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John Kerry’s brand of Boston diplomacy pays off

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, with wife Teresa Heinz Kerry, and State Councilor Yang Jiechi of China.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, with wife Teresa Heinz Kerry, and State Councilor Yang Jiechi of China.State Department/Glen Johnson

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry turned to his Chinese counterpart at lunch last month at Legal Sea Foods’ Harborside restaurant and drew attention to the view of Boston Harbor.

The port was once a symbol of pollution, Kerry told China’s chief diplomat, Yang Jiechi. But after persistent government effort, Kerry explained, it was dramatically cleaner.

“This is a small example that shows that these big problems can and must be addressed,” Kerry told Jiechi over squash bisque, Maine cod, and Boston cream pie.

The exchange, related by a senior State Department official with direct knowledge of the Oct. 18 meeting, marked a turning point in the Obama administration’s efforts to get the world’s two biggest polluters to commit to lowering the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

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The landmark agreement, announced this week by President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing, came after months of behind-the-scenes discussions involving other officials in addition to Kerry.

For Kerry, who has overseen the State Department during a tumultuous time, including the war against the Islamic State and the fracturing of Ukraine, the potential for a climate change agreement provided an opportunity to focus on an environmental issue that has been one of his top priorities for two decades.

RELATED | 10/9: John Kerry, Philip Hammond visit local tourist attractions

Yang, too, had incentive to make a deal, given his separate role as deputy director of China’s National Leading Group for Climate Change and for Energy Conservation & Reduction of Pollution Discharge. He had told Kerry last year that “our two sides need to work together” after they attended a clean energy event with US and Chinese business.

To reach the goal, Kerry deployed doses of Boston diplomacy, in which the former Massachusetts senator replaced meetings at the customary hotels and foreign ministries with an array of more personal venues in his hometown.

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Yang flew nonstop on a commercial flight from Beijing to Boston on Hainan Airlines, a service that was inaugurated in June. Yang and two aides arrived at the home of Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, in Louisburg Square on Beacon Hill. They exchanged gifts, with Kerry receiving vases and Yang given an original, hand-colored engraving showing the corner of Beacon and Park streets overlooking Boston Common.

The group had cocktails and a dinner of potato ravioli and rack of Berkshire pork prepared by Boston chef Lydia Shire. Entertainment for the evening was provided by Chinese-born harpist Jessica Zhou of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Kerry and Yang with Chinese-born BSO harpist Jessica Zhou.
Kerry and Yang with Chinese-born BSO harpist Jessica Zhou.State Department

It was not the first time that Kerry, who became secretary of state early last year, has used his hometown as a setting for some international diplomacy. A week before the Yang visit, Kerry hosted Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond of Britain on his first official visit to the United States.

Hammond, at Kerry’s suggestion, went to Boston instead of Washington for that visit and in between meetings was taken on a tour of the USS Constitution and took a stroll through Quincy Market to the Old State House.

Some of the focus of that visit, too, was to address global climate change. Both men gave speeches at the Wind Technology Test Center in Charlestown, part of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

Kerry has urged global action to curb rising carbon dioxide emissions for decades, as has his wife, working through her philanthropic organizations. Indeed, their romance was first kindled at a climate conference in Brazil in 1992 and they co-wrote a 2008 book about the issue titled “This Moment on Earth: Today’s New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future.”

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“He has had a personal interest in climate change going back to when he worked with Al Gore in 1988 on the first climate hearing on Capitol Hill,” said Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate change at the American Security Project, which was cofounded by Kerry after his failed bid for the presidency in 2004.

Under the climate deal, the two countries agreed to reduce carbon emissions by at least a quarter of what they were in 2005 over the next decade. That is about twice the current targets.

The breakthrough has not been welcomed by everyone in Washington. Attacks on the details of the agreement came almost immediately from Republicans in Congress and conservative analysts who argue the pact allows China to delay making substantial changes in its environmental policy.

Senator James Inhofe, the Republican from Oklahoma who is set to become chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in January, called the agreement a “nonbinding charade.”

It was early in his tenure as secretary of state that Kerry pressed China to make a deal.

On his first trip to China in April 2013 Kerry got Yang to agree to begin climate issue talks through a formal US-China Climate Change Working Group. Then, earlier this year, while preparing for another visit, Kerry wanted to identify targeted reductions in emissions that both countries could work toward — and announce them publicly while he was there.

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The climate talks have been an exception to an often-testy relationship between Washington and Beijing. The consultations in Boston last month — which included John Podesta, Obama’s senior adviser on climate policy — addressed a host of thorny issues, including China’s human rights record, its aggressive military activities in the South China Sea, cyber attacks emanating from the mainland, and trade disputes.

When Obama traveled to Beijing earlier this week, there was no public inkling that a major climate deal was in the works. As last-minute details were worked out, it wasn’t clear even to White House aides that the deal would be signed until Obama landed in Beijing on Tuesday to attend a previously scheduled economic meeting.

Word about the deal leaked out just before Obama and the Chinese president, Xi, made the announcement on Wednesday. Kerry was jubilant, saying later that the “world’s most consequential relationship has just produced something of great consequence in the fight against climate change.”

Many factors other than Boston diplomacy played a role, of course, but Kerry hopes to replicate what one of his aides called “the special option.”

“You can expect in the coming months we will have more diplomatic engagement in Boston,” the aide said. “It makes for a less formal setting and more personal engagement.”

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Related reading:

US and China reach a deal on emissions

US, China unveil ambitious climate change goals

Horowitz: Inside the US-China agreement on climate change


Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender.