When John Kerry was a kid, his mother took him for walks in the Massachusetts woods, where they often stopped and stood among the trees. “Just listen,” she told her son.
Whatever he heard, it stuck with him. Kerry, who is 77, has been on the front lines of the war for a habitable planet since the first Earth Day in 1970, when he was just back from Vietnam, carrying shrapnel in his leg and a Silver Star for bravery in combat. Over the past 30 years, Kerry has been a central player in virtually every climate conference and U.N. climate meeting (he first got to know his wife, Teresa, at the Rio Summit in 1992). He has talked about the climate crisis when it would have been politically astute to keep his mouth shut. He backed cap-and-trade legislation to limit carbon pollution when other politicians were running for cover. As President Obama’s secretary of state, he spent months brokering a complex deal with China that cleared the way for the 2015 Paris climate agreement, in which 150 countries agreed to limit carbon pollution. It was a hopeful moment. I was in Paris when the gavel fell, and I saw the exhausted smile on Kerry’s face when it was over. Maybe there was hope after all.
Then Trump happened. He immediately pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement and encouraged the maximum consumption of fossil fuels. When asked about Trump’s leadership, Kerry pulled no punches. Trump is an “ignorant boor,” he told Rolling Stone last year. “He is narcissistic to the point of distraction, easily manipulatable, and completely untrustworthy.” On climate, Kerry described Trump as “a one-man lying wrecking crew, walking around destroying relationships, years of effort, and people’s belief in science and in American values.”
But now Trump is gone and Kerry is again the commanding officer in the climate war. A few weeks after the election, President Biden offered him the job of international climate envoy, a newly created post that makes Kerry part of Biden’s Cabinet as well as gives him a seat on the National Security Council. Kerry’s prominence and power within the administration is a sign of just how seriously Biden takes the climate crisis. Kerry’s mission: restore American leadership in international climate policy and push for greater ambition in the next round of U.N. climate talks, which will be held in Glasgow later this year. Nobody knows what’s at stake better than Kerry. If we fail, he said in a speech to the U.N. Security Council a few days after we talked for this interview, the nations of the world will be “marching forward in what is almost tantamount to a mutual suicide pact.”
You were secretary of state and on your way back from a trip to Antarctica when Trump was elected in 2016. At the time, the Paris Agreement had just been ratified and was gaining momentum. Then for four years under Trump, everything went backward. What does it feel like to return to the climate fight now?
Well, I think we’ve been given a grace moment where we have an opportunity to make up for four terribly lost years, destructive years, that had no basis in science, no basis in fact. And that, unfortunately, unleashed among reluctant nations a permissiveness that expanded beyond just the United States’ absence. We have an opportunity here to try to make up for lost time and we have a huge obligation to do so, because the consequences of the climate crisis are becoming more clear by the day.
Everywhere in the world we’re seeing the impact on communities. In 2020 alone, we spent over $100 billion just recovering from natural disasters. A couple of years before that, we spent several-hundred billion on Hurricanes Maria and Harvey and Irma. 2020 had a record-breaking 30 named storms and, setting another record, 12 of them made landfall in the United States. We saw a positively ruthless wildfire season in 2020. California’s experience was twice as severe as the previous record-breaking season for land area burned, and we had four mega fires, at one point, raging in Oregon all at the same time. We had 130 degree temperatures measured in several cities in Asia and the Middle East last summer, 130 degrees in Death Valley. And the warmest year in human history, which is part of the warmest decade in human history.
You run the list of these things, and common sense says, “Listen to the scientists, look at the facts. Evaluate them.” The imperative for us to get back in to help lead toward a successful Glasgow meeting could not be higher, and that’s why the president has decided to make climate such a critical focus in his administration.
How do you restore trust in American leadership? How do you convince other nations that we mean what we’re going to say and we’re not going to reverse it again after the next election?
I believe personally and very deeply that economics are going to take this over, and that if we do our work over the course of these next years with the rest of the world, no individual politician will be able to undo the reality, the new reality, that will be defined by the steps we take. If China, and India, and the United States of America, and Europe, and Russia, and all these countries join together and they decide that we must reduce our emissions, we must invest in new technologies, we have to put trillions on the line over the course of these next years, there will be such an economic shift in nations that no biased demagogue is going to be able to undo that in any nation whatsoever, because the marketplace will have made such a commitment and moved so far in its transformation. It’s like the Industrial Revolution, they all seized it and rode the wave. That’s part of the challenge we have today, and this is what’s going to happen: new technologies are going to come out, carbon storage, battery storage, electric vehicles. This is the future. And Donald Trump was an aberration, he was a hiccup in the digestive system of history. I’m telling you, he couldn’t undo this if he tried. No one could.
I agree with the larger technological revolution, it’s happening. I think the real question is speed. How fast does it all happen? The track we’re on, even if everyone fulfills the commitments they made in the Paris
Agreement, we’re still not going to get below 2 C, much less, 1.5 C.
When you say we’re not going to get below 2 C, there is still evidence that if the right decisions were made and people moved fast enough you could keep 1.5 alive, and that’s certainly one of the goals of Glasgow. But it’s not guaranteed. I agree with you. On the current pace, the current track, that’s not happening.
So what tools do you have to increase leverage, to increase ambition to get stuff going now, as opposed to, say, a decade from now?
Example, power of example. I think the United States has to take the steps. President Biden has a very ambitious Build Back Better infrastructure initiative. I think that job possibilities will push us in that direction. I think that there was very fast growth in the renewable sector, prior to Trump, so pulling the rug out from under it, and Covid, of course, has hit it hard. But we will get out of Covid and move on, and I think there will be very significant growth in these sectors. I’m talking all the time to innovators and investors who are moving in a very different direction now, in terms of where they put their money and where they think they can make money.
With President Biden’s infrastructure bill, there’s going to be a huge number of new jobs created that are good union, blue collar, well-paying jobs. Whether it’s in heavy equipment or construction, in all kinds of different endeavors, as we build out America’s grid, as we build charging stations in the country. The Biden plan [includes] converting 500,000 school buses to electric. Those are jobs. So in my judgment, this thing is going to gain momentum, and the competition globally will have a big impact on the allocation of capital.
I was thinking about 2009 and your efforts for cap-and-trade legislation, and how it got derailed by Republicans and some moderate Democrats. What did you learn from that and how does it compare to the chances of getting the stuff that you described through the stimulus legislation that President Biden is going to be pushing? How are the dynamics different and can the Republicans derail this again?
Well, I think that back in 2009, we actually were building a very successful track where we had everybody at the table. We had all of the environmental community at the table, we had the fossil fuel industry at the table, Chevron, Shell, Exxon-Mobil, BP, they were all at the table. Nuclear industry was at the table, activist community was at the table. Everybody was there and we were gaining momentum until, frankly, a major coal enterprise unleashed a major assault on [Sen.] Lindsey Graham and the concept in his home state. And that’s when things got harder. But that company went bankrupt and there’s been a natural economic transformation in our energy base in our country. Seventy-five percent of the new energy in America the last few years came from renewables, and we’ve seen a huge number of coal plants close in the United States as banks refuse to finance them and as the cost is clearly higher than some of these other alternatives. So there’s been a change now, and I think that there’s also a change in people’s understanding of the challenge. That the evidence is clearer. The things that are happening nowadays are discernible to folks in parts of the country that weren’t necessarily tuned into this previously, with floods, with farms that have gone bankrupt, with major crop disruptions, and the cycle of growing having changed in various places, and so forth. There’s just a lot of folks who recognize that this is not a made-up thing.
Compared with 2015, when you were working toward Paris, how has Covid shaped the conversation about climate? Obviously that’s been a big economic blow to many nations.
I think people are beginning to realize that Covid and climate are integrally linked. Climate will augment potential for more pandemics. Climate changes the cycle of nature, and when that cycle changes, certain diseases can spread more easily. So I think the pandemic has woken people up to the fragility of life itself, and the interconnectedness of nations in ways that just underscore we’re all in this together.
One of the things that international progress is really dependent on is China. I was in China with you in 2015. I know how hard you worked to build that relationship. I know how fragile and complicated that relationship was, and how much that meant to the success of the Paris Agreement. How would you describe the relationship with China now? Trump spent a lot of time trashing China, and there are a lot of issues, from the Uyghurs to the South China Sea.
Well, I think we just have to deal with reality. The reality is there are some tough issues between the United States and the rest of the world, and China. Everybody knows what [those issues] are. Some of them have been enduring for a long period of time, whether it’s Taiwan or Hong Kong, or the violence with the Uyghurs and Tibet. And particularly on the economic front and cyber front, there is conflict, and that has to be worked through. But on climate, I think the Chinese understand, and I think we understand, that climate’s not going to wait. It’s not going to wait [for] the Chinese, or the Americans, or the Russians. This is an issue on which we have to collaborate.
This is like Reagan going to Reykjavik and meeting with Gorbachev, where we had the 40,000 or 50,000 warheads facing each other and, despite Reagan’s view of the “Evil Empire,” and despite the realities of our differences, we made progress. We came up with the START Treaty, we moved in the other direction, and now instead of 50,000, we have 1,500. The world is safer, I think, for it. Same thing needs to happen here. You take a step and hopefully that step can allow you to take other steps. But my portfolio is, by virtue of the president’s decision, to offer genuine, significant leadership on this issue, to work this issue and not get caught up in the others, and not get sidetracked, and hope that by virtue of doing that we open other possibilities.
You and I traveled to the Norfolk naval base together a few years ago and talked about the national security implications of climate change. I know this is a big concern for you. What can you do to bring your colleagues and other nations along in understanding the urgency of this?
Well, the president asked me to serve as a member of the National Security Council because he knows that climate change is not just an environmental issue, it’s an economic issue, it’s a public-health issue, and yes, it’s a national-security issue. And the Pentagon for a long time has called climate change “a threat multiplier,” because that’s what the impacts of climate change do. They make so many of the other threats and challenges we face harder to confront. When you have whole regions that are experiencing food-production interruption, or you have regions where the water isn’t flowing the way it used to, or it’s so hot that you feel like you’ve got to move to another place in order to exist, that can breed conflict. It breeds the movement of mass numbers of people, which places pressure in other nations. We saw this in Europe with the movement of people from Syria, from Turkey, out into Europe. It changed the politics of Europe profoundly.
Military installations are also at risk, that’s why we went to Norfolk, as you recall. The U.S. has spent billions already repairing damage to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and the Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida in the wake of these extreme weather moments, and those storms are only growing stronger as the planet
warms. In Alaska, you’ve got U.S. military facilities at risk because the permafrost on which those facilities are built is thawing. You have places that have warmer climates where there are days when it’s just too damn hot for troops to train with live ammunition or to get in the kind of training they were in previously. It just changes everything.
Let’s talk about climate justice, which is always a complicated issue. The U.S. is still, what, $2 billion behind in the Green Climate Fund from what President Obama committed to?
How does the U.S. make up that gap, and what does the U.S. do to help developing nations adapt to the climate crisis?
We have an obligation to take the leadership role in helping to make sure that the Green Climate Fund is fully funded and to make sure we’re doing our part. I have made a recommendation to the president as to what I think we ought to do here, and we’ll have to wait for a presidential decision as to how we’re going to do it. But there’s no question that we’ve got to step up and get other nations to step up. It’s an insult to everybody that the developed world, which made this commitment in Paris for $100 billion, has never really ponied up the full amount. We’re working very hard right now, already, to begin to build a consensus for how we should approach this.
I am also working very hard right now on a major approach to finance, and finance will be a topic during our summit in April. Because without finance — and I’m talking about well more than the $100 billion, which is really a transitional fund to help less-developed nations afford certain technologies they can’t get today. But we need to do much more than that. The U.N. finance report tallies up, literally, trillions of dollars per year of gap in the finance necessary to, overall, deal with the challenge of the climate crisis. And so I’m talking with various people around the world, and the World Bank, the IMF, the private sector, to see what we can do to accelerate a focus of investment, because without trillions of dollars over the next 10, 15, 20 years, this is not going to get done.
You’ve been involved in this climate fight for a long time. There have been lots of pivotal moments — or what, at the time, felt like pivotal moments. How does this moment feel to you?
More compelling. More urgent. And perhaps more understandable by more people in more places. I sense that many more countries, many more leaders, many more private-sector entities are seized of the issue than previously, and if we can help organize that and marshal the energies in the right direction, we can get something important done. For instance, joint-venturing and cooperation on particular technology tracks. There may be ways here to accelerate the transformation, which is what we have to do. The urgency has to be acted on. I view our role as helping to accelerate the efforts toward Glasgow, which I believe is the last best hope for the world to set a road map that is transparent, and accountable, to get to net zero by 2050 or earlier. And I emphasize the word “earlier,” to try to keep alive the prospect of holding the warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
That’s the challenge and it has to be real. There can be no faking it, no glossing over. In Paris we had the privilege of countries coming together because we hadn’t done this previously. China had been in opposition to what we were doing in Copenhagen, and Copenhagen failed in 2009 because we were divided. So that’s why I went to China in 2013 and negotiated with President Xi. We forged a partnership. We have to go further than that this time — it has to be a broader partnership — but it’s doable. And if we do that, I think we could have the greatest global economic transformation that the world has ever gone through, and one that would benefit all people with cleaner air, better health, less cancer, less asthma, and greater security. It is doable. The question is whether or not we have the willpower to make the decisions that will make it happen.