GLASGOW — John Kerry was in a passenger van, hurtling under bridges and past the clock towers of this gloomy Scottish city, waiting for Washington to wake up.
The night before, President Biden’s top international climate envoy had been up until 3 a.m. negotiating with Chinese diplomats in a hotel conference room, parsing technical words and grinding down the differences between two countries that are almost always at odds. A climate deal with the US’s most geopolitically significant adversary was finally coming into focus, and he wanted to make sure officials back home understood the details.
“I really want to move before they start having briefings,” Kerry said, as he placed a flurry of phone calls to his top negotiators in Glasgow and back to Washington. “They need to hear it from me.”
It was Nov. 9, the 10th day of the United Nations conference in Glasgow, better known as COP26, the high-stakes summit that drew diplomats from 197 nations together to hammer out precisely how the world will try to avert the most catastrophic consequences of climate change as the time left to do something ticks away. Negotiators from oil-rich autocracies to tiny island nations already slipping under rising seas had descended on a warren of tents and imposing metal fences along the River Clyde, joined by a swarm of lobbyists and reporters, roughly 100,000 protesters, and even a slowly melting iceberg.
Kerry was an inescapable presence, his cloud of gray hair and long, gaunt face floating 6 feet, 4 inches above the floor in the plenary hall or over the heads of most others at conference tables in windowless negotiating rooms. The former secretary of state, presidential nominee, and longtime Massachusetts senator had emerged from his short-lived retirement from government, and his time here would be a chance to finish what he started when he helped draw up the Paris Climate Agreement. It was also a test of whether the multilateral diplomacy and relentless persistence to which he has dedicated so much of his career still works in a world increasingly shaped by autocracy, isolationism, and nationalism.
“We were trying to get people to do something they don’t want to do, that they were scared to do, but which we felt they had to do,” he said, describing one negotiation session over lunch that day, where he delighted in small plates of roasted carrots, beef, and tangy sourdough — a rich contrast to the bland conference food — and betrayed his tiredness only by taking the rare step for him of ordering caffeine (in the form of an affogato, or espresso over ice cream).
Once again that night, Kerry and his team would negotiate with their Chinese counterparts past 2 in the morning before going their separate ways with key language around coal, which has powered that nation’s rapid economic growth, still unresolved, a senior US official said. But by later on the morning of Nov. 10, the agreement was finalized, setting in motion a joint announcement that the two countries would act together to curb emissions — including a critical promise from China to cut methane — that negotiators from other countries described as a powerful signal in the summit’s final days.
The Globe followed the 77-year-old diplomat behind the scenes at COP26, interviewing him multiple times as he assembled the deal with China, sought to counter doubts about the depth and durability of his own country’s commitment to fighting climate change, and finalized a global deal that he knows currently falls short of needed cuts to emissions. Kerry has not decided whether he’ll still be in the role this time next year, when the 27th COP is set to convene in Egypt, which made Glasgow perhaps his last big turn on the world stage, his final chance in a role like this to relentlessly and obsessively chip away at a problem so much bigger than politics, and yet so vulnerable to political whim, division, and self-interest.
“I always felt that you have to give it the extra try, to try and exhaust the possibilities, to test whether you can get there,” Kerry had said a few days earlier, before it was clear whether an agreement with China would come together. “I don’t know if we’re getting a deal. I don’t know if it’s possible. But I know I haven’t exhausted the ways in which I can put that to the test and find out if there’s an opening.”
Early in the conference, Kerry watched from the back of his passenger van as an early sunset bathed Glasgow in golden light, the chimney pots and the proud stone buildings glowing orange. Once an industrial engine of Britain, Glasgow was known as the “second city” of the empire, where ships were built and canals carried coal from the mining lands to the factories. The 19th-century merchants, architects, and shipbuilders who powered that transformation are buried on a hill overlooking the winding streets and the river below.
“This city reminds me so much of cities in Massachusetts, with the old mills, big steel tanks,” he said, wondering where the stone for the buildings came from. “I could be in Lawrence or Lowell.”
It is strange to be John Kerry, who has been in the public eye since the 1970s, achieved a healthy measure of global fame when he ran for — and narrowly lost — the presidency in 2004, and who now holds a less powerful job than he once did. It is also great to be John Kerry, a man who has socialized with Kennedys, Clintons, and Obamas, who earned the admiration of his fellow globetrotters as a workhorse secretary of state during Barack Obama’s second presidential term.
Here, he was nothing short of a celebrity, with strangers stopping him to praise him (“You spoke at my graduation! Yale 2014!” exclaimed one earnest 20something) or occasionally to heckle him (“You’re a disgrace,” yelled one antiwar protester, adding an obscenity).
In Glasgow, he seemed to make it his mission to be everywhere, sweeping through the labyrinth of white-walled windowless rooms where delegations hammered out deals and plotted out strategies, a phalanx of aides fanning out behind him. He weighed in on panel discussions in the minimally decorated US section of the facility, meeting with everyone from Indigenous people from tiny countries to attendees at corporate functions whose net worth was in the billions of dollars. His step-tracker counted 7 miles in one day; if his energy ever ebbed, it was hard to discern.
“It was almost like, emotional to see he’s still there,” said Ben Rhodes, a national security aide in the Obama administration who attended the Glasgow conference. “Obama’s an ex-president, I’m just a guy, and there’s John Kerry, looking just as haggard and determined as he was at the last summit where I saw him.”
Kerry was headed into a comfortable retirement from government when Donald Trump swept into the White House, and blew Kerry’s hard-won efforts to turn the United States into global leader on climate to smithereens. Then Joe Biden, his longtime friend from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, won the presidency, and asked Kerry to come back for one last gig with a long name: special presidential envoy for climate. His job would include goading, cajoling, and convincing other countries to set more ambitious goals to cut emissions, and hammering out a global agreement on how to implement those goals here in Glasgow.
“I thought it was an opportunity to take years of work and experience, and put it to work for something,” Kerry said, tersely mixing his self-confidence with something like self-effacement.
As Kerry tells it, he started caring about the climate on nature walks in Washington with his mother. He joined the first Earth Day in Massachusetts in 1970 as soon as he returned from serving in Vietnam, before he made a name for himself protesting the war, and dug into the issue of pollution as the state’s lieutenant governor. “They used to call me the acid rain king,” he recalled in Glasgow.
Kerry, having been elected to the Senate, went to the 1992 gathering in Rio de Janeiro that established the framework for climate conferences like this one. As secretary of state, Kerry quietly folded the issue into everything he did, asking foreign ministers and heads of state what they were doing about climate change and urging his staff to make it central to their work. In 2014, he struck a deal with China that helped pave the way for the Paris Agreement, in which nearly 200 countries pledged to hold global warming below an increase of 2 degrees Celsius, to minimize dangerous sea level rise and extreme weather. He had joined negotiators in the middle of the night to push the deal forward.
Kerry was sworn into his new job on the first day of the Biden administration, well aware that there was less than a decade left to stave off catastrophic global warming. He immediately set about reconvening staff who had been with him at the State Department, and soon began traveling the world to convince the biggest economies, and then emerging economies, to set ambitious emissions goals. But it quickly became clear the world — and America’s place within it — had changed since their triumph in Paris. Trump had yanked the country out of the agreement, tarnishing other nations’ trust in the durability of any American promise. And US relations with China, the world’s biggest polluter, had crumbled.
Kerry wanted Biden to engage directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping and believed deeply that, to make progress with China on climate as envoy, he had to negotiate with China on that issue alone, leaving aside the countries’ deep disagreements over human rights, territorial disputes, and economic competitiveness. The approach had its detractors, and was harder to achieve than he wanted.
“Despite both leaders saying, ‘We need to separate climate from the other issues between us,’ that didn’t completely happen and it couldn’t,” Kerry said two weeks before the Glasgow conference, sitting at his desk under a soaring ceiling, with a black-and-white photo of himself onstage behind him. “As time went on, that became more of an albatross than I would have liked it to be.”
There were other complications, too, like the fact that Congress had not yet passed either of Biden’s major spending bills, which contained tens of billions of dollars to fight climate change. (Kerry himself had paid a visit to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s houseboat as the conservative Democrat dug in against some of those provisions.) Kerry already knew that Glasgow would end with a gap between countries’ emissions pledges and what scientists say was necessary, but he thought — he hoped — it could move things forward.
“I’m not going to contemplate some of the COPs I’ve been at and things fell apart,” he said. “That just can’t happen now.”
A COP is controlled chaos, a meeting about the environment where natural light is hard to find and actual nature even more scant. There was a wooden planter of Scottish heather near the biggest meeting halls, a small but tangible reminder of what could be lost if the delegates here failed to hold global temperatures down.
The delegates chase side deals — like the pledges released in the gathering’s early days to curb methane emissions or limit deforestation — but the most grueling work comes in the second half of the conference, when negotiators try to fashion an agreement among nearly 200 countries.
In Glasgow, that meant juggling important questions about how to ensure that fossil fuels were actually mentioned in the final decision, despite the displeasure of oil- or coal-rich nations like Saudi Arabia and Australia, while creating mechanisms to ensure nations are transparent and accountable to each other. It meant some countries pushing others to be as ambitious as possible, and some seeking ways to duck such ambition. It also meant tackling — or dodging — difficult questions about how to cut emissions in poor countries that lack the resources to build a new power grid, and who should pay for the damage from disasters, caused by emissions from rich nations, that are already befalling developing countries whose shorelines are disappearing. Poor countries wanted a dedicated loss and damage fund, something officials from developed nations including the US, resisted, lest it open them up to liability claims.
“This week will decide whether or not the next decade achieves what we have to do,” Kerry told a private gathering on Nov. 8 of the “high-ambition coalition,” a group of countries, including the US, that has pledged to set carbon goals designed to limit global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius. He then introduced his most prominent booster to the room.
“I am John Kerry’s hype man today,” said former president Barack Obama, before he made a reference to a performer who is constantly talking up his collaborators. “I am John Kerry’s DJ Khaled.” Obama would address the conference later that day.
For Kerry, every day was a crush of meetings, negotiations, and media appearances, with his time managed to the minute in a one-inch white binder — one binder for every day of the conference — that his staff kept in sight at all times, although he often couldn’t resist lingering for a stranger’s selfie or acceding to a hallway interview.
“Where are we?” he asked, climbing into his passenger van after a panel he did with Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, deep in the shadow of a Glasgow archway. “Under a bridge?” offered one staffer. “No,” Kerry said flatly, “I mean in terms of the schedule.”
That day, his staff played Tetris with his time, wondering if a meeting with Egypt could be pushed back in order to leave time for a podcast recording and give him precious extra minutes with the China team. There was a photograph to take with Obama, too, and he needed to meet briefly with Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, to fill him in on an initiative by major corporations to purchase green products.
He seemed relentlessly upbeat, ready to dive into any subject at any time. “How’s the negotiation?” he asked brightly on Nov. 10, after he walked past an enormous bouquet of lilies in the Indian offices and settled in for a meeting with that country’s delegation.
“We wish it were going better on finance,” a member of the team on the other side of the table responded pointedly.
Throughout his time in Glasgow, Kerry had to contend with an atmosphere of mistrust, something Trump proudly provoked, first by pulling out of the Paris Agreement and then actively trying to undermine it during the rest of his presidency.
“His first task is to rebuild trust and confidence,” said Saber Chowdhury, a member of Parliament from Bangladesh and a negotiator here. “I think history tells us that if there is a change in government, you will now have a change in policy.”
Kerry likes to respond to those concerns by saying the market embrace of green energy and other sustainable practices will outlast any future federal retreat. One day in the first week of the conference, he left the venue for an event with the “First Movers Coalition,” a group of major corporations convened by his office and the World Economic Forum, including Amazon, Maersk, and Bank of America, that have committed to purchase low- or no-carbon technologies. The astronomical net worth of the people in the room opened Kerry, himself a very rich man by marriage, to criticism that he is too focused on cozying up to corporations at a time when there isn’t a moment to lose. But he sees it as a long-term solution.
“No person in the future can burn this down individually,” he said later. “The marketplace, the force of the private sector, is gigantic.”
As the first week of the COP drew to a close, it wasn’t clear to Kerry or the people around him whether he was going to make significant progress with China.
“They’ve been reluctant to be specific, and they also want to bring so many other issues, like Taiwan,” said his senior adviser, former brother-in-law, and former US ambassador to Italy, David Thorne, who spent the first week at the conference with Kerry — and knew Kerry would keep pushing.
“He’s a great believer in his own powers of persuasion and building relationships and cajoling and finding common ground and building trust,” Thorne said on Nov. 6.
About a month after Kerry was sworn in as Biden’s climate envoy, China said it had appointed a diplomat named Xie Zhenhua special climate envoy for his country. The move was widely seen as a sign that the Chinese genuinely wanted to work with the United States on the issue, because both men report directly to their presidents and Kerry and Xie have a long history and mutual respect — they used to meet for meals in airports when their travel paths crossed, and frequently chat about their families before settling into negotiations.
The two began talking virtually before Kerry traveled twice to China where he had the bizarre experience of negotiating inside a restrictive Chinese COVID bubble, in which the kinds of interactions that can help grease a deal, like sharing dinner, were strictly off limits.
“We landed in the airport and there were 20 men in moonsuits — total headgear, everything was done at a distance, we were completely quarantined, drove to a place where it was a total pod. Nobody could go out,” Kerry recalled. “But we did it, it worked.”
During his trip to Shanghai in April, Kerry’s and Xie’s teams hammered out a joint statement that essentially said the two nations would work together on climate. They continued to meet virtually over the course of this year, persisting even as relations between the two countries grew increasingly rocky, and even when their own discussions seemed, as Kerry put it, “very bleak.”
“I think several times, there were, I don’t know, several weeks of gap between conversations as a result of that, but it never shut down,” Kerry said.
In September, Kerry made his second trip to China, where the foreign minister there suggested that climate talks could not be an “oasis” in a bad relationship, which he likened to a desert.
Things seemed to improve, Kerry said, after Biden and Xi spoke by phone about a week later. Then, about two weeks before the COP was set to begin, Kerry met Xie at a hotel in London for two long meetings with their negotiating teams. At one point, the two men — plus their translators — went into a separate room for what Kerry called a “heart to heart.”
“We had a pretty intense conversation about what the stakes were, why it was important for China and the United States to address the challenge of the climate crisis, without which there could be no real progress,” Kerry said. His team gave the Chinese a draft of ideas, which they agreed to work on together when they arrived at COP, he said.
The two team’s negotiations in Glasgow often began after dinner, at 9 p.m. or so, when other talks around the main agreement had already wrapped up. The Chinese delegation left its spare hotel in Glasgow for the cushier trappings of the conference room at Kerry’s hotel, the Radisson Red. There, discussions over tea and water stretched late into the night, fueled, as Kerry put it, by “disagreement.”
“We were just not there,” he said.
On Nov. 9, a US official said, the two parties had agreed to jointly lay out plans to cut methane emissions, but they weren’t yet agreed on what to say about carbon and particularly coal, which has underpinned China’s economic growth. The US offered China two options, the official said, and in the morning, China picked one of them — setting up a flurry of motion to finalize the translation of the agreement and present it to the world on Nov. 10.
The final agreement with China, a 1,313-word document, contained a promise from China to cut methane emissions this decade as well as a vaguer pledge that it would “phase down coal consumption.” Even if the deal itself did not extract something more specific, it injected a jolt of hope into COP by showing that the world’s two biggest polluters were willing to work together — making it a kind of truce that set the stage for a broader global deal.
In an interview on Nov. 11, Kerry, who can be prickly when he feels he is being underestimated, pushed back on criticism that the agreement had not broken more new ground or yoked China to a specific, earlier deadline by which its emissions will peak.
“They, by next year, by the COP, have to come up with an ambitious national action plan to deal with methane. Come on. That’s a date,” he said. “I want people to understand how big that really is, in terms of what China’s prepared to do.”
The negotiations for a broader climate deal agreed to by all the nations at the conference were already in overtime on Saturday, Nov. 13, when it became clear that a problem was brewing on the plenary floor. China and India were dissatisfied with the final text — and their objections were serious enough, US officials believed, that they might be willing to block the whole agreement (something any nation in these sprawling negotiations is able to do).
A senior US official said China came to their delegation to express unhappiness with the language around coal, while it emerged that India was unhappy with the text on coal and fossil fuels. Kerry could be seen huddling with Xie on the floor. They, along with negotiators from India, the EU, and the UK stepped off to the side and formed a tight circle under a glow of purplish light, the draft text open between them in a red binder. Ultimately, they agreed to change a key phrase in the draft agreement that would anger other nations and advocates around the world: The call to “phase out” unabated coal power was switched to “phase down,” a phrase that also appeared in the US-China agreement.
“We weren’t going to take it out, and it was a showdown over whether it was going to stand,” Kerry said afterward, conceding that it was “unfortunate we couldn’t have the stronger piece in.”
The final agreement requested countries develop tougher plans to cut emissions by late 2022, accelerating a previous timeline, and called on rich countries to send twice as much funding to the poor ones that bear the brunt of climate change. It contained the first mention of fossil fuels in a global climate agreement, strengthened transparency, and said the world must halve its emissions in the next decade, although it did not offer a clear road map for doing so. The climate pledges made in Glasgow reflected new ambition but had still fallen well short of the lofty emissions goals so often discussed here.
“We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive,” said Alok Sharma, an English member of Parliament who was the president of the conference. “But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”
Aminath Shauna, the minister of the environment for the Maldives, said the watered-down agreement would not help her small island nation survive rising sea levels and other climate-related disasters.
“What is balanced and pragmatic to other parties will not help the Maldives adapt in time,” Shauna said on the floor of the plenary. “The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is a death sentence for us.”
Kerry took a sunnier view, telling reporters on that day that “we are in fact closer than we have ever been before to avoiding climate chaos and securing clear air, safer water and a healthier planet because of this agreement.”
In an interview with the Globe the next day, as he left Glasgow, Kerry called the final decision “groundbreaking” but acknowledged that there remains much to do and to do “very quickly.”
“There’s no fakery here. Everybody acknowledges there is a big gap,” Kerry said.
The next COP is in Egypt in the fall of 2022, but Kerry would not say if he will be there in his current or any role. He hinted that he might want a different kind of challenge, although he will stay involved with climate. “There’s a oneness, sameness that enters into things, you know, I’ve got tothink about. So I’m not sure.”
Kerry had not come to Glasgow to solve the problem of climate change on his own, and the deals struck here certainly had not. But in a world where superpower status counts for less, his practiced and tenacious diplomacy had opened the door to more cooperation, in which one step at a time is taken toward a more hopeful future for the planet.
“I never thought we wouldn’t do something, in the larger sense,” Kerry said. “I just wanted to make sure we did enough.”