Kerry's Climate Victories Clouded by Prospect of Trump Return

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(Bloomberg) -- It was the day before Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president, and the man who would become one of his top diplomats was already plotting how to return the US to an international fight against climate change it had ceded four years earlier.

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With Covid-19 still raging, John Kerry huddled in a Maryland backyard with at least five of his deputies — heat lamps on to cut the January chill — to strategize how the US could win back some of its credibility on the issue and propel more climate action around the world. It was the nadir of decades of US climate diplomacy, after outgoing President Donald Trump pulled the nation out of the Paris Agreement and unraveled the country’s carbon-cutting policies.

“We needed to be humble, having not contributed money or been involved for those four years,” Kerry told Bloomberg Green. “We knew we had to earn our credibility.”

Listen to the conversation with John Kerry on the Zero podcast and read the full transcript here.

Biden made Kerry the special presidential envoy for climate with good reason. In his long career, Kerry had been a US senator, presidential candidate and secretary of state — allowing him to bring substantial heft and gravitas to a newly created diplomatic role. Crucially, Kerry has been a fixture at every major milestone in climate statecraft — from the 1992 Rio Earth summit that spurred annual United Nations climate talks to the 2016 conference where he signed the Paris Agreement with his granddaughter in his arms.

But now Kerry is leaving the position he’s held for the last three years, after scoring a major victory at the UN conference in Dubai last December, when nearly 200 nations agreed to transition away from fossil fuels and accelerate action this decade.

Kerry, 80, has made clear he won’t abandon work to slow down the climb of Earth’s temperatures, even as he exits his office on Wednesday. While his formal next steps aren’t yet clear, Kerry intends to help speed the flow of private capital into clean energy and decarbonization. “People like me and others can be engaged in helping that acceleration very significantly,” he said.

His successor is John Podesta, a veteran Democratic strategist in Washington who is already working in the White House to shape Biden’s climate policy and US government implementation of hundreds of billions of dollars in initiatives under its sweeping Inflation Reduction Act. Podesta is no less familiar with international climate issues, and at 75 was at many of the same milestone events as Kerry. But he cuts a far different figure. Where Kerry has spent much of his life in the limelight, engaging in a very personal brand of diplomacy forged through relationships with world leaders, Podesta has more often been a behind-the-scenes tactician.

Kerry took on the role as Biden’s chief climate diplomat knowing he would carry both the burden of restoring US leadership on the issue and the blame for the country’s long failure to account for building its economy on more planet-warming pollution than any other nation.

In early strategy sessions, Kerry charted much of the plan for reviving US climate work on the world stage. That included immediately rejoining the Paris Agreement, bringing climate back to the fore in multilateral gatherings and cultivating focused deals targeting individual sectors and greenhouse gases. He also put a special premium on reengaging with China on climate change.

Kerry was convinced that the scale of the climate challenge could never be overcome without bringing all countries together through what he calls the hardest form of diplomacy: “supercharged multilateralism.” That process had to start with China, and he was dogged in pursuing it, despite deep tensions between the two countries over human rights, intellectual property and other disputes.

With Biden’s blessing, Kerry became the first administration official to visit China — navigating what were at the time some of the world’s strictest pandemic requirements. After a two-day visit, Kerry and his team flew home, while the entire Chinese delegation was forced to quarantine for two weeks, the price of those face-to-face talks.

“I don’t think they would have done it for anyone,” said Jonathan Pershing, then the deputy special envoy for climate. “They did it because they wanted to move, and they trusted Kerry to be a fair and constructive facilitator on the US side.”

Kerry leveraged those negotiations — and a long relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua — to forge a 2021 commitment to collaborate and boost ambition at COP26 climate talks in Glasgow. And though talks were frozen for months after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taiwan, Kerry was insistent about the need to restart them. That tenacity ultimately drove joint promises in 2023 to back global efforts to triple renewable energy capacity by the end of this decade and accelerate the domestic buildout of green power to replace coal, oil and gas. Key portions of the US-China joint statement made in November last year were incorporated in the final COP28 declaration in Dubai.

This was no small feat. Much as Kerry counted Xie as a friend, both governments needed to sign off on any agreement. Sue Biniaz, US deputy climate envoy, said finding common ground could only be achieved because of Kerry’s “persistence combined with reasonableness” in exploring creative wording to bring the two rivals together.

All the while, the team Kerry assembled at the State Department had been building a new strategy for encouraging climate progress outside the usual diplomatic channels. They created sectoral deals and global accords designed to survive any political shifts in Washington. For instance, the US and EU recruited more than 150 countries into a pledge to pare emissions of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. That put it on the agenda for the annual UN negotiations.

Kerry also drove new private-sector partnerships, insisting that capitalism, not government, will lead the shift to a green economy. Starting in 2021, he personally lobbied corporate CEOs to join the First Movers Coalition, a group of global companies that use purchase commitments to accelerate the creation of low-carbon products in aviation, cement and steel. Since then, the initiative has expanded to include more than 90 companies and additional sectors of the economy, including shipping, trucking and food.

Even as Kerry used the backing of the world’s largest economy to drive many of his initiatives, he continually faced questions about the durability of these steps given the divided politics on climate back home. Though the US is the biggest historical emitter of planet-warming gases, green groups have consistently pointed out the country has rarely met its global climate commitments.

The friction was especially sharp on climate finance, with the US failing for years to provide its share of the $100 billion that rich countries pledged to start delivering annually in 2020. The US provided just $1.5 billion in international climate finance in 2021 — which Kerry was forced to defend during UN talks in Egypt a year later.

Kerry said at the time the US was being unfairly graded on its direct government spending — something limited by Congress — and it didn't “get credit for money that we mobilize” through private sector initiatives and technology development programs.

While preliminary US government estimates suggest more than $9.5 billion in climate finance was delivered last year, the issue still remains a source of tension.

Kerry says the finance fight is one of his biggest regrets. “I would have loved to have been able to invest more funding in the transition” and “help people have a just, fair, equitable transition,” he said.

The limits of US funding — and fears about its contributions drying up again if Trump is reelected — threaten to inject new political drama into the COP29 summit in Azerbaijan, which starts just one week after the US elections. Regardless of who wins, negotiators will be wrestling over how to fill a global climate financing gap of trillions of dollars annually. That will raise questions about whatever the US offers and could deter big pledges by other rich nations.

Kerry “was rattling cages to find as much finance as possible, but the US is currently kind of pulling down the system,” said Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director of international climate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Even now, as Kerry leaves the job, he worries about what’s to come. A second Trump term could well bring another US government retreat on climate. Money isn’t flowing fast enough to hasten the energy transition. Permitting of critical renewable power and transmission projects is crawling. And a business-as-usual mindset threatens to slow action.

“What worries me the most is just indifference — greed, disinformation,” Kerry said, noting “vested interests that push back” against the necessary change. “That’s what worries me — just business as usual, not recognizing the full extent of the security threat that this poses to our country and to the planet.”

If Trump wins the US presidential election in November, he could tear down some of the initiatives built by Kerry and his team. And without the US engaged in international climate efforts and prodding other countries to be more aggressive, some nations could pull back too. It would “slow things down,” Pershing said, “but it’s not an off switch. It’s a bit of a dimmer.”

Still, Kerry takes comfort in the last three years of work, saying it’s helped drive greater ambition globally.

“Our initiative has helped, and I say that not with any arrogance or anything, but with pride, with a sense also that that's making a difference,” Kerry said. “Compared to where America was when we came in here, American leadership on climate is now palpable, evident and it’s made a difference.”

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