WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry, soon to begin winding down four decades in public service, says he will continue fighting to protect the environment when he’s out of office, though he’d also like to explore private employment once he returns to Boston at the end of his time as the nation’s top diplomat.
Kerry has spent a political lifetime in the environmental trenches, from helping launch the first Earth Day in Massachusetts in 1970, to the bitter defeat of his cap-and-trade carbon legislation in 2010, to brokering a breakthrough with the Chinese on emissions in 2014.
“I will certainly want to stay involved somehow on issues that matter to me, I think particularly on the environment,” Kerry said in an interview with the Globe, stressing that he has not given a lot of detailed thought to what awaits. “The environment is something I’ve been involved in all my life.’’
Kerry said he also probably will pursue private-sector work when the Obama administration ends in January but said he has no specific plans in mind. He intends to return home to his town house on Beacon Hill.
He emphasized that he will be concentrating over the next five months on his current job, which this week includes hosting foreign ministers from around the world at an annual oceans conference that he first convened three years ago.
It’s almost inconceivable that the high-energy and hard-working 72-year-old Kerry would quietly retire when his term is up.
He was elected to the Senate in 1984, after serving as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts; he mounted an unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2004; he has logged 1.3 million miles traveling since taking the helm at the Department of State, even weathering a serious broken leg sustained in a biking accident in the midst of nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Longtime activists and friends alike say they’d be stunned if Kerry did not stay active on an issue that has threaded throughout his career.
“We have got to keep him in the climate game,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. “I am sure given what he’s done in the Senate and as secretary of state, he’s not going to leave this topic behind.”
There are a couple of environmental items left on Kerry’s to-do list while in office. He is pushing to get the landmark Paris climate agreement ratified by the end of his tenure. While the United States has ratified the agreement, for it to take force at least 55 countries that are responsible for emitting at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions have to sign it. So far, 28 countries accounting for about 40 percent of emissions have done so, including Brazil just this week.
And Thursday marked the start of a two-day conference at the State Department dedicated to protecting and improving the health of the world’s oceans that Kerry conceived of and launched in 2014.
More than 40 countries are sending foreign ministers or higher-ranking officials, up from a handful of players at that level at the first conference. President Obama spoke Thursday to the gathering of dignitaries, environmental ministers, scientists, and business leaders.
The first two gatherings resulted in countries putting aside close to 6 million square kilometers of ocean as marine protected areas and more than $4 billion being committed to conservation efforts. More than $2 billion in new commitments are expected to be announced during this year’s conference, along with new marine protected areas, including Obama’s announcement Thursday that he was designating a major swath of the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Cod as a national monument.
Kerry, sitting in his ornate State Department office, a bottle of neon pink VitaminWater at his elbow, said in the interview that it’s been his goal to put oceans at the forefront of the global discussion “where they haven’t been until we really started raising the profile of this issue.”
The conference will live on for at least three years after he hands over the office keys. The European Union says it will host the event in 2017. It will be announced this week which other two countries will host in 2018 and 2019.
Kerry’s environmental labors have not always gone smoothly, but he has persisted. During his run for president in 2004, pollsters asked him to stop talking about climate change because it didn’t play well in Michigan; undaunted, Kerry would rewrite the relevant lines by hand back into stump speeches, recalled David Wade, a former longtime aide to Kerry.
The failure of his 2009 bill that would have established a cap-and-trade system on US greenhouse gas emissions is one of Kerry’s biggest regrets of his Senate career, he has said. That bill’s death followed unsuccessful international climate talks in Copenhagen, to which Kerry led a delegation of US senators hopeful for a global deal.
“Copenhagen was a failure. Failure can crystallize things,” Kerry said on how the experience shaped his approach once he arrived at the State Department in 2013.
In his very first policy guidance cable, a relatively rare communication sent out to every US diplomatic post around the world, Kerry stressed the need for the US diplomatic corps to make global climate change a top priority in each relationship with foreign countries.
With China, he came into the job convinced he needed to launch talks after the nation helped sink the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009.
“When I came into the State Department, I said, ‘Hooray. This is an opportunity for me to really weigh in on this and have an impact,’ ” Kerry said.
Less than two months into his tenure, Kerry broached the prospect by phone with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi. Two weeks later, he made his first trip to China as the top US diplomat and hammered out plans for a US-China working group.
Kerry’s diplomatic efforts to getting the world’s two biggest polluters to limit greenhouse gas emissions even included a several hours-long lunch at Legal Sea Foods’ Harborside restaurant in Boston with Yang in 2014, a month before Obama signed a historic deal with China’s president.
That US-China agreement is widely seen as paving the way for the global agreement reached in Paris a year later, the first time nearly every country agreed to reduce Earth-warming emissions.
Climate isn’t likely to be the only issue Kerry remains engaged in as a private citizen, said Alan Solomont, a longtime friend and a former US ambassador to Spain. The Middle East and conflict around the world will probably remain passions, he said. Solomont hopes his friend will write a book and “take a little time for himself” after the frenetic pace of the last few years.
“I don’t think he’s going to spread himself too thin, but I also don’t think he’s going to limit himself,” Solomont said. “That wouldn’t be characteristic.”