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In appointing John Kerry to top role, Biden shows he’s serious about climate

President-elect Joe Biden, left, looks on as his climate envoy nominee, former secretary of state John Kerry, speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 24.
President-elect Joe Biden, left, looks on as his climate envoy nominee, former secretary of state John Kerry, speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 24. © Carolyn Kaster, AP
10 min

By appointing former senator and secretary of state John Kerry as the first ever US climate leader, President-elect Joe Biden is sending a clear message. He's not only reversing President Donald Trump’s reversal of America’s commitments to fighting climate change – he also plans to push these commitments much further.

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“For the first time ever, the United States will have a full-time climate leader who will participate in ministerial level meetings,” Biden said Tuesday, announcing Kerry's appointment as the US’s top climate official. 

“He will have a seat at every table around the world. For the first time ever, there will be a principal on the national security council who will make sure climate change is on the agenda in the situation room. For the first time ever, we’ll have a presidential envoy on climate.”

As secretary of state under former president Barack Obama, Kerry helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement, and signed it in April 2016 on behalf of the United States

The agreement, a legally-binding UN document signed by nearly 200 countries and which came into force in 2016, aims to keep the global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Signatory countries pledged to reduce fossil-fuel consumption and wealthier countries pledged money to help poorer nations transition to clean energy and deal with the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, drought and increasingly powerful storms.

But Trump, a champion of the fossil fuel industry who has questioned the science of climate change, announced in June 2017 – shortly after taking office – that he was pulling the US, the world’s second largest polluter after China, out of the agreement. 

The decision has not been the deadly blow initially feared, since it only came into effect three weeks ago on November 4 – one day after the US presidential election. However, the last three years of American inaction have been a setback to global climate efforts. 

“There were certainly consequences, in that the United States no longer participated in international climate negotiations and that their diplomacy tended towards undermining the implementation of the Paris agreement, rather than helping it succeed,” said François de Rugy, a French MP with the ruling party La République en Marche and former environment minister in President Emmanuel Macron’s government. 

This is now expected to change, as Biden announced that the US would rejoin the Paris climate agreement on January 20, 2020, the first day of his presidency.

Speaking after the announcement of his appointment as climate leader, Kerry emphasized the need for global cooperation on the climate crisis. “No country alone can solve this challenge. Even the United States, for all of our industrial strength, is responsible for only 13 percent of global emissions. To end this crisis, the whole world must come together,” Kerry said. 

“You’re right to rejoin Paris on Day 1,” he added, addressing Biden. “And you’re right to recognise that Paris alone is not enough. At the global meeting in Glasgow, one year from now, all nations must raise ambition together, or we will all fail, together. And failure is not an option,” he added.

International reassurance

De Rugy agrees that international cooperation – and specifically a renewed American role – is crucial. 

“France is viewed overseas as a leader on environmental and climate issues. It’s the heritage of the Paris agreement, but this heritage must be kept alive. [Former president] François Hollande did it, and Emmanuel Macron has taken up the torch,” De Rugy told FRANCE 24 in an interview Wednesday. “But France can’t do it alone, and we need to incessantly find new support and to avoid new opposition, as was the case with Trump.”

A priority for Kerry will be to reassure America’s international partners, whose faith was shaken by Trump's withdrawal from the Paris agreement, which in turn paved the way for countries like Australia and Brazil to weaken their ambitions.

“There was Trump, but also (Jair) Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil; and in Australia, the conservative majority won the legislative elections, partly because of climate – or in any case because they refused, in a coal economy, to commit to the reduction of greenhouse gases. In Canada, [the environment] was also a very controversial subject, and Justin Trudeau barely won re-election,” de Rugy said. 

“And Russia was not unhappy with America’s disengagement, because it allowed it also to disengage. These are some pretty important powers that have been either actively holding back, like Trump, or even if less visibly, equally holding back. This is a trend that needs to be reversed,” he added. 

A seasoned negotiator

Kerry, 76, served in the Senate alongside Biden for decades. He was first elected in 1984 as the Democratic senator for Massachusetts. In 2004, he won his party’s nomination for president, but lost to the incumbent president George W. Bush. 

When Biden became Obama’s vice president in 2009, Kerry took his place as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; he then served as secretary of state during Obama’s second term as president.

He was described as a tireless diplomat. In addition to negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, advancing peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, working out a deal with Russia to rid Syria of chemical weapons and a multitude of other complex diplomatic missions, Kerry helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement. 

On November 11, 2016, three days after Trump won the US election, Kerry travelled to Antarctica, hoping to see the melting glaciers firsthand.

The trip, planned before the election, was the first by a US secretary of state, the highest ranking official ever to visit the frozen continent. It was intended as a fact-finding mission ahead of international climate talks later that month in Marrakech, Morocco, where Kerry was slated to speak.

Trump’s victory complicated Kerry’s task, since the future president’s intention to pull out of the Paris climate agreement suddenly appeared more urgent than the melting glaciers themselves. 

Kerry continued his environmental efforts well after Trump took office and he stepped down as secretary of state.

In 2019 he established World War Zero, a climate coalition with leading military officials, politicians and celebrities, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Emma Watson and Arnold Schwarzenegger – the former Republican governor of California – which aims “to hold more than ten million ‘climate conversations’ in 2020 with citizens across the political spectrum", according to the coalition’s website.

'A remarkable track record on climate change'

Kerry's appointment has been welcomed around the world. An editorial in British daily The Times on Wednesday hailed Biden's choice for the job and called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to follow Biden’s example. 

“His appointment of John Kerry, the former secretary of state, as his climate envoy underscores the seriousness of his commitment to securing a global climate accord at the COP26 summit in Glasgow next year. That should be particularly welcome to Boris Johnson, who will host the summit and is pushing a Conservative green agenda of his own. The prime minister needs to appoint his own climate envoy of similar stature to help him to secure what should be his own moment of global leadership,” the editorial said.

Environmental groups also hailed Kerry’s appointment. "There are few people in the world with as remarkable a track record on climate change," World Resources Institute CEO Andrew Steer was quoted by AFP as saying.

$2 trillion plan

The announcement that Kerry would be part of the National Security Council, the first time an official dedicated to climate will serve on it, shows Biden’s commitment to addressing climate change as an urgent national security and foreign policy issue, the president-elect’s transition team said in a statement on Monday.

While Kerry will be in charge of high-level international coordination of climate actions, Biden said he would also appoint a high-level White House policy coordinator and policy-making structure to lead the efforts within the United States. 

Last summer, Biden presented a $2 trillion plan to significantly increase the use of clean energy in building, electricity and transportation, aiming not only to strengthen infrastructure and create economic opportunities, but also to end carbon emissions from power plants by 2035.

Whether the new administration will be able to pass its ambitious climate laws will depend on how two Democratic candidates for the US Senate do in two runoff elections in Georgia on January 5. But even if the Democrats don’t gain control of the Senate, Biden has already said he would sign a series of executive orders on climate, right at the start of his presidency.

Commitment on US emissions

Biden has also set a goal of net carbon neutrality by 2050 – in accord with the target negotiated at the 2015 COP 21 in Paris. But although US emissions have decreased in recent years due to the growing contribution of natural gas and renewable energy – and this year’s restrictive measures to fight the spread of Covid-19 – the US is still some way off from meeting that goal.

“Let me be clear. I don’t for a minute underestimate the difficulties of meeting my bold commitments to fighting climate change, but at the same time, no one should underestimate for a minute my determination to do just that,” Biden said Tuesday. 

Speaking of Kerry, he said: “If I had a former secretary of state who helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement, or a former presidential nominee, or a former leading senator, or the head of a major climate organisation for the job, it would have shown my commitment to the United States and to the whole world. The fact that I pick the one person who is all of these things, speaks unambiguously to my commitment.”

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