WASHINGTON — John Kerry, the nation’s top international climate envoy, has told President Biden he will stay in his role at least through this year’s United Nations climate summit in Dubai, which begins in late November.
The decision by the elder statesman of American climate politics to stay stands in contrast to that of other high-profile administration officials decamping for the private sector, and might surprise close associates who expected him to depart his post well before now.
But Kerry, the pertinacious diplomat and former Massachusetts senator, sees too much to do — and insisted in an interview with The Boston Globe there is too much to possibly achieve — to quit just yet.
“There’s sufficient unfinished business that I felt it would be inappropriate to walk away from that at this point in time,” Kerry, 79, said.
At the summit in Dubai, known as COP28, Kerry will be part of a sobering global “stocktake” on the continued failure to do enough to stave off catastrophic climate change and thorny discussions about how to pay for the loss and damage already caused. But he is hopeful that new technologies and efforts to secure more funding for a green transition can accelerate the pace of change.
“We absolutely understand the road ahead and what we need to do, and I think we can make this COP even more important in terms of eliciting increased ambition,” he said. “This has a chance of kicking everybody in the rear end and pushing this process into higher gear, which is where it needs to go.”
For two years, Kerry has been criss-crossing the globe, traveling to 30 countries to cajole governments, corporations, and financial institutions to take bigger and harder steps to stop global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which scientists say would unleash devastating consequences. It is a difficult job and one that lacks the same level of power or prestige that he had in his old job as secretary of state to President Obama, when he helped draw up the Paris Climate Accord that he is now working to bring to fruition. He is quick to claim successes in settings like the 2021 UN conference in Glasgow, thrilled about the deals he’s made and corporate commitments he’s won, but is also acknowledging how much progress is lagging.
“I think it definitely feels more dire,” Kerry said. “A compelling reason to push on.”
Many countries, including the United States, are failing to cut emissions deeply enough to slow the march of global warming, according to a UN report released last year. The sharp jump in energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and related economic instability has created new demand for fossil fuel projects. Last year’s UN climate conference in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, was seen as largely underwhelming by environmental advocates and even many nations that were part of it. And even though Kerry played a crucial role there in supporting the creation of a fund to help compensate front-line nations for climate-related damages, something the United States used to oppose, there is still fierce debate over who will pay. Finding the funds for that and for major green energy projects — and incentivizing investment from the private sector — has become a key focus for Kerry, though his approach has been criticized by other stakeholders.
“We’re struggling because, look, the problem is globally there is not enough money. No country has enough money to be able to affect this transition by itself,” Kerry said.
What’s more, his conversations with China, the world’s biggest emitter, have been on pause for about a month.
“We were told he had COVID,” Kerry said, referring to his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua, “and we’re waiting to reconnect.”
Still, ever the optimist, he believes the sense of urgency is growing and that the real-world consequences of climate change — the billion dollar climate disasters in the United States, melting glaciers in the Arctic, the millions displaced in Pakistani floods — could push nations at the Dubai conference to deliver substantial progress.
“My main objective is to raise the ante at this COP, so we are coming out of there with a head of steam on emissions reduction and finance,” Kerry said. “There are things that are riper, more compelling, more obvious, more necessary, more urgent.”
The halfway period of any administration is usually a time for change, and rumors, including one about Kerry’s imminent departure, reported by Axios in October, have proliferated. High-profile administration officials such as Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh and Brian Deese, chair of the National Economic Council, have announced their departures. Kerry’s initial domestic counterpart, Gina McCarthy, left her job as national climate adviser in September. And some of his key aides, including his deputy, Jonathan Pershing, have left.
Kerry, who braided climate tightly into his work during his 28 years in the Senate and his time as secretary of state, was one of Biden’s earliest announced hires — a symbol, given his resume and stature, of the administration’s commitment to climate. Kerry initially planned to do it for only a year.
“Don’t remind me of that,” he deadpanned. “But I guess the best laid plans of mice and men get changed.”
Kerry, who spoke from his office in Boston on Friday, looked a little haggard, having recently emerged from a more than two hour meeting with dozens of environmental advocates to discuss how to lure more private sector funding to tackle key climate problems. Over the weekend, he flew to Brazil to meet with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “This is the year we have to save the Amazon,” Kerry said.
Kerry had his work cut out for him when he joined the administration. Former president Trump had pulled the United States out of the Paris Accord, and the planet was headed toward 3.7 degrees of warming, which would be catastrophic. Kerry started many of his speeches with an apology for the United States’ absence on this issue, and set about drawing on his Rolodex to persuade other countries to raise their climate ambitions ahead of the Glasgow conference. The promises made there could limit warming to 1.8 degrees by 2050 “if — here’s the big if — if everybody did the things they were going to promise to do,” Kerry said.
Bringing the promises of the Paris Accord to bear has proven to be much harder than drawing them up. The work is grueling, with commercial flights and endless meetings. He is working country by country to secure financing for green energy transition in major developing economies such as Egypt, Vietnam, and Indonesia. And for every victory there are setbacks. The final agreement at Sharm-el-Sheikh, for example, was criticized for not having stronger language on cutting fossil fuels.
“I wish we could have been able to do more on mitigation,” Kerry said. “Not enough emissions reduction, not big enough on fossil fuels.”
The Republican House majority has created a new slate of challenges for Kerry’s mission. Congress failed last year to deliver the $11.4 billion Biden pledged for international climate aid, and negotiations on the matter are likely to get even tougher. The House Oversight Committee has already demanded information about his staffing and spending, although Kerry — who has spent decades facing down Republican attacks — seems unruffled.
“We have nothing to hide,” Kerry said.
Still, Kerry insists he is optimistic. He is excited about technological developments and Biden’s nominee for the next head of the World Bank, who he believes will prioritize financing for climate initiatives.
“If we just accelerate things, do it at a bigger scale, get it to scale quicker, there are real possibilities here of surprising ourselves,” he said.