Q&A

‘We Can Turn It Around’

John Kerry on the deep roots of his environmentalism, how he negotiates with the Chinese on climate, and the unshakable momentum of the green marketplace.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry speaks at the White House.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry speaks during a daily press briefing at the White House in Washington on April 22. Alex Wong/Getty Images

There is perhaps no greater example of a changed approach to global affairs in Washington than U.S. President Joe Biden’s focus on climate change. Having rejoined the legally binding climate change treaty known as the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, Biden took his first major step toward steering global efforts to cut emissions with a virtual summit last week, when more than 40 world leaders discussed new targets and financing tools to tackle the urgent issue of a warming planet.

Central to Biden’s efforts is the United States’ first-ever special presidential envoy for climate: former secretary of state John Kerry. Over the last few weeks, Kerry has visited Bangladesh, China, India, and the United Arab Emirates to boost cooperation on efforts fighting climate change.

On Thursday, the United States announced it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent (compared to 2005 levels) within the next eight years. The European Union also promised to cut its emissions by 55 percent (compared to 1990 levels). But although Britain, Canada, and Japan joined the United States and the EU in announcing steeper cuts to their emissions last week, other countries like China, India, and Russia refrained from committing to more ambitious targets.

There is perhaps no greater example of a changed approach to global affairs in Washington than U.S. President Joe Biden’s focus on climate change. Having rejoined the legally binding climate change treaty known as the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, Biden took his first major step toward steering global efforts to cut emissions with a virtual summit last week, when more than 40 world leaders discussed new targets and financing tools to tackle the urgent issue of a warming planet.

Central to Biden’s efforts is the United States’ first-ever special presidential envoy for climate: former secretary of state John Kerry. Over the last few weeks, Kerry has visited Bangladesh, China, India, and the United Arab Emirates to boost cooperation on efforts fighting climate change.

On Thursday, the United States announced it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent (compared to 2005 levels) within the next eight years. The European Union also promised to cut its emissions by 55 percent (compared to 1990 levels). But although Britain, Canada, and Japan joined the United States and the EU in announcing steeper cuts to their emissions last week, other countries like China, India, and Russia refrained from committing to more ambitious targets.

I spoke with Kerry at length at the end of the White House’s Leaders Summit on Climate on Friday. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

Foreign Policy: Secretary Kerry, let’s begin with the just-concluded Leaders Summit on Climate. If you had to single out one big achievement from the summit—from your perspective—what would it be?

John Kerry: From my perspective, it is the fact that [countries representing] about 55 percent of global GDP are now committed to pursue a path of emissions reductions that will keep the possibility of a 1.5 degree-Celsius limit in the rising of our temperature. We had very significant commitments from Europe, from the United States, from Canada, from Japan, and now we have to build on that with the words spoken by other countries, which have yet to make such a significant step [toward] reductions.

FP: Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, warned that even with the ambitious new goals some countries are setting, the world remains “on a path of dangerous levels of global warming.” Demand for coal, for example, is going to rise by 4.5 percent this year. How do you respond to criticisms that governments are still not doing enough?

JK: [Those criticisms] are correct; they’re not. China accounts for 30 percent of the world’s emissions, and Mother Nature doesn’t measure whether it came from China or the United States or Timbuktu. The fact is that it’s the total of all those emissions that are affecting our climate. So we all have to contribute to the reduction. Even if the United States went to zero tomorrow, we’d still have a problem because 85 percent of the rest of the emissions come from the rest of the world. So this is truly a global challenge, and we’re not yet global in our response.

FP: The EU presented its climate deal to cut greenhouse emissions by 55 percent by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels). But there’s been criticism in Europe that EU member nations, according to European lawmaker Michael Bloss, “have rushed through a weak climate law for the sake of a photo-op with President Joe Biden.” What do you make of that comment, and is there room to set more ambitious targets when world leaders convene again later this year at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland?

JK: Oh, absolutely. Of course, there is. This is simply a down payment on a process that will continue every day between now and Glasgow, and President Biden has directed us—his diplomats—to be involved in ongoing conversations with countries around the world in order to try to raise the ambition as we go into Glasgow. There is room for improvement among certain countries, and we want to work with them. We want to work in a constructive way with these countries. We’re not seeking to be finger pointing and singling out. We hope people will accept the sense of shared responsibility here to get the job done.

FP: One of the sessions at the summit was about mobilizing finances for developing countries so they can improve their resilience against climate change. Brazil, for example, has asked for billions of dollars to curb deforestation of the Amazon. The topic of financing also came up in your recent visits to India and Bangladesh, for example, where both countries have long made the point that the countries who are most responsible for greenhouse gases should do more to protect the developing world. So I guess the question is: Who’s going to pay for all of this?

JK: Well, first of all, it is not inappropriate for people living in a less developed country to be upset that they are less than fractions of one percent of the emissions but they are facing some of the greatest consequences of harm. I’d be upset. You’d be upset. Anybody would be. So the issue is: What’s fair here? Where is the equity? Where do we find the justice in this transitional effort? I think President Biden believes very much that the more developed countries do have a moral responsibility. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s a bonanza time. But the finance structure that President Biden has been putting together, both with a public funding component as well as the private sector component, is geared to try to share the responsibility of getting this done.

We clearly can do this. It’s not a lack of capacity. It’s a lack of political will.

FP: How much of the financing you need for green initiatives is tied to the $2 trillion infrastructure bill? And what happens if it doesn’t pass?

JK: There are certainly things that President Biden has proposed in the context of infrastructure that just are plain common sense infrastructure projects that will have an impact on our emissions. On climate, for instance, if you build out a smarter energy grid where you actually can send power produced in one part of the country … to another part of the country, that advantages everybody. It can help reduce costs. It’s a far more efficient way to distribute energy. And in the modern times of artificial intelligence and quantum computing and new technologies about transmission lines and so forth, this should be a cakewalk. We ought to be able to do this. The country that went to the moon and invented the internet and has come up with the vaccines and knows how to build and create, we clearly can do this. It’s not a lack of capacity. It’s a lack of political will. We need to get our act together.

FP: You used to be a politician, Secretary Kerry, and I’m curious: How do you make green initiatives more politically acceptable? And I say this because even today, the very talk of a carbon tax is instantly criticized on Fox News. How do you get around that and bring along a part of the country that often hears in the media that climate change isn’t even a problem?

JK: Well, I think that the majority of Americans clearly know that climate change is happening and they support doing things that are common sense. And I think President Biden is extremely skilled at cobbling together coalitions, bringing people to the table. He’s working very hard at that now. He’s been successful.

You know, Republicans both in the House and the Senate … recognize that the bridge connecting their city from one side of the river to the other is not a Republican bridge or a Democrat bridge. It’s a bridge. It’s an American bridge. And it’s one our folks need to be able to cross the road and get to work or get home and to live the kinds of lives we want to live in this country. Our grandparents and our parents built that out without hesitation. You know, they built the America we’re living in today. And we need to be willing to invest in the America that we want our grandchildren and our children to be able to live in in the future. I think it’s a matter of common sense, and I think Americans will want to do this.

FP: So much of what you’re trying to do and what the Biden administration is projecting, it seems, is to restore a sense of American leadership on combatting climate change. But I have to say, there are many leaders around the world that haven’t forgotten the Trump era. And they know that former U.S. President Donald Trump—or Trumpism—could be back in four years, and Washington could once again pull out of the Paris Agreement and other international agreements. You’ve been traveling the world so much this year. How do you reassure leaders who worry about the extent of America’s commitment? What do you say when they express fears about a return of Trumpism?

JK: I personally don’t believe it will be possible for Trump to come back because I think that the course that we’re on is one that America is going to embrace and feel very good about. But there are two things that I do say to those leaders. One is, even while Donald Trump was in office over four years [ago] and even while he pulled out of the Paris Agreement, the fact is that 24 governors in the United States and the District of Columbia stayed [committed to] the Paris Agreement. And those 24 governors and District of Columbia represent 80 percent of the population of our country. They have renewable portfolio laws, which they executed. And they did. And we reduced our emissions by about 21 percent during that period of time. And more than a thousand mayors in America all stayed in the Paris Agreement even while Trump was out. So I don’t think the return of someone who does denies facts, denies truth, denies evidence, denies science, I don’t think that’s going to move America now at this point.

China doesn’t benefit by not having America as a partner in dealing with climate.

Secondly, and I think this is the far more powerful argument, when you have trillions of dollars that are being invested in these new technologies and moving into this new energy marketplace, that’s going to be such a powerful job creator and such a powerful moneymaker. There will be so much investment moving in that direction, which is why you have this $4.15 trillion set aside to go into climate investment. And it’ll be more than that. I guarantee you, many of those bank CEOs told me that that’s sort of a floor for them. They’re confident they’ll do more, but they didn’t want to announce any more. So we’re going to see the marketplace firmly setting a course for the new energy future, for the new products. And no politician could come along and pull people away from the good jobs, the good salaries, and the money being made. It’s not going to happen. I’m absolutely convinced of that.

FP: Let’s talk about China. This administration has been fairly tough on China. It has accused China of conducting a genocide against the Uyghurs; it has engaged Taiwan; it is reinvigorating the so-called Quad, a group of countries that includes the United States, India, Australia, and Japan. But amid all of this, the Biden White House also really needs China as a partner in fighting climate change. How do you partition this one issue—climate change—from all the other arenas of competition?

JK: Well, I think historically, Ravi, powerful nations that have differences have always been able, almost always been able, to do that. Obviously, North Korea may be an exception for the moment, but usually we’ve been able to come together and be able to try to negotiate and resolve certain differences. The example of that is [former U.S. President] Ronald Reagan in the Soviet Union. He consistently called it the evil empire. He told them to tear down the wall. He was a great advocate for freedom and for democracy. And ultimately, he met with [then-President Mikhail] Gorbachev in Reykjavik, and they came to an agreement that it really didn’t make a lot of sense to have 50,000 warheads pointing at each other on a hair trigger and to be living with that day-to-day danger.

These are the things that make a difference. And right now, climate is enough of an imperative for all of our countries. China doesn’t benefit by not having America as a partner in dealing with climate. And the United States doesn’t benefit from not having China as a partner in climate. So we’re just disciplined. We have differences on economic rules, on cyber. We have other differences on human rights, geostrategic interests, but those differences do not have to get in the way of something that is as critical as dealing with climate. And China made that decision. When I was in China the other day, we negotiated back and forth in good faith. We didn’t have to insult each other or shout at each other. We had a serious, tough conversation, but we managed to find a place and a way to be able to agree and move forward. And I think that opens the door or window to other possibilities in those other arenas. My sense is the Chinese know that there is a benefit to both of us being able to resolve the climate crisis because our citizens are deeply affected by our failure to do so.

FP: I know you have a long personal relationship with your Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, the climate envoy. Tell us what you know about him. What animates him?

JK: He cares about this issue. Xie Zhenhua has been working on this issue for years. People who have been involved in these negotiations for those many years have great respect for him because he’s been able to thread the needle between the ideological tug or the other differences and stay focused on the climate issue. He’s a professional, is well read, well studied, and I think President Xi [Jinping] and the Chinese leadership have great confidence in him. So he is a person who was appointed an interlocutor after I’d been appointed, I think, precisely because we did know each other and we have worked together and we’ve crisscrossed the world on this issue. And I think if you talk to anybody who has been part of the conferences of the United Nations over the years, they will express their respect for Xie Zhenhua.

FP: What’s it like negotiating with the Chinese? Put us in the room where it happens.

I think we have proven again and again that when we put our minds to something, we can and will get it done.

JK: When we talk, we talk in private. I think we both know that nothing is served by having a huge number of television cameras sort of invading you at that particular moment. And we talk with mutual respect, which is the only way to really get something done. I think in a negotiation, you have to know what your bottom line is and you have to have a pretty good understanding of what theirs may be. And you’re trying to find the ways to get the cracks and find the mutual agreement. Clearly, he was operating with negotiating instructions. I think there were some limitations. I think President Biden may have given me greater latitude to try to get things done because we’re the ones who are actually trying to move them somewhere and they’re the ones who have a certain path that they’ve predetermined, which we’re trying to move them off of and onto what we think is a better and more achievable path and a path that will have better consequences for the world as well as for China. And you go back and forth. That’s the nature of a negotiation. I think that, you know, they are well-practiced and strong negotiators. But then again, so are we. And it makes for a pretty good negotiation.

FP: Ahead of our interview, when I was speaking to one of your advisors, I was told that climate change is the issue, really, that fills your heart. You took part in the first Earth Day in 1970, joining millions of American in teach-ins to educate the public about environmental challenges. You met your wife, Teresa, at the first U.N. climate conference in 1992. Tell us a bit about why this issue matters to you.

JK: Well, my mother was a great environmentalist. I grew up by the seashore of Massachusetts and on the ocean and in the ocean, and I have long had an appreciation for my surroundings. I think those of us who come from Massachusetts, who are blessed to be raised in the shadow of Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and others have a special appreciation for our relationship to the world around us. And I think also that it’s life and death at this point. I mean, anybody who has children and grandchildren has to stop and think about our responsibility generationally, the world around us, and we’re not doing so well there.

FP: What makes you optimistic today?

JK: What makes me optimistic is the larger look at the course that we’re on in many ways in terms of the relationship between nations. Fewer people are dying violently than at any time probably in human history. We’ve made enormous progress. If you’re a woman pregnant in the world today, you’re 50 percent more likely to give birth to your child. Your child is 50 percent more likely to be fed and go to school. We’re now on the brink, perhaps, of a first generation of children being born AIDS free. Look what we’re doing with vaccines today in the United States. We will have a vaccine for every person that needs it within a very short span of time.

So my optimism is that, you know, there are things we’ve done that have made life better despite the fact that we’re on this terrible course in the long run with respect to what we’re doing with the environment. But I think we can turn that around. I think we have proven again and again that when we put our minds to something, we can and will get it done. And I think that’s our record, and I believe in that. And it keeps me feeling optimistic and hopeful about the future.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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