As Climate Envoy, Kerry To Seek 'Ambition' With 'Humility'

Dec 10, 2020
Originally published on December 10, 2020 10:49 am

John Kerry is looking to resume climate diplomacy that was disrupted under President Trump.

The former secretary of state is one of several Obama administration officials appointed by President-elect Biden. Their goals include restoring what had been seen as the normal functions of the U.S. government when they were last in it.

The mission is especially clear in Kerry's case. In 2015, he signed a global climate accord as his granddaughter sat on his lap to suggest its importance to future generations. President Trump withdrew from the agreement. President-elect Biden wants Kerry to bring the U.S. back in.

The 76-year-old Vietnam veteran, former senator and diplomat will serve as Biden's climate envoy. On Wednesday, Kerry conducted his first two interviews since accepting the post, including one with NPR.

Kerry said rejoining the Paris accord is just the first step. He expects to spend much of 2021 working toward an already scheduled climate summit in November.

"We have to raise the ambition of every nation in the world in order to get this job done, and our task — my task specifically-- will be to help negotiate that," he said.

Kerry also spoke of approaching the job with "humility," because the U.S withdrew from the agreement once before.

"It's simple for the United States to rejoin, but it's not so simple for the United States to regain its credibility," he said.

One of his challenges will be to convince other governments the U.S. will abide by its commitments. Two Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, have now negotiated climate accords, only to have two Republicans, George W. Bush and Trump, withdraw from them.

And Kerry argued that the marketplace is on the side of clean energy. "Real business people," he said, "understand that there's money to be made" in a transition to renewable fuels.


Interview Highlights

You hope to negotiate new, stronger agreements. Won't other countries wonder if the U.S. will just drop out at the next change of administration?

That question will certainly be raised but I think there's a very clear answer to it. First of all I believe that Donald Trump is an aberration. ... What is clear is that the marketplace itself, globally, is moving in this direction. Just today there's an announcement by a company that's promising to be net neutral in carbon production by 2040. The day before, I spoke with an airlines president and he talked about what his airline is going to be doing – spontaneously, automatically. Real business people, real leaders within the business world understand that this is an imperative. They also understand that there's money to be made in producing the products. Anybody who has the breakthrough on battery storage is going to have the key to the future.

Can you collaborate with China on climate issues even as the United States competes with China on other issues?

They were a partner on climate as we competed with them at other things during the Obama administration. We've been there, done that. But if we don't work as a primary extraordinary effort on climate, we're all cooked.

Right now there are major challenges with respect to some of the things that China is doing. China banks are still funding coal-fired power production, new plants in various countries that are touched by the One Belt, One Road program. So we have to talk to China about that. But we have to do it in a way that doesn't force people into a corner to hunker down and head towards conflict.

What are the conversations you're having with energy companies?

I'm reaching out to them because I want to hear from them right now. We have to wait till January 20th before we engage substantively promoting any policy. But I'm listening to what their needs are on how they view the world so I can begin to understand better what the possibilities may be once the president is sworn in on January 20.

Do you feel you can make progress given the unique challenges in this country, where a minority of climate deniers can stop a lot of what you would see as progress?

I believe the way we make progress is by delivering, by showing people very specifically what the benefits are, what the facts are, and by building a consensus. I mean, that is the process of a democracy. It's been made harder in these last years because of denialism that has been exacerbated purposefully by entities and by politicians. But I do believe the marketplace actually has the ability to be a very powerful force for good and for things to happen and politicians can kind of get in the way and provide some road bumps but they're not going to stop what's happening now.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration will mean a change in U.S. climate policy. President Trump withdrew the United States from a global climate agreement. During his campaign, Biden promised to return to it and do much more. Yesterday, Biden's new climate envoy gave his first two interviews, including one to our colleague Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The envoy is John Kerry - Vietnam veteran, longtime senator and President Obama's secretary of state. He is one of several former Obama administration officials now hoping to resume work that was disrupted under President Trump. Five years ago this weekend, Kerry oversaw the accord, committing nearly every country to reduce carbon emissions in some way. In 2021, he'll be working toward another summit, already scheduled, where world leaders hope to commit to more.

JOHN KERRY: We have to raise the ambition of every nation in the world in order to get this job done. And our task - my task, specifically, will be to help negotiate that around the world.

INSKEEP: Kerry spoke yesterday from his home in Massachusetts. His first step is recommitting to that Paris accord.

Is it simple for the United States to rejoin the Paris agreement?

KERRY: Yes, it's simple for the United States to rejoin, but it's not so simple for the United States to regain its credibility. And I think we have to approach this challenge with some humility and with a very significant effort by the United States to show that we are serious and we really are back.

INSKEEP: Is this going to be a problem, though, when you're negotiating with other countries in coming months? They will look at you, and they can say, Secretary Kerry, we know that you agree with climate science and that you want to do something, but you're part of an administration that we can only be sure will be there for four years. And who knows what happens after that with the United States?

KERRY: Well, that question will certainly be raised. But I think there's a very clear answer to it. First of all, I believe that Donald Trump is an aberration and more - a lot more, but I won't go into all of that. What is clear is that the marketplace itself, globally, is moving in this direction. Just today, there's an announcement by a company that is promising to be net neutral in carbon production by 2040. The day before, I spoke with an airline's president, and he talked about what his airline is going to be doing - spontaneously, automatically. Real business people, real leaders within the business world understand that this is an imperative. They also understand that there's money to be made in producing the products. Anybody who has the breakthrough on battery storage is going to have the key to the future.

INSKEEP: China, of course, has a number of companies that want to be the world leader in wind, in solar, in electric cars, in electric batteries, every kind of climate technology. Do you see China as a threat, as an opportunity? What's the right word?

KERRY: Well, I think one shouldn't look for one word to describe the complexity of the relationship with China, but it's a critical relationship. I - as secretary of state, I had the privilege of going to Beijing and meeting with President Xi and the Politburo. And we brought them on board after failure a few years earlier in Copenhagen at the meeting of the parties. And we were able to announce our mutual intended reductions and then work together towards Paris.

So even as we had big differences about intellectual property protection, about access to the marketplace, about currency, about the South China Sea and other things, China understands we are not going to have a meeting of the minds on every issue. But countries have to work together to eat away at those differences.

INSKEEP: Do you think that China can be a partner of the U.S. on climate issues even as you compete fiercely in other areas, which does seem to be the future of the relationship?

KERRY: Well, they were a partner on climate as we competed with them on other things during the Obama administration. We've been there, done that. But if we don't work as a primary extraordinary effort on climate, we're all cooked. And right now, there are major challenges with respect to some of the things that China is doing. China banks are still funding coal-fired power production, new plants in various countries that are touched by the One Belt, One Road program. So we have to talk to China about that, but we have to do it in a way that doesn't force people into a corner to hunker down and head towards conflict.

INSKEEP: Will the United States have to make dramatic progress domestically against climate change in order to be a leader globally?

KERRY: We will have to do our fair share. Absolutely. And we will have to - and that's not hard to do because we've already been doing a lot of it. I mean, I talked to - a few days ago - the head of a big oil company. And they understand that changes are coming and that things need to be done to move to American leadership in these new technologies.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in your conversations with energy companies that you're referring to. Are they reaching out to you because of your new position? Are you reaching out to them because they need to be on board with what you're doing? What's going on?

KERRY: I'm reaching out to them because I want to hear from them. Right now, we're not able, you know - we're not in - we have to wait till January 20 before we engage substantively promoting any policy. But I'm listening to what their needs are and how they view the world so I can begin to understand better what the possibilities may be once the president is sworn in on January 20.

INSKEEP: I'd like to ask about this particular democracy that we're living in, Mr. Secretary, and how you address a long-term problem like climate change in this democracy. There is a minority of people that doesn't agree with climate science. And we're in a country where a minority of people can stop a lot of what you would see as progress. Do you feel that you understand how to make progress given the unique challenges in this country?

KERRY: I believe the way we make progress is by delivering, by showing people very specifically what the benefits are, what the facts are and by building a consensus. I mean, that is the process of a democracy. It's been made harder in these last years because of denialism that has been exacerbated purposefully by entities and by politicians. But I do believe the marketplace actually has the ability to be a very powerful force for good and for things to happen. And politicians can kind of get in the way and provide some road bumps, but they're not going to stop what's happening now.

INSKEEP: Secretary Kerry, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

KERRY: Thank you. Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: John Kerry is President-elect Biden's new climate envoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DYLAN SITTS' "SO THANKFUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.