John Kerry: ‘We’re Behind. We’re Way Behind.’

America’s climate envoy on what it will take to turn things around for the planet.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a Commonwealth Club of California event in San Francisco on Sept. 13, 2018.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a Commonwealth Club of California event in San Francisco on Sept. 13, 2018.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a Commonwealth Club of California event in San Francisco on Sept. 13, 2018. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When John Kerry took on his role as America’s climate envoy last year, he approached the job with his usual gusto, traveling around the world in a flurry of diplomatic engagements, convincing world leaders that America was indeed “back”—as U.S. President Joe Biden promised—and ready to take the lead on mitigating the impacts of climate change.

If his first year as climate envoy was about renewal and hope, year two has been tougher. The latest reports from the United Nations’ climate science body make clear it is now “almost inevitable” global temperatures will rise above the threshold commonly acknowledged as the point of no return for climate change. Amid massive power outages in 2021, China has increased investments in coal, the planet’s most damaging common energy source. Russia’s war in Ukraine has disrupted oil markets, leading several countries and companies to drill for more oil and gas. And in the United States, progressive proposals on clean energy tax credits remain mired in political bickering and polarization.

Against this backdrop, Kerry seemed less upbeat when I interviewed him for Foreign Policy’s 2022 climate summit than he was at the same time last year. “We’re way behind. And we’re not going to catch up,” he told me, a decidedly different message from his more optimistic stance at the summit’s 2021 edition.

When John Kerry took on his role as America’s climate envoy last year, he approached the job with his usual gusto, traveling around the world in a flurry of diplomatic engagements, convincing world leaders that America was indeed “back”—as U.S. President Joe Biden promised—and ready to take the lead on mitigating the impacts of climate change.

If his first year as climate envoy was about renewal and hope, year two has been tougher. The latest reports from the United Nations’ climate science body make clear it is now “almost inevitable” global temperatures will rise above the threshold commonly acknowledged as the point of no return for climate change. Amid massive power outages in 2021, China has increased investments in coal, the planet’s most damaging common energy source. Russia’s war in Ukraine has disrupted oil markets, leading several countries and companies to drill for more oil and gas. And in the United States, progressive proposals on clean energy tax credits remain mired in political bickering and polarization.

Against this backdrop, Kerry seemed less upbeat when I interviewed him for Foreign Policy’s 2022 climate summit than he was at the same time last year. “We’re way behind. And we’re not going to catch up,” he told me, a decidedly different message from his more optimistic stance at the summit’s 2021 edition.

All hope isn’t lost, however. Kerry believes that while the world has made mistakes, it still has the ability to fix things if it can create the right incentives for the private sector.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ravi Agrawal: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is obviously a humanitarian disaster. How much of a setback is it in terms of the climate crisis? 

John Kerry: We don’t know completely yet, because we don’t know how long the effects will endure. It has the potential to be a very serious disruption not only to climate efforts, but to all economic efforts in the world and all efforts to feed people, house people, and to prepare for next winter. Climate has been impacted by it. There’s no question about it. 

RA: As Russian oil and gas begins to come offline, partly through sanctions, partly because of supply issues, the question is what fills that void. And one thing that seems worrying is that as energy prices soar, fossil fuel executives are smelling a business opportunity. They want to drill more, not less. What do we do about that? 

JK: Well, first of all, they wanted to drill more before the war hit. And the answer is yes, many of them, not all of them, decided that this is an opportunity. For instance, at CERAWeek that took place in Houston a little while ago—which is a gathering of many of the people in the energy industry around the world—there was meant to be a very important discussion about transitioning to cleaner energy. But instead of a discussion that focused on transition, it was transformed into a discussion on production and on how you avoid being held hostage to a petrostate that wants to weaponize the provision of the fuel. 

We have the latest warnings from the IPCC telling us unequivocally that we’re really at the crunch time. People are going to have to get a lot more serious than they have been about accelerating this transition to get off of fossil fuels as fast as we can. That remains the imperative now. 

RA: The European Union and the United Kingdom have both said they’re going to slash Russian natural gas imports. Other countries are also going to try to use less Russian oil. Let’s say that this process takes a couple of years. But the question then is, what about developing countries whose needs are expanding? India has upped its purchases of discounted Russian oil. And there are other countries, too, that feel like this is a situation they can take advantage of. 

JK: No one is going to be advantaged by cheating the requirements that we set out in Glasgow and in Paris before that, because we’re all in the same boat. It’s one planet. I mean, it sounds trite. It’s been said in many different venues and in many different ways, but it is becoming more urgent for people to understand that we all make it together or we don’t. 

The reality is that there are several countries that have the ability to move more rapidly to transition to cleaner energy, and they’re just not doing it, because they’re locked into an old paradigm. And we have to break the mold. Our greatest enemy right now is the status quo. 

Everybody has a responsibility here to work in a collegial way to bring technology to the table. We’re working with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a huge commitment to deploy 450 gigawatts of renewable energy. We want to help make sure that happens. And so we’re ready to bring technology and finance to the table to help do that. I’ve had a team over there working with them over several visits. Now we’re working with Indonesia, with South Africa, with Mexico, Brazil, we’re trying to help those countries to be able to join the other 65 percent, but they’ve got to be willing to try to make that happen. We can’t do it for them. 

RA: I remember the last time we spoke, we discussed your relationship with Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate envoy. I imagine a big thing on his mind as China ramps up coal production this year is that they had power outages throughout the fall last year, and this is a big year for Xi Jinping as he seeks to secure a third term. Talk us through what discussions with Xie Zhenhua and their team are like right now. 

JK: What we’ve tried hard to point out this year to the upper echelon of the Politburo and to President Xi himself—President Xi, by the way, is deeply invested in the climate issue, and he is personally making the key decisions with respect to it—is that there’s nothing punitive in what we’re trying to do here. What we’re trying to do is cooperate with China to help them see the ways in which they don’t have to fear the potential of energy insecurity, that they can make this transition without blackouts, that by working together we think we could show them greater efficiencies. We could show them ways that their grid may be able to manage reductions more effectively. And we are prepared to work with them, particularly to help deploy more renewables in a way that could help them transition away from coal faster. We think they can do that. 

RA: Secretary Kerry, since this is becoming an annual tradition for us, I’m going to ask you the same final question that I did last year. So, let’s imagine it’s Dec. 31, 2022, and you’re at a warm beach. You love a rum punch as much as I do. What does the world need to accomplish for you to sit back and savor a drink? 

JK: I don’t think I’m going to savor the drink over that particular issue at the end of this year, because we’re behind. We’re way behind. And we’re not going to catch up in that period of time. The best thing that we can do at this point is win the battle of getting on track faster. We could be deploying the renewable technology we have today much faster, to a much greater extent and begin to bring down the emissions, notwithstanding Ukraine, notwithstanding the pressure people are feeling about the supply of oil and gas and fossil fuel. Just the transition off of coal or oil to gas will help us meet the goal of this next six to 10 years. 

We’re not on that track yet. Let me be absolutely clear: We’re heading to well over 2 degrees right now, 2.7 or something like that, but we could get down if we begin to more rapidly fulfill the promises that were made in Glasgow. 

One thing I really want to emphasize here is that no one country in the world has enough money to make this happen by itself. Nobody does, because the U.N. finance report tells us we have a deficit of about $2.5 trillion to $4.5 trillion per year for the next 30 years. So you say, well, where in God’s name are we going to get that? The private sector has that money! They need signals from the government. They need to know that the demand is real and it’s going to be implemented, and the private sector is already investing in remarkable ways. 

This is actually an exciting, transformational moment where we’re really at the brink of the new industrial revolution, and we saw what happened in the 1850s—with that one, we made some mistakes. We’re curing [those mistakes] now, but we have the ability to have just as much wealth creation, job creation, and just as much benefit to humanity. 

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

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