WASHINGTON — A sweeping climate bill that collapsed in the Senate. An invasion that sent energy prices even higher, sparking calls for even more drilling. And, just weeks ago, a Supreme Court ruling curbing the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate pollution.
It has been a punishing six months for the effort to decarbonize the economy and stave off the most disastrous effects of climate change. And John Kerry, President Biden’s top climate-focused diplomat, expressed concern in an interview with The Boston Globe that time is running out.
“I have absolutely zero doubt whatsoever that we are going to get to a zero carbon, low carbon economy. ... My question is, are we going to get there fast enough to avoid the worst consequences of the crisis? And that I’m not convinced of right now,” Kerry said. “This can work if we make the right decisions, if we move fast enough. But if we don’t, it’s clear what’s coming at us.”
Moving fast was exactly the goal when Biden tapped the former secretary of state to a new Cabinet-level climate envoy role in 2020, hoping to turbocharge efforts to restore US leadership on combating climate change. Biden immediately reentered the US into the Paris Climate Agreement that former president Donald Trump had withdrawn the country from, and Kerry tapped into his well-honed diplomacy skills to secure commitments from countries and corporations alike to cut fossil fuel emissions at a major UN climate summit in Glasgow.
He remains quick to express his pride and his optimism about those achievements, to tout the progress and possibilities that he sees in the transition to green energy.
But 18 months into a job he had initially planned to stay in for just a year, Kerry also said he worried about too much “business as usual,” and is somewhat evasive about how long he will stay in his post.
“Last year, coal emissions went up 9 percent. And emissions generally went up 6 percent. So ... it’s delayed, the cutting in of the momentum that we brought out of Glasgow,” he said, but added the momentum had not been extinguished entirely.
The backsliding comes at a pivotal moment for the planet, since climate scientists say there is less than a decade left to cut emissions and hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — the threshold beyond which lethal flooding, superstorms, and heat waves could become even more common. The globe has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius since 1880, and Biden set a goal of cutting fossil fuel emissions in half by 2030 to slow that progression, while encouraging other countries to make their own big cuts.
“It’s urgent today, and it was urgent last week, and it was urgent last year,” Kerry said. “If we don’t do enough between 2020 and 2030, it’s physically not possible, barring some miracle discovery ... to get to net zero [emissions] by 2050. You can’t do it.”
But higher oil and gas prices worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made an immediate transition to green energy politically trickier, both in the United States and abroad, threatening the global goals Kerry and Biden helped set just last year. Biden has called for a gas tax holiday and proposed opening up some federal areas for drilling in response to rising prices at the pump; meanwhile, Kerry continues to publicly call for the US not to invest more in extracting fossil fuels at a moment that lays bare the many issues with being dependent on them.
“We see [Kerry] saying the right thing, saying, ‘We have to push back hard on efforts to build fossil fuel infrastructure,’” said Ellen Sciales, a spokeswoman for the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which pushes for aggressive action on climate change. “At the same time, that’s not where this administration is heading.”
Sitting in his office at the State Department, in front of a photo of himself with his longtime friend and former Senate colleague Biden, Kerry defended the president from criticism on climate but also called on him to push his administration to do more.
“A lot can happen through the regulatory process, which has not fully deployed for the simple reason that I think the president has been really wanting to get Congress to act, and hopefully Congress still can and will,” Kerry said. “But there’s a point where he’s going to have to start doing things in terms of regulation, because we’ve got to move.”
Kerry criticized the Supreme Court decision that reined in the EPA as a “wrongheaded” move that takes the country backward, but said he believed the president still has significant power to advance his environmental agenda.
“The science is not reflected whatsoever in the decisions,” he said. “But on the other hand, we’re going to keep pushing for additional congressional action, we’ll continue to work with our friends and colleagues around the world who take this issue more seriously than our Supreme Court majority.”
Kerry acknowledged that political worries about inflation and rising gas prices have made it more difficult to pass sweeping climate legislation. Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which would have contained $550 billion in funding to address climate change, withered in Congress late last year due to opposition from the conservative West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who Kerry has met with multiple times in recent months. Now, negotiations on a pared-down version of that package are inching forward on Capitol Hill.
“It’s made it harder, sure, of course it is,” Kerry said. “I mean, too many people still think this is down the road somewhere, and it’s not.”
A major legislative achievement would be useful for Kerry to hold up as an example when he is trying to persuade other world leaders to act, including during a recent trip to Mexico to lobby its president on energy. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling limiting the EPA, a Chinese official called on the US to do more than “shout slogans” on climate change — an illustration of the challenge Kerry faces. A core tenet of his role from the outset has been to reverse the diminishment of trust the rest of the world has in the United States to lead on the issue.
“People look at us and they doubt your credibility,” he said, especially with Trump, a vocal climate skeptic, openly musing about running for president again. “People say, well, what happens if Trump wins? What happens if the whole thing falls apart again?”
His response is that nobody can stop the green transition underway in the private sector, and he has devoted much of his time to encouraging financial institutions, corporations, and entrepreneurs to step up where government cannot or will not.
“No government in the world has the funding, not China, not the US — we’re the two biggest economies in the world. We don’t have enough money available to put out there to leverage the transition,” Kerry said. “But the private sector, and the marketplace of ideas of new technologies, new possibilities is really exciting.”
Climate activists view Biden’s decision to create Kerry’s role, and appoint a former secretary of state to it, as one way to combat global worries about the depth of the US commitment.
“I think the very existence of John Kerry’s position in the White House is proof positive that he and the president take this mission seriously,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
Brendan Guy of the National Resources Defense Council environmental group said Kerry’s appointment elevated “climate as a central US foreign policy priority” after years of neglect. “His role as a statesman for the global climate may be the one that most strongly defines his legacy,” Guy said.
In the interview, Kerry defended Biden’s commitment to battle climate change, casting his moves to bring down gas prices as short-term necessities and rebuking what he called a “false narrative,” pushed largely by Republicans and energy interest groups, that the instability in the energy market means the United States should increase its reliance on fossil fuels.
“I think [Biden is] very cognizant of the tradeoffs here, and the limitations and how long you can go before you are beginning to diminish your opportunity [to transition to green energy], and we have to avoid that,” Kerry said.
The 78-year-old Democrat spent much of last year working to get developed and developing countries to commit to more ambitious climate targets, an effort that came to a head at the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow. There, Kerry secured a climate deal with China and played a pivotal role in the final agreement, albeit one some found disappointing, particularly on the issue of limiting global reliance on coal. He also faced anger from some leaders of poorer countries who say the US and other wealthy nations have resisted their demands for a fund to compensate them for loss and damage from climate change.
Kerry is expected to face an even tougher environment at the next UN global climate change conference in Sharm al-Sheik, Egypt, in November, given how high fuel prices have complicated so many countries’ plans to finance the transition toward green energy.
“As the point person, he’s definitely going to be feeling some pressure,” said Joseph Majkut, a climate policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Kerry said he has met with representatives from China four times in the last month.
He declined to say precisely how much longer he plans to stay in his role, although he is not widely expected, by either close associates or observers of climate policy in Washington, to stay much beyond the end of the year.
“I’m going to go upstairs, see Tony, I’ll finish today, go into tomorrow,” he said, joking about an upcoming appointment he had with Secretary of State Antony Blinken before turning serious and seemingly chafing at being asked if he is planning to leave.
“I’m going to Sharm al-Sheik to try to help make the next step if we can,” he said. “I have no thoughts beyond there at all, period, one way or the other.”
Kerry wants to expand the number of countries that have pledged to reduce methane emissions, as well as the list of corporations, known as the First Movers Coalition, that have committed to invest in green technology. His thoughts, for now, remain on the urgency of the moment — and the narrow window to take action he fears could slip away.
Liz Goodwin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.