President-elect Joe Biden named John Kerry as his special envoy on climate, tasking the former secretary of state with steering a 180-degree turn in U.S. diplomacy on the issue and advising the incoming administration on the security challenges a warming planet poses.
“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is,” Kerry said in a tweeted statement. “I’m proud to partner with the President-elect, our allies, and the young leaders of the climate movement to take on this crisis as the President’s Climate Envoy.”
The 76-year-old will represent his country at a moment scholars increasingly see as a period of American imperial decline amid unprecedented planetary changes. Under President Donald Trump, the United States sought to censor its own scientists, gut climate regulations at home and promote fossil fuels abroad, even as wildfires, heatwaves and storms routinely smashed records for death toll and destruction. The U.S. long allowed its fossil fuel companies’ misinformation on climate science to guide its policy overseas under past presidents.
But Kerry must now allay concerns that a Biden administration can build a climate legacy that will withstand another Republican presidency and pitch the U.S. as a worthwhile partner as China emerges as a dependable alternative, both as a steady economic superpower and wellspring of clean energy technology.
The role, announced alongside secretary of state pick Antony Blinken, was last filled by Todd Stern, a career diplomat who held the seat for both of former President Barack Obama’s terms and served as the U.S. chief negotiator at the 2015 Paris climate talks. President Donald Trump abolished the position in 2017 shortly before announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the non-binding pact signed by every other country in the world.
The restored role will for the first time include a seat on the National Security Council. Francesco Femia, the co-founder of the military-focused Center for Climate and Security, called the new position on the National Security Council a “very positive sign” after four years of the Trump administration’s Orwellian erasure of climate change from Pentagon planning documents.
“We’ve always insisted if there’s an individual focused on climate on the National Security Council, that person has to be senior enough to have the ear of the national security adviser and the president ― if this person isn’t senior enough or doesn’t have that authority, the issue is likely to get sidelined,” Femia said. “It’s a very, very strong signal that the former secretary of state and a former presidential candidate ― that’s as senior as it gets ― is sitting on the National Security Council with a climate portfolio.”
While some news outlets used a Slavic monarchic term to describe Kerry’s appointment, the position outlined was not the “climate czar” role advocates envisioned for a central White House lever-puller in charge of coordinating a domestic effort across disparate federal agencies to slash planet-heating emissions and transition off fossil fuels.
“Calling this the ‘climate czar’ is just misleading in that I don’t think his role will be that much focused on domestic climate policy,” said Marcela Mulholland, the deputy climate director at the progressive think tank Data for Progress. “There’s no shortage of work to be done, so I hope Kerry is just the first of many appointments to new climate positions.”
That job could still come to fruition. In 2009, Carol Browner, the Clinton-era Environmental Protection Agency administrator, served as the Obama administration’s director of the newly established White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. She left that job in 2011 after the administration’s effort to pass a major climate bill through Congress failed, and the position was scrapped.
Sunrise Movement, the influential youth campaigners behind the Green New Deal, called Kerry’s appointment “an encouraging development from the Biden team” but said it was still pushing for the administration to create an Office of Climate Mobilization “to convene the federal departments and agencies and civil societies, states, local governments and industries to marshal all of nation’s effort toward this challenge.”
“It shows at least they want to make this a big international priority to create a new climate-focused position, and having a former secretary of state serving in that role definitely highlights the importance,” Evan Weber, Sunrise Movement’s political director, said by phone. “That said, what good is negotiating and diplomatting abroad if we’re not doing everything we can at home? We hope this position is a sign of more things to come, and that there will be a powerful domestic counterpart as well.”
In the closing weeks of the election, both Bloomberg and Politico reported that Biden was considering creating such a role in his administration. Ronald Klain, Biden’s pick for White House chief of staff, tweeted Monday afternoon that activists should “stay tuned” for a domestic-side pick.
Possible names floated are John Podesta, a top Democratic operative who has made climate his central issue in recent years; Jay Inslee, the newly reelected Washington governor who challenged Biden as the “climate candidate” in last year’s Democratic presidential primary; and Ali Zaidi, a climate policy expert and the Office of Management and Budget’s former associate director for natural resources, energy and science.
“In addition to the Kerry appointment, Biden must empower a climate council to act on the substantive changes we need to survive,” Janet Redman, Greenpeace’s climate campaign director, said in a statement. “We deserve a world beyond fossil fuels ― a world in which workers’ rights, community health, and our shared climate come before corporate profits. Right now, John Kerry has an unprecedented chance to lay the groundwork.”
There’s reason to doubt Kerry as a harbinger of “a world beyond fossil fuels.” Last December, he launched World War Zero, a star-studded campaign of politicians and Hollywood celebrities calling for climate action. What form that action would take, however, was left vague. When the group launched, Kerry gave Ohio’s former Republican Gov. John Kasich a leading role articulating the conservative support of increasing domestic gas drilling, despite scientific projections showing expanded gas production is out of sync with keeping warming in a safe range.
“What good is negotiating and diplomatting abroad if we’re not doing everything we can at home? We hope this position is a sign of more things to come, and that there will be a powerful domestic counterpart as well.”
“There are people advocating for specific policies in the group. And there are differences of opinions within the group as to what those policies ought to be,” Kerry said last year in an interview with the climate newsletter Heated. “So, one person in the group may say, ‘We need a bridge fuel like natural gas for a longer period of time.’ Others will say ‘No, we need to move to renewables faster.’ That’s a healthy debate.”
The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s largest and most powerful lobby, told HuffPost it stood “ready to engage with the incoming administration to advance environmental progress through industry-led solutions.”
“We congratulate and look forward to working with John Kerry to tackle the challenge of climate change while delivering affordable, reliable and sustainable energy around the world,” Mike Sommers, API’s chief executive and president, said in an emailed statement.
Asked about Kerry’s appointment, Exxon Mobil Corp. spokesman Casey Norton said: “We congratulate President-elect Biden on his election and will work with the administration and members of Congress to support market-based policies to promote economic recovery, affordable energy development and management of environmental issues, including the important issue of climate change.”
“Those interested in a sensible climate policy should welcome a figure with political experience and substantive expertise,” Scott Segal, a partner at the energy law firm Bracewell, said in a statement. “However, the details have yet to emerge regarding the contours of the new post. It will be interesting to see how the envoy will interact with other components of the U.S. government that possess statutory portfolios related to climate change.”
Kerry’s individual policy compromises may matter less in the envoy role than his ability to project influence on the global stage, said Jeff Hauser, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project. Such scrutiny will be better reserved, he said, for nominees to lead the Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury and the Securities and Exchange Commission, positions that climate advocates expect to play a much bigger role in regulating climate-changing emissions than in years past.
“If he appointed someone from Sunrise to go around the world, would other countries believe that person had the president’s full confidence in the way the former secretary of state and longtime Biden confidant can be seen as genuinely speaking for Biden?” Hauser said. “If you are China or Russia or the African Union and you’re negotiating, you want to know you’re negotiating with someone who really speaks for Joe Biden. John Kerry would be seen as having that gravitas.”