John Kerry Wants the ‘Greatest Economic Transformation Since the Industrial Revolution’

But others question the “market-based” approach of Biden’s chief climate envoy.

Michael Hirsh
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry speaks in Russia.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry speaks in Russia.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry speaks during a meeting with the Russian foreign minister in Moscow on July 12. DIMITAR DILKOFF/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Later this month, John Kerry, U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, plans to visit China for yet another diplomatic arm-wrestling bout with his counterpart, Xie Zhenhua. Kerry will be bringing a message that Xie and anti-American nationalists in Beijing won’t like.

Later this month, John Kerry, U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, plans to visit China for yet another diplomatic arm-wrestling bout with his counterpart, Xie Zhenhua. Kerry will be bringing a message that Xie and anti-American nationalists in Beijing won’t like.

China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and given the dire new United Nations report on quickening climate change, Beijing’s pledge to wait until 2030 to start seriously cutting emissions isn’t nearly enough, Kerry plans to say. In a major speech in London last month, he said that “if China sticks with its current plan and does not peak its emissions until 2030, then the entire rest of the world would have to go to [net] zero—zero!—by 2040 or even 2035” to have any hope of avoiding climate catastrophe. That’s obviously not possible.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Kerry confirmed he plans to push Beijing harder, especially in reducing its coal plant exports worldwide. “What I hope to do is get a stronger pathway than the one we’re currently on with China, so—in effect—it sends a message: It does require a stronger commitment on coal,” he said. “China could stop funding external coal plants around the world in favor of funding renewable plants. … And China could clearly peak sooner than 2030.”

“China could stop funding external coal plants around the world in favor of funding renewable plants. … And China could clearly peak sooner than 2030.”

For Kerry, the new challenge to China is part of a vast portfolio the former secretary of state is pursuing ahead of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, where “we can, in a little more than a hundred days, save the next hundred years,” Kerry said in July. Seeking to restore U.S. credibility on climate that was all but destroyed by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, Kerry is simultaneously grappling with sometimes tepid support on Capitol Hill for the president’s costly carbon-reduction measures, threats from Europe over a possible carbon trade war, and defiance not just from China but much of the fossil fuel-consuming developing world as well.

As if that were not enough pressure, Kerry is also taking fresh flak from conservatives over his wealthy family’s “carbon-spewing private jet,” as David Harsanyi put it in a National Review article titled, “​​The Insufferable Hypocrisy of John Kerry.” 

In the interview with FP, Kerry denied he uses the jet at all. “It’s just not true,” he said. “I don’t fly on the family jet. I fly commercially.” Kerry added that he and his family are trying to set a green example. “I drive an electric car. I use a solar field to power my house,” he said.

A much bigger issue is whether Biden, and Kerry, have the leverage they need to reestablish U.S. credibility abroad. Republicans and some Democrats want to put post-COVID-19 economic recovery first and climate second. That means backing Biden’s Trump-like “Buy America” plan even if, for example, China is building better green energy technology—as it often is. (Kerry himself has pointed out China is the largest producer of solar panels and alternative renewable energy in the world.) On one amendment this week, the Senate voted 90-9 to bar “renewable energy projects receiving federal funds and subsidies from purchasing materials, technology, and critical minerals produced in China.” 

Even Biden favors building up green capacity at home rather than purchasing it abroad, though that will take much longer. And his own administration sometimes seems conflicted over its priorities. In a statement Wednesday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan urged oil-producing nations to crank out more carbon-yielding petroleum to battle rising gas prices. Referring to a production increase agreed to by OPEC, Sullivan said “at a critical moment in the global recovery, this is simply not enough.”

Kerry said he didn’t think Sullivan’s statement would hurt U.S. credibility on climate. “I think Jake was talking about very short-term economic stability and not about the long term,” he said.

Others, however, suggest the world is watching skeptically. “You wonder how much Kerry’s going to be pushing folks versus them pulling on him,” said Joseph Majkut, who runs the climate program at the Niskanen Center. “Other countries are asking, ‘What is the U.S. really going to be able to sign up for and do?’ We don’t have a good history here.”

The $3.5 trillion budget plan passed this week on a narrow party-line vote by the Senate will—if it becomes law—go a long way to giving Kerry the credibility he needs to bring other nations in line. It includes tax credits for clean-energy investments and reducing carbon emissions economy-wide by 50 percent by 2030. The budget reconciliation proposal and new $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the Senate will also invest tens of billions of dollars in electric car-charging stations and transmission lines to deliver wind and solar energy countrywide as well as in new technologies like carbon air capture and the greening of older industries like chemicals, steel, cement, and aluminum. But no Republicans appear to be supporting the budget plan, and a single defecting Democrat, like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—both of whom have raised questions about its costs—could sink it. 

“At the end of the day, our success at Glasgow is going to be dependent on whether the reconciliation package is successful,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “For us to have the strongest negotiating hand, we’re going to have a significant down payment.”

Kerry said he is “hopeful” about the reconciliation plan and has pressed Manchin and other senators over the idea that “this is not a red state-blue state issue”—that Republican-dominated states like Texas and Oklahoma have suffered as much damage from climate-induced floods and wildfires as anywhere. “I hope the United States Congress is going to embrace the reality of science,” Kerry said. “I’ve talked to Joe Manchin. I think he completely understands the reality of this challenge.” But he added: “I’m not negotiating those numbers, and obviously there is negotiation ahead.” 

Kerry also pushed his main idea that market-based solutions will lead the way—an approach that has occasionally irritated European officials and progressives who believe only carbon taxes and government regulation will make a real difference. “What we’re looking at is the greatest economic transformation since the industrial revolution,” Kerry said, referring to new “life-changing” technologies such as hydrogen energy storage and smart grids that he likened to the steam engines and cotton gins of today. “Thank God so many CEOs around the world are recognizing the implications for business and supply chains,” he said, adding that business leaders are “influenced by the costs of hurricanes or flooding—trucks don’t drive through floods.” 

Kerry suggested major U.S. bankers who have committed nearly $5 trillion in future green project financing as well as many other CEOs are seeing the light but need inducements like tax credits and subsidies. “If we don’t push the curve, that’s not going to happen. It’s a matter of national security.”

For Kerry, it’s also a question of herding some very big cats internationally—in particular, developing nations that have resisted creating plans committed to Glasgow’s target of keeping global temperature increases at or under 1.5 degrees Celsius. In coming weeks, he has planned actual and virtual meetings around the world, including yet another trip to China and travels to India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and possibly South Africa. Kerry hopes to nail down individual commitments at the U.N. General Assembly in September, the G-20 leaders meeting in late October, and at regional forums in Latin America and Africa. As of yet, U.S. officials concede, there are few new concrete commitments to the 1.5 degree target beyond those from the nations representing 55 percent of global GDP obtained at Biden’s summit in April—mainly the United States, Japan, European Union, Canada, and United Kingdom.

Kerry’s aides point to his history of successful long-haul diplomacy, such as working on relations normalization with Vietnam for a decade. But this time, as Kerry himself put it in his London speech last month, “time is running out.” The historically alarming new report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sets aside any doubt the recent spate of wildfires from the American West to the Amazon rainforest, deadly floods from central Europe to China, melting icecaps and glaciers, historic heat waves that extend as far as Siberia, and crop-destroying droughts are mostly human-made and only going to get worse. “Human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years,” the report said. Strikingly, the IPCC report was co-chaired by China.

Aides say that, dialogue by dialogue, Kerry is squeezing out new commitments. Indonesia, for example, previously targeted 2070 to get to “net zero” carbon emissions, meaning the country removes as much carbon as it adds to the atmosphere. “But now, we aim for 2060 or sooner after our deep discussion with John Kerry,” Indonesian Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan said last month. 

Crucial to any real success, however, is the participation of the world’s second largest economy: China. Beijing has committed to zero carbon by 2060 but has said it plans to only seriously start to scale down carbon emissions after 2030. But under pressure from Kerry, Beijing has already begun to ratchet back plans to build some new coal plants abroad under its Belt and Road Initiative. “Those talks are probably as important as any conversation in the world right now,” O’Mara said. “And there’s probably nobody better to be leading it than John Kerry. He’s got the stature to have that conversation.”

In his London speech, made in anticipation of the grim IPCC report he knew was coming, Kerry took deliberate aim at China, saying “there is simply no way—mathematical or ideological—to solve the climate crisis without the full cooperation and leadership of a country that today leads the world with 28 percent of global emissions.”

According to one long-time Kerry aide, “he made the decision to put in the China challenge and frame it very publicly in the London speech. I think he believed they needed a little bit of public pressure.” 

“They knew for a long time the IPCC report was going to be really bad,” said David Wade, Kerry’s former chief of staff at the U.S. State Department. “I think it is a hammer to press everybody to get real and make decisions that will make Glasgow a success. It puts a real fine point on what success is.” 

U.S. officials and climate experts believe, for now, the Chinese remain dug in on their current commitments; Beijing argues its plan is consistent with the Paris Agreement, and it is making a huge step by committing to being carbon neutral by 2060. 

But the Paris Agreement is already considered somewhat antiquated. Under it, countries agreed in a non-binding way to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius and aim for 1.5 degrees. Yet the new U.N. report said that even under current carbon reduction plans, the world will reach 1.5 degrees of warming in the next two decades, and that means more extreme and deadly weather events are inevitable. Only much deeper, sharper cuts in carbon and other greenhouse emissions can avoid more climate-generated catastrophes. 

Another lingering issue is the widely differing approach taken by the United States and European Union. The EU is putting an extensive carbon taxing system in place, but Washington has all but given up on the idea, opting for regulation and investment in new green infrastructure and other technologies. Some have warned of a possible carbon trade war if the Americans and Europeans can’t resolve their deep differences over how to assess tariffs on nations that don’t adopt sufficient decarbonization measures. 

EU leaders also remain leery that Kerry and Biden’s “market-based” approach—using regulation to push private companies to adopt and develop new green tech—could suddenly founder after the 2022 midterm election, when “it’s quite likely the houses of Congress will be divided again and climate action will be slower,” said Olivia Lazard, a climate expert at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “So the EU is thinking we need to keep toeing our line and not wait for the U.S.” But Lazard and others point to Kerry’s personal relationship with his EU counterpart, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, with whom he’s consulting closely.

“I think people who foresee some kind of trade war or major conflict between the U.S. and EU with respect to border adjustment are probably wrong,” said Todd Stern, former U.S. President Barack Obama’s climate envoy.

Lazard agrees. Despite fears the EU and United States may come to a head on carbon pricing and Europe’s planned Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism—essentially a carbon tariff—“not only is the EU conscious of the internal political challenges that the Biden administration faces, it is also actively trying to find ways to make cooperation mutually beneficial and proactive on so-called market solutions and tech innovation,” she said.

Last April, prodded by his old Senate colleague, Biden sought to reclaim U.S. leadership at his climate Leaders’ Summit by setting an ambitious goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse emissions by about 50 percent by 2030. According to his long-time aide, Kerry pressed Biden hard on that number. “There were a lot of people who said, ‘hey, the pandemic hit the economy hard, so let’s be vague or hedge on our emissions reduction target.’ Kerry’s case was, ‘I need a big number—one that starts with a 5 [as in 50 percent]—and that has to be tied to the summit,’” the aide said. “The president gave him that when, frankly, Biden would have been within his rights to say we just rejoined Paris and that’s a big deal.” 

But Republicans and conservative Democrats are already seeking to water down or cut back some of the current bills’ pledges. As a result, in addition to meeting with more than 20 major carbon-emitting nations so far, Kerry has hit Capitol Hill hard, engaging in more than 40 briefings with key congressional stakeholders and committees, officials say. 

“He’s got a really difficult task,” said Jason Bordoff, a former senior director for climate on Obama’s National Security Council. “But I would give him high marks for his ability to rebuild U.S. trust and credibility and work with other countries to elevate [climate protection] ambition.”

Asked if this is the toughest job he’s taken on in nearly 40 years in Washington, Kerry responded: “It’s right up there. … The dynamics are a big monster to move.” He added that in previous negotiations he’s led, like the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, there were only a handful of multilateral partners that had to come together. “Here we have 196,” he said.

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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