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At stake for John Kerry at COP27: Climate and his legacy

What Kerry can ultimately accomplish as special climate envoy matters to a legacy that has faced challenges.

There is some disconnect between John Kerry’s passion to address climate change and his passion for flying around the world to talk to world leaders about it.Kin Cheung/Associated Press

Next week, John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, plans to be in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where COP27 — a United Nations-sponsored climate change conference that attracts leaders from around the world — is scheduled to take place. But before he can take up the weighty matter of transitioning the world from fossil fuels to clean energy, Kerry had to expend the personal energy needed to knock down an Axios “scoop” that said he’s preparing to leave the Biden administration.

Asked about it at a meeting this week with the Globe editorial board, Kerry said, “I don’t have any plans to leave. I’m going to Sharm. I’m completely focused on Sharm and that’s where I am.” So, was the Axios report wrong? “It’s incorrect that I am somehow imminently departing. I have not made a decision about my future. … I want to see what we can make of Sharm el-Sheikh,” he said.


It sounds like any potential departing could depend on the meaning of “imminently.” Still, when it comes to wanting to see progress out of the conference at Sharm el-Sheikh, let’s take Kerry at his word — no parsing necessary. After a long and winding political career, it’s legacy time. What Kerry, 78, can ultimately accomplish as special climate envoy matters to a legacy that has faced challenges.

Serving as senator from Massachusetts alongside Ted Kennedy, Kerry had to fight for attention and affection from his constituents. In 2004, he won the spotlight at long last, as the Democratic presidential nominee — but ended up losing a bitterly contested race to George W. Bush. As secretary of state during the administration of Barack Obama, Kerry masterfully pulled together the complicated pieces of the Iran nuclear deal — only to see this major diplomatic achievement abandoned by President Donald Trump.


Now, as Biden’s climate envoy, Kerry is often mocked by climate change denying Republicans. According to the Axios report, one motivation for leaving his current job is that he “doesn’t relish being hauled before his former colleagues in a potentially Republican-controlled Senate or House to defend his approach to lowering carbon emissions — including his family’s private jet.”

Kerry is hounded by conservative news outlets that produce speculative reports about the carbon emissions that are tied to that jet. (For government trips, Kerry flies commercial, Axios said.) And last month, the conservative legal group Judicial Watch announced that it filed a Freedom of Information lawsuit against the State Department, requesting details of Kerry’s office, including his calendars, the identities of his staff members, and the overall cost of travel.

There is some disconnect between Kerry’s passion to address climate change and his passion for flying around the world to talk to world leaders about it. As he told the editorial board, “There’s only one enemy here. It’s emissions. And where do they come from? They come from how we power our vehicles, how we power our homes and businesses. How we put the lights on, how we heat them.” The slightest sense of humor, not to mention irony, about emissions from his own travels might help neutralize the critics.

Yet it’s also true that Kerry’s eloquent warnings about what will happen if climate change is not addressed globally — and quickly — are steeped in knowledge and history. It’s crucial, he said, to keep temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target set by the Paris climate accords. What came out of the COP26 talks in Glasgow, he said, was an important commitment to “keep 1.5 alive.”


In the run-up to COP27, he has been talking about his idea to raise money from the private sector “to help save the climate,” as Bill McKibben explained in a piece for The New Yorker. As Kerry put it to the Globe editorial board, “no country in the world has enough money” to raise what’s needed to invest in the new technologies needed to transition from fossil fuels. “The key to getting it done is to finance it through the private sector,” Kerry said.

He’s now on the hunt for that kind of private-sector investment. According to Axios, Kerry is also “interested in returning to the private sector to increase his own personal net worth.” If he leaves the Biden administration for a private-sector job that advances the overall mission of raising capital for clean energy, Kerry could help save the planet — and add to his own bank account.

But for now, what happens at COP27 is the next twist to untangle when it comes to assessing the Kerry legacy.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.