What John Kerry’s Exit Means for the Global Climate Fight

Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post
John F. Kerry, the U.S. special climate envoy, arrives at a Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate at the White House on April 20.

Soon after he was tapped to help save the planet, U.S. special climate envoy John F. Kerry found himself on another planet entirely.

It was April 2021, during the depths of the coronavirus pandemic, and Kerry had flown to Shanghai to meet with his Chinese counterparts. He was greeted on the tarmac by dozens of people in hazmat suits who resembled astronauts wearing “moon suits,” Kerry recalled in a recent interview with The Washington Post.

“They were completely antiseptically sealed from us,” he said. “It was like going into some weird otherworld.”

Those early talks with Chinese climate diplomats – who sat at the opposite end of a long table from Kerry and his staff – paved the way for a key agreement last year. As part of the deal, Beijing agreed to collaborate with Washington on reducing planet-heating methane emissions and transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Analysts say the U.S.-China deal helped clinch a historic outcome at last year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Dubai. There, negotiators from nearly 200 countries agreed for the first time to phase out fossil fuels, the main cause of rising temperatures that have wrought devastation across the globe.

Now, Kerry, who turned 80 in Dubai, is stepping down from his post after more than 40 years of public service, including as a senator from Massachusetts and secretary of state during the Obama administration. His last day in the role will be Wednesday. President Biden has tapped senior adviser John D. Podesta to replace Kerry, although Podesta will be based at the White House rather than the State Department.

The move marks the end of an era in climate diplomacy. Kerry, at 6-foot-4, has literally and figuratively towered over global climate talks. He was seemingly omnipresent at the 2022 talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, before he contracted the coronavirus and was sidelined to his hotel room during the final days of negotiations.

Kerry has drawn on “unbelievable reserves of energy” at the U.N. climate talks, where bleary-eyed negotiators run on just a few hours of sleep, said Sue Biniaz, the U.S. deputy special climate envoy.

“Even when the rest of us were ready to give up on things, he would always want to keep trying,” Biniaz said. “He would sometimes lapse into ‘the sky is falling,’ but then that would propel him to do more, and then he would get optimistic again.”

Jennifer Morgan, the German climate envoy, agreed. “When I think of him, I think of a tireless energy, like an Energizer bunny,” she said of Kerry.

Mohamed Adow, the director of the Nairobi-based environmental think tank Power Shift Africa, credited Kerry with “bringing some sanity back to the climate discourse” after the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement. But he criticized Kerry and Congress for not fulfilling President Biden’s pledge to provide more than $11 billion annually in international climate aid.

“However you want to think of John Kerry, he hasn’t delivered the serious gains to those of us on the front lines of the climate crisis,” Adow said.

Because of his regular travels, Kerry spends little time at his State Department office, which is sparsely decorated, with the exception of a helmet emblazoned with “SPEC” – an acronym for “special presidential envoy for climate” – that he wears when riding electric scooters around Washington.

It was there The Post sat down with Kerry last month to discuss his legacy, the 2024 election and the future of global efforts to stave off a climate catastrophe.

Compartmentalizing with China

Kerry credited his close relationship with Xie Zhenhua, who recently retired as Chinese climate envoy, for helping to rekindle climate cooperation between the two economic superpowers. The two men forged an unusual friendship built on mutual respect, even as relations between their two countries soured over trade, technology, Taiwan and other issues.

“We were able to separate the very legitimate issues of contention … from what we think is not a bilateral issue at all, but a universal issue,” Kerry said. “We were able to compartmentalize in a way that allowed us to be constructive. And Xie Zhenhua and I have known each other for about 20, 25 years. We built up a level of trust and knowledge and respect for each other. I think that was central to being able to get things done.”

Still, the U.S.-China deal is silent on Beijing’s plans to continue building coal-fired power plants. Scientists say the world must rapidly phase out coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, to avert the worst consequences of a warming atmosphere.

“They do have coal plants that are coming online, and they have coal plants that are planned, and we’ve raised those plants with them very, very directly,” Kerry said. “They insist that they may not need to bring many of those plants online because of the level of renewables that they are deploying. And we know for a fact that China is building and deploying more renewables than the rest of the world put together.”

Reforming U.N. climate talks

The U.N. climate summits are run by consensus, meaning any single country can scuttle a deal. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, had historically blocked language on phasing out fossil fuels.

Some climate advocates have called for changing the U.N. rules so that petrostates wield less influence. Environmental champion and former vice president Al Gore, for instance, has argued that a supermajority of 75 percent of countries should approve final decisions.

Kerry said he is “willing to look at” such proposals. But he cautioned that there could be unintended consequences, such as developing countries muscling through deals over objections from developed nations such as the United States.

“Putting it bluntly, you could wind up with some outcomes that Al Gore and people in the United States might really oppose and hate,” he said. “So you’ve got to look at this very carefully.”

Taking on Trump

Former president Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has pledged to repeal Biden’s signature climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act. Trump’s former advisers say he would also use a second term to again abandon the Paris climate accord.

Kerry hopes to head off that outcome by campaigning for Biden, while also teaching at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs. But regardless of the election results, he said, America won’t reverse its clean-energy transition.

“During [Trump’s] first term, 85 percent of the new electricity in the United States came from renewables,” he said. “Why? Because governors of states – Republicans and Democrats alike – have renewable portfolio laws that they have to follow. So in effect, Donald Trump may have left the Paris agreement, but the United States did not.”

Kerry also noted that the majority of clean-energy investments spurred by the Inflation Reduction Act are in Republican-led districts, according to data compiled by the advocacy group Climate Power.

“For a man who claims that he values making money and knows how to make money, I will be stupefied if he’s going to pull the rug out from under a whole bunch of his supporters who are investing in and making a lot of money in clean energy,” Kerry said.