John Kerry left his climate mark — and he’s not done

Chief Europe Correspondent
An illustration depicts John Kerry sitting at a speaking engagement, with a group of climate change industry icons behind him.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

PARIS – John Kerry nibbles on a chocolate bar as I ask him what his departure from climate diplomacy might mean at a pivotal moment in the energy transition.

“I’m not leaving,” the 81-year-old American Democrat interjected. “I’m leaving from this role in a way that will allow me to actually do more, and I hope to be more effective in accelerating the transition.”

Kerry’s answer captures what his colleagues describe as the essence of a man who has played a key role in forging the world’s path to a greener future: a tireless, persistent and dedicated politician with a long-time commitment to climate action.

After three years as the United States special presidential envoy for climate and more than 30 in the climate space, Kerry will leave his special envoy role on March 6 and shift his attention to domestic politics, helping President Joe Biden campaign for a second term.

But that’s not where Kerry’s mind was when we sat down for a chat in February on the sidelines of an International Energy Agency meeting in Paris.

He talks about the need to pick up the pace in fighting climate change and countering misinformation, sprinkling his messages with well-learned statistics about employment growth in the clean energy sector and the dwindling costs of solar and wind energy. These facts, he said, are important to disseminate to keep citizens on board with the green transition.

“If we have more people out there trying to do blended finance, trying to bring people to the table… finding that this [transition] is not terrifying, it is not hurting your economy, it’s helping your economy, it’s creating jobs,” Kerry said. “The more we can market success, the faster we’re going to get this done.”

Getting things done was a reoccurring theme during our conversation. The lawyer-turned-diplomat played a critical role for years in helping the world agree on decisive words and mechanisms to fight climate change. Now, he said, it’s time to see those words put into action.

He sees the private sector playing a key role in getting things going on the ground by filling a growing climate finance gap. And he’s keen to nudge things along, hinting at where he may eventually turn his focus.

“I think I can do more to help the private sector be able to step up,” Kerry said. “The government isn’t going to fully make [the transition] happen. It’s going to happen with the marketplace, exciting people that there’s money to be made, you can invest, and I think that works.”

Kerry will be succeeded by White House advisor John Podesta, who will take on the climate diplomacy role while maintaining his position leading the deployment of clean energy domestically.

Tireless, persistent, trusted

Kerry is widely seen as having been instrumental in getting countries to agree to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, when he was the U.S. secretary of state under former President Barack Obama. In the deal, countries committed to limit the Earth’s warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and preferably to the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold scientists say would be safer.

The former Senator from Massachusetts and presidential candidate also worked over the years to build an enduring friendship with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua. The relationship allowed the U.S. and China to collaborate and commit to international climate initiatives despite the two countries’ otherwise strained relationship in other areas.

“He’s like a dog with a bone,” Alden Meyer, senior associate at environmental think tank E3G said about Kerry’s strategy with China. “He has focused on this, he has persisted — and I think you can make a case that it’s paid off.”

Meyer, who worked for many years at the nonprofit the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he remembers first briefing Kerry in 1992 during the climate negotiations in Rio de Janeiro. This was during the Republican presidency of George H.W. Bush and then-Senator Kerry was there with eventual vice-president — now climate activist — Al Gore and Senator Tim Worth, who would become the country’s top climate negotiator in the mid-1990s.

That was 32 years ago.

“He’s been deeply engaged in this issue throughout his whole career,” Meyer said, describing Kerry as “the energizer bunny.”

It’s a fitting reference. After a packed day of speeches and meetings in Paris on February 13, the octogenarian travelled to Oslo for an energy conference on February 14 and then went on to Germany for the Munich Security conference. Just before Paris, he had been to Abu Dhabi for more climate diplomacy.

John Kerry speaks into a microphone in front of a blue backdrop.

John Kerry speaks at a recent International Energy Agency event. Photo by IEA.

People who know Kerry well underline his dedication to the cause.

“John Kerry’s tireless, lifelong commitment to the climate cause and his achievements in office are a big part of why we are masters of our own destiny today,” said Laurence Tubiana, France’s former climate change ambassador and a key architect of the Paris agreement, who worked closely with Kerry on the document. “More than just a diplomat and politician, he is, at heart, a climate activist.”

He also has “a long standing and trusting relationship with other world leaders” who know “he was speaking for the president,” Meyer said.

At home, Kerry has had good relations with U.S. Republicans who acknowledge the reality of climate change and want the U.S. to take leadership to address it — even when they disagreed about what form that leadership should take, Meyer said. Meyer noted Kerry has also been the focus of sharp attacks from other Republicans who disagree with his belief that climate change is an existential threat requiring urgent action.

Kerry is also a skilled international negotiator, said Nathan Hultman, who was Kerry’s senior adviser and now founder and director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland.

“Kerry has an ability to look at complex issues from a 10,000-foot view, and then hone in on topics that will bring the U.S. and global governments closer to meeting the Paris goals,” Hultman said. “This is no easy feat. It takes a lot of patience and understanding.” 

Not always easy

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing — in part because the U.S. has not had a stellar climate reputation.

Meyer points to the country’s failure to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set targets for reducing emissions, and former President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement.

“The U.S. has had this reputation of a country you can’t necessarily count on to be consistent in its engagement in the international process,” Meyer said, making Kerry’s job “hard.”

There’s also a “sense of hypocrisy” Kerry had to confront on the job when it comes to what the U.S. says on the international stage versus some of its domestic policy decisions, he added.

“We’re saying that climate is an existential threat and we need to rapidly move away from fossil fuels at the same time that we’re approving projects to expand our exports of oil and gas around the world,” Meyer said.

The Biden administration recently paused the approval of new projects to export liquefied natural gas after pressure from climate activists. Kerry said he advocated for that and “the president made the right decision.”

But Meyer pointed out LNG export capacity from North America is likely to more than double by 2027 based on already approved projects mostly in the U.S. Last year, the U.S. became the world’s largest exporter of natural gas.

What about stopping LNG exports completely, I challenged Kerry.

“Well, you can’t. You can’t crash the economies of the world overnight,” he replied. “This is a transition.” 

Changing paradigm

“Transition” is a term that’s been central for Kerry.

At last year’s climate summit in Dubai, the American diplomat helped ensure the final agreement included hotly negotiated language to “transition away from fossil fuels.” Inclusion of this “most tortured paragraph” of the agreement, as Meyer describes it, was widely seen as fundamental in moving the needle in the climate change fight.

Since then, however, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Abdulaziz bin Salman, said the “transition away” from fossil fuels was merely one choice on an “à la carte menu” of actions from the summit.

“Transitioning away is not an option,” Kerry said when I asked him about this interpretation. “What you do to do that, what technology you apply, how you are going to accelerate or make it happen, those are à la carte.”

There is “zero question in my mind,” Kerry said, “the words ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels are pretty fundamentally understandable.” That transition has to happen in a “just, fair and equitable manner,” he added, mirroring language from the final text that he quoted almost word for word.

The outcome in Dubai made Kerry feel ready to retire from his role, he said. In contrast, he said he “felt uncomfortable” calling it quits after the 2022 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

“I thought there was more we could do. I can’t leave feeling like we haven’t gotten the job done. But in Dubai, I believe … we kind of really contributed to getting the job done.”

I asked Kerry what he’s learned on the job. “We could win this battle if we put our bodies and our minds and our daily efforts into trying to win it,” he said.

In a way, that sums up Kerry’s persistent dedication to climate action.

Kerry “is going out full tilt,” Meyer said. “You can take [Kerry] out of the special envoy climate role, but you can’t take climate out of him.”