WHEN JOHN KERRY ran for president in 2004 he was too green for either party. Having been in the Senate in 1988 to hear Jim Hansen testify that “global warming is changing our climate now”, he had been speaking on the issue ever since. He was a habitué of international climate conferences; he wooed his second wife, the environmental philanthropist Teresa Heinz, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This made him something of an outlier even among Democrats, which is why he said relatively little about costly emissions-cutting during his presidential campaign. And it naturally made him highly suspect to Republicans, an impression that George W. Bush’s campaign manager encouraged by labelling the long-limbed senator from Massachusetts “incredibly environmentally green”.
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Sixteen years later, America still has no national climate policy to speak of, and the Republicans seem even more opposed to having one; but Mr Kerry’s party is now as green as he is. This was illustrated by his much-celebrated appointment as Joe Biden’s presidential climate envoy, a new position, which comes with cabinet rank, a seat on the National Security Council and ambitions to elevate the issue across the government. Todd Stern, who was Barack Obama’s special climate envoy, describes this as a masterstroke: “Kerry’s tireless, persuasive and completely committed to the issue.” Even the hard-left seems grudgingly impressed—notwithstanding the plutocratic Mr Kerry’s multiple houses and fondness for private jets. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with whom he co-chaired a pre-election climate working-group for Mr Biden, has not singled him out personally, but lavished praise on the climate team of which Mr Kerry is the most prominent member.
He did not win such plaudits as a politician or, for four years under Mr Obama, as secretary of state. A high-minded man with lugubrious features, Mr Kerry has a reputation for being less genial than Mr Biden, but almost as verbose. He has also been associated with some notable failures. He is the only Democrat to have lost the popular vote in recent decades. He hung his tenure at the State Department on a Middle East peace process that even his boss appeared to think doomed. Even so, the praise for his appointment does not seem misplaced.
He is the most senior politician to have been dedicated to climate diplomacy by any country, let alone the superpower. And at 77 he has lost none of his career-long zeal for the issue. “I view this as a critical moment where we either get people on the road to getting the job done or we take part in one of human history’s greatest moments of failures. And I refuse to let that happen,” he told your columnist. “Every day I get up with a great sense of purpose and a conviction that we can do this.” Yet what difference, beyond ginning up his party, can he actually make?
The first test of this is fast approaching; Mr Biden has convened a climate summit, to be held remotely, on April 22nd. The idea is to underline America’s return to the Paris Climate Agreement, which Mr Kerry helped negotiate; and also to encourage those attending to commit to stiffer emissions-reductions targets ahead of a UN climate conference in Glasgow in November. Yet there is a tension between those aims.
America’s inability to pass serious climate policy has long since eroded its effort to provide global leadership on the issue. And its post-Trump standing on climate, signified by its brief exit from the Paris accord, could hardly be worse. While few question Mr Biden’s sincerity to turn things round, America’s ability to keep to its word on climate change looks vulnerable to the next Republican election win.
To address that “credibility gap”, Mr Kerry acknowledges an urgent need to turn promising words into impressive domestic action. “You can’t just come back in and say, OK, we’re here, without a demonstration of good faith regarding the things you’re willing and prepared to do”. To that end the administration aims to unveil a new and more ambitious emissions-mitigation target by the time of the forthcoming summit.
Mr Biden is also expected to flesh out, in a speech to Congress next month, a plan to make that commitment seem realistic. He can count on no legislative support from the other side (notwithstanding Mr Kerry’s claim to have received expressions of interest from a few Republican senators). The administration is therefore banking on a combination of regulatory standards—of a kind Mr Obama previously introduced and Mr Trump partly scrapped—and heavy public investment in low-carbon industries and technologies. It is the only available option the president has; albeit, given the tenuousness of the Democrats’ hold on the Senate, by no means a slam-dunk.
And even if that goes according to plan, Mr Kerry may struggle to meet the expectations his appointment has raised. The world has changed since Paris. China’s emissions are now twice America’s. And its growing belligerence and octopine economic reach have made it even more impervious to diplomatic pressures than it was in 2015. Especially, from America’s perspective, considering the deterioration of the two powers’ relations in other areas. Mr Kerry insists that America and China have no alternative but to co-operate on climate, however testy their relations get on trade or security. He is of course right; yet his ability to make progress will depend on China choosing to observe the same distinction.
Kerry on regardless
That is not to deny the hopefulness of the moment. The climate-policy world has been crying out for someone of Mr Kerry’s stature and relentlessness. And for his newfound humility. His goal, he says, is not to restore American leadership but to get the job done. “And if in doing that our leadership and our participation earns some respect back, great.” Of all the ways in which Mr Biden hopes to restore said American leadership, this may be the hardest. ■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “John Kerry, eco-warrior”