on climate issues. “I think President-elect Biden, when he becomes President Biden, he will almost certainly have a very big package of executive orders on climate very early on.”

The existence of Kerry’s new role marks an important shift in the way climate is viewed in government, experts said. Climate change can trigger migration and conflicts over resources and damage military equipment.

“It’s too often been siloed as an environmental issue, or just about emissions,” said Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security under President Clinton and an adviser to the Biden campaign. “For the first time, climate will be a central element across all elements of foreign policy and national security.”

Kerry is best-known as a diplomat, but he has worked on climate issues for much of his life, according to Glen Johnson, a former Globe reporter who went on to work for Kerry in the State Department and wrote a book about his tenure called “Window Seat on the World.”

Kerry was part of the first Earth Day in Massachusetts in 1970 and took an interest in acid rain after he was elected the state’s lieutenant governor in 1982. He spoke of climate change during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state and made it a key part of bilateral meetings. He also kept a vial of fresh air from Antarctica in his office, as a reminder that even the cleanest air on a polluted planet was dirtier than it should be, Johnson said.

“He has often talked about climate change from the perspective of generational responsibility,” Johnson said. “I think there are very few things that would draw him back into public service than something that he feels is transcendent, is beyond more than just this moment.”

Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, said Kerry’s appointment was an “encouraging sign” and called it a “historic commitment,” but said Biden needed to do much more.

“What good is it to engage in diplomacy abroad if we’re not doing everything we can at home?” she asked. “The next White House must also include a domestic counterpart reporting directly to the president to lead an Office of Climate Mobilization.”

A person familiar with the transition plans said a high-level White House Climate Policy Coordinator role will be announced in December.

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