As climate envoy, John Kerry faces a tough road

NEW DELHI – The gangly figure dragging a Green Orvis carry-on was immediately recognizable as he pulled up to the catwalk after his overnight flight from the United States.

“Mister. Kerry,” signaled another passenger. “Are you here to save the climate?

John Kerry, the former United States Senator and Secretary of State, is now something of a distinguished traveling salesman for the environment, commuting from country to country, with an urgent speech to save the planet.

He visited 14 countries in nine months, some of them more than once. He flies commercial these days and, at 77, the journey is tiring. But President Biden’s special climate envoy is under increasing pressure.

With just 40 days before world leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland for a crucial UN climate summit, Mr Kerry must convince other countries to pledge to strongly turn away during this decade of burning coal, oil and gas and cutting the resulting carbon emissions, which heat the planet to dangerous levels.

His business approach is straightforward. “We have to do what science tells us to do,” he said.

But its task is enormous. Mr. Kerry tries to reaffirm American leadership and illustrate Mr. Biden’s claim that “America is back”. It’s a difficult proposition following the stand-alone approach of former President Donald J. Trump, who questioned the science behind climate change and pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. 2015, the only one out of 197 countries to withdraw.

The allies openly ask Mr. Kerry if they can still count on the United States. “I said ‘Look, come to the next election, maybe you will have Trump back,” said RK Singh, India’s energy minister, a day after meeting Mr. Kerry. “So what’s going on?”

Mr. Kerry’s mission is further complicated by political rifts in his country and the fact that President Biden’s ambitious climate agenda may not survive a divided Congress.

Republican leaders argue that the fossil fuel transition that has underpinned the U.S. economy for more than a century endangers national security.

“John Kerry has been a disaster for our country for a long time,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of the Republican leadership and the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “There are ways to protect the environment without harming the economy – he apparently doesn’t believe so.”

Mr. Kerry described his decision to return to government as “the very essence of the struggle for public life”.

“I deeply believe this is a major crisis for our world,” he said, as he relaxed in his hotel suite after a string of meetings with Indian ministers and government officials. CEOs. “And this is a time when we have a chance to do something about it. And who can say no to a President of the United States who asks you to do it at this exact moment.”

The wind is not at his back.

Its trip last week ended without India, the third greenhouse gas emitting country in the world, committing to meet its ambitions to fight climate change. He finished a recent trip to China, the first transmitter, empty-handed in the same way. Brazil, which plans to continue burning coal for the next 30 years and where Amazon deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, skipped a virtual climate meeting called by Mr Biden last week.

Richard N. Haass, chairman of the Council of Foreign Relations, said the signs did not bode well for Kerry’s efforts and the impending UN summit in November. “Glasgow will be short,” he predicted.

Yet Mr. Kerry continues. He plans to meet again with China’s top climate diplomat Xie Zhenhua. This will be the 19th discussion between the two men since January, according to his staff.

As part of the Paris agreement, countries agreed to limit the increase in average global temperature to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and, preferably 1.5 degrees, compared to temperatures before. the industrial Revolution. For every fraction of a degree of warming, the world will experience more frequent, intense and deadly heat waves, forest fires, droughts and floods, as well as species extinction.

In addition, a new analysis released last week by the United Nations revealed that the Paris commitment is insufficient; Even if countries keep the promises they made in 2015, the global average temperature will rise 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. “The world is on a catastrophic path,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

The objective in Glasgow is to force the most polluting countries to engage in more ambitious actions than those provided for in the Paris agreement.

Mr. Kerry said he believed nations would rise up to meet the challenge.

“I’m an optimist,” he says. “I think most of the problems on Earth are caused by human beings. And if we cause them, we should be able to solve or prevent them.

In many ways, his career has been built up to this point.

As a senator from Massachusetts, Mr. Kerry attended the first United Nations climate change summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, where he said the planet could not afford poor countries to develop like countries rich have done so, on the basis of fossil fuels. .

In Congress, he championed several environmental efforts that met with opposition and ultimately collapsed, including an effort to raise fuel economy standards for cars in 2002 and a climate bill in 2010.

“It has been a common thread throughout his career, even when politics haven’t been favorable,” said David Wade, his former chief of staff who is now a senior lecturer at Yale University and a fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based Think Tank.

As Secretary of State under the Obama administration, Kerry believed that the United States and China could cooperate on climate change and end the “You Go First.” No, you start, ”a dead end that has blocked action for decades.

He therefore began secret negotiations, in particular by welcoming Chinese leaders to a Legal Sea Foods restaurant on the docks of the port of Boston. This laid the groundwork for a joint commitment in 2014 by the United States and China to reduce emissions, albeit at different paces. The following year in Paris, nations took the unprecedented step of committing to climate action in their own countries – a deal Mr. Kerry helped craft.

Mr Kerry’s approach to diplomacy remains largely the same today: optimistic and relentless, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former aides and colleagues.

“He doesn’t believe in walking away, and that’s his strength as a negotiator. If the door is closed, he looks for an open window, ”said Martin Indyk, Mr. Kerry’s former envoy to the Middle East.

“He’s uniquely American,” Mr. Indyk said. “He never encountered a problem that he didn’t think he could solve.”

Aides says he is focusing on the details, texting his staff late at night to research statistics on solar capacity or economic data of a country or with more obscure questions, like the stated spiritual connection of Mr. Modi with the environmental issues.

When Mr. Trump took office, he trashed Mr. Kerry’s two accomplishments: the Paris agreement and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which limited Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. .

During his brief hiatus from public life, Mr. Kerry created an interdisciplinary climate program at Yale University, his alma mater, and launched “World War Zero,” a bipartisan group of world leaders and celebrities to fight climate change.

His friends and colleagues were not surprised when in January he accepted Mr Biden’s offer to become the first presidential climate envoy.

Retirement was never right for Kerry, who wants to be in the arena, said Thomas Vallely, a longtime friend who is a senior adviser for Mainland Southeast Asia at the Ash Center at Harvard University. “It’s like bullfighting. He’s addicted.

Upon his return to government, Mr Kerry said he saw the Trump years undermined America’s credibility, saying it was “chewed up and spat out” after Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement.

As a result, Mr. Kerry’s approach is a delicate attempt to try to figure out what countries need, rather than making demands. In India, for example, he announced a partnership to help the country meet its goal of increasing its renewable energy capacity.

It won’t even suggest what emissions target should be set by China, the biggest emitter, even as the country plans to develop 247 gigawatts of coal-fired electricity nationwide, nearly six times the total generating capacity. coal from Germany. “I don’t want to be in a position where China reads it and says, ‘Oh, there’s Kerry, telling us what to do.'”

Mr. Kerry and his team of about 35 policy experts have had some success. President Xi Jinping told the United Nations on Tuesday that China would stop funding overseas coal projects, an issue Kerry had made a priority in his talks with Chinese leaders. Earlier this year, Canada, South Korea and Japan raised their climate targets, in large part at the push of the United States. And several administration officials said President Biden’s announcement on Tuesday that he intended to double climate change aid to developing countries was the result of direct conversations with Mr Kerry who did argue that increasing climate finance will be critical to the success of the Glasgow summit.

Mr Kerry insisted that he “hopes” that the biggest economies will take meaningful climate action in Glasgow, if not because of the science-based imperative, but because of market forces. Capital is moving away from fossil fuels and turning to new global investments in wind, solar and other renewables that do not emit greenhouse gases, he said. About 70 percent of the $ 530 billion spent globally on new electricity generation this year is expected to be invested in renewable energy, according to the International Energy Agency. Technology is improving, clean energy costs are falling and markets are changing.

“You know, right now everything is a question mark,” Mr. Kerry said. But, he added, “I think the world is turning.”

Emily cochrane contributed reports.

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