WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, John Kerry, the recently vaccinated elder statesman of American climate politics, boarded a commercial redeye for a trip to London, Brussels, and Paris with a single aide and the understated mission of saving the planet.
There are only nine years left for humans to stave off the worst consequences of climate change, scientists say. The world is not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, which Kerry negotiated in headier days when he was secretary of state. The United States’ credibility on the matter crumbled during the Trump presidency.
And it is up to Kerry, back in the saddle of government with a new job invented by President Biden and little in the way of a blueprint, to deal with it.
At the age of 77, Kerry had already been a Massachusetts senator for 28 years, the Democratic nominee for president, the secretary of state and, while Donald Trump was in office, a politically active retiree. Now, he is the special presidential envoy for climate, a job that is less a cushy retirement gig than the challenge of a lifetime.
“It’s obvious that the stakes couldn’t be higher,” Kerry said March 10 in Paris, where he sought by turns to make a Cassandra-esque plea for more ambitious emissions cuts and to insist the world could be on the cusp of a breakthrough.
“I just emphasize to everybody,” he said, “this is exciting!”
During his four years as the nation’s top diplomat during the Obama administration, Kerry took on the world’s most intractable problems with obsessive zeal, showing up hyper-prepared and ever optimistic that there was always a deal around the corner. His new role puts him back on the global stage — a place he has always liked to be — to cajole other countries to keep the planet livable while simultaneously making the case that the United States is still fit to lead such a charge after four years of climate denialism under Trump.
“[Biden] gave me full authority and said, you report to me directly, if you need me, walk over to the White House and come and see me — he couldn’t have been more direct about it,” Kerry said in an interview last month, speaking not long after he stuffed his Tesla with boxes of climate research and drove from Boston to Washington to start his new role.
“I’m energized,” said Kerry, “because this is a crisis.”
It is also a diplomatic quandary. There is an awkwardness to Kerry’s efforts to encourage other countries to raise their own climate ambitions when the United States rolled back climate rules under Trump and has yet to announce its new emissions targets. The United States’ relationship with China, the world’s biggest emitter, has grown rockier. Kerry is trying to restore credibility with allies even though a restive Republican congressional minority appears largely determined to block the kind of sweeping legislative action that would help him show the country means what it says.
“He’s coming into this job with the backing of the president and enormous credibility, but he’s also coming into it at a time when our alliances have been shattered, and when the credibility of the US has been diminished frankly, and that’s difficult,” said David McKean, a former US ambassador and chief of staff for Kerry in the Senate.
Kerry, however, has never lacked the confidence or the willingness to tackle a problem that seemed challenging. As secretary of state, he held meeting after meeting to aid Israeli and Palestinian peace talks before they collapsed. But he successfully negotiated agreements like the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris accord itself, bringing them to bear with tenaciousness and will. He has also tightly woven climate into his 34 years in government.
“If you’re going to send your tank into battle, you want your strongest, fastest, most capable tank,” said Bernard W. Aronson, the special envoy to the Colombian peace process while Kerry was secretary.
In the climate fight, he said, Kerry is that tank.
Kerry’s critics see him as a bloviating figure who can’t stay out of the limelight. But his supporters say a prominent person is exactly what the moment needs — that Kerry’s giant rolodex and long record of caring about climate mean he solves some problems just by being there.
“He knows essentially all the players, and they like and trust him,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island. “He was passionate about climate and oceans before it was cool.”
Kerry’s role is completely new and some of the details are still hazy, even though he is about eight weeks in. He has offices in both the White House and the State Department, neither of which answered questions about how big his staff will be or how many people he has been able to hire so far. A person familiar with his team said it includes Obama administration veterans such as Jonathan Pershing; Sue Biniaz; Rick Duke; Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, who is working on public financing; and Kitty DiMartino.
In the first weeks alone, Kerry initiated calls with 35 foreign ministers and other counterparts. His trip overseas came about a week before the new secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, made his first in-person foreign trip.
Kerry is also working on the plans for a climate summit on Earth Day next month. The White House will convene representatives from nations that emit the most pollution and urge them to commit to more ambitious goals ahead of this fall’s major international climate conference in Glasgow, which Kerry describes as “the last, best hope” for slowing the earth’s warming. The White House will announce its own emissions pledge on or before the April summit, which will be a key tool in Kerry’s arsenal — but only if it is strong enough.
“While it’s symbolically important to have these high-level appointments … the rest of the world will be looking for this newly announced pledge to be more ambitious, to really send a signal to the world that the US is serious about this,” said Joanna Lewis, a Georgetown professor with a focus on climate, energy, and China.
For now, Kerry often attempts to show the world the United States is serious by starting with something simple: an apology.
“We’re sorry, and painfully so, that the last four years took place,” he said in the Italian embassy in Washington on Feb. 19, the day the United States officially rejoined the Paris Climate Accord after Trump had pulled the nation out.
“The United States has not done what it should have done — nor has the world, for that matter,” he said in the interview with the Globe. “We have to earn our spurs.”
Kerry is bullish on the possibility that the private sector can be part of a sweeping energy transformation, and he even expressed hope that Republicans will work with Democrats to pass meaningful legislation at home.
“Many Republicans came up to me when I was at the inauguration, Republican senators, and said, ‘You know, we’re really interested in trying to do something. I think that the science is settled on this,’ ” he said, although he declined to name them.
For Kerry, the job is a logical cap on a long career in politics that often came back to climate.
He attended the first international climate summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He became a senator whom climate-obsessed policy staffers wanted to work for, said Heather Zichal, the CEO of the American Clean Power Association and a former legislative staffer for Kerry.
“I’ve seen him think of these issues … as someone who was the conscience on the [Senate] Commerce Committee, all the way up to his 2004 presidential race where he didn’t understand why he couldn’t talk about climate change every day,” Zichal said.
When he became secretary of state, one of his predecessors, George Shultz, advised him to make a list of what he wanted to drive in government, according to Kerry’s first chief of staff there, David Wade. At dinner at a Salvadoran restaurant in Capitol Hill, Kerry scribbled his priorities on a legal pad: Elevate the environment, and integrate it into US foreign policy.
It was the subject of the first policy guidance cable he sent out, Wade said. Kerry would ask his staff to prepare specific questions and facts about climate change that he could raise at any meeting with a foreign counterpart.
“He was asking for levels of climate and energy policy analysis that more typically would go to a secretary of energy,” said Wade.
Kerry was instrumental in bringing China to the table for the Paris Climate Accord, and he was deeply involved in critical negotiations in a suburb of Paris as days stretched on. One night, when the negotiators hit a logjam and time was running out, he showed up after midnight, when the team there told him they thought he could help.
“The whole room is stunned,” said Melanie Nakagawa, the National Security Council’s senior director for climate and energy, who worked with Kerry at the time, and who said that determination will serve him well now.
“To get all these countries showing up to Glasgow this year, lining up their targets — that kind of coordination is no easy feat,” she said.
It all means Kerry won’t be retiring any time soon.
“I don’t know anybody,” Kerry said, “who could just sit on the porch or you know, rock away or something, without feeling compelled to get something done right now.”